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Emmett Reviews Max Payne 3

August 7, 2012

How much effort are you willing to put into your murder?

Do you view violence as a grim necessity to defend yourself and your loved ones? If given a choice, would you buy a bodyguard rather than a Bowie knife? Do your rich guests regard your  Hunting the Ultimate Game parties as a dreary, uninspired alternative to the Philipinno justice system? If so, then perhaps you should move along.

But maybe, just maybe, you are one of my people. Perhaps you find the bullet a finer canvas, and the sprayed blood a finer paint, than the full resources of Van Gogh and Michelangelo. Perhaps you choose not the bodyguard, the Bowie knife or a sensible can of pepper spray, but a double-barreled shotgun, a chainsaw named Sally and large quantities of KY Jelly. Perhaps you are completely unaware of how insensitive mass-murder jokes have recently become.

Perhaps you’re the kind of person who really get the most out of Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 2 came out in 2003. It and its predecessor were third person shooters, and the first anythings to introduce the world to the concept of ‘bullet time’; aka, that slow-mo shooting thing in The Matrix that the world collectively lost its shit over. The originals have aged gracefully, despite the protagonist having a facial expression equivalent to the Incredible Hulk taking a rage-shit.

They were novel, self-aware blends of film noir, Norse mythology and John Woo. And now, 9 years on, we have the conclusion to the trilogy. Of course, Max Payne 3 is a conclusion to the series in the same way that the Hobbit is a trilogy – if you squint, cover up any shortcomings with an excessive budget, and guaranteed to make fans do a rage-shit of Hulkian proportions.

9 years on, Max has moved from the police force (carefully massacring the entire gang population of New York) to private security work (massacring the entire gang population of Sao Paulo, Brazil, a whole lot less carefully). Because Rockstar Games never tells the same story twice, Max then uncovers/is targeted by/genocides an enormous criminal conspiracy.

True to the original games’ noir stylings, Max is one depressing son of a bitch. He provides a voiceover for every ten seconds of his life in the same way a poet would provide a voiceover for Auschwitz. He addresses everyone he meets, be they slum-dwellers, businessmen, cops or partying teens, with the surly hatred usually wielded by manic-depressive Star Trek villains or me in the early morning. He sounds like the most hungover guy in the world after being told that he has just contracted Super-AIDS, a dual privilege usually reserved for Jersey Shore cast members.

“There was a blind spot in my head, a bullet-shaped hole where the answers should be. Call it denial. I wanted to dig inside my skull and scrape out the pain.” – Max, on a fun tropical holiday.

You see, beyond being a self-loathing noir ex-cop, Max is fucking drunk. All the time. Oh, and addicted to morphine, for added gastrointestinal fun. He isn’t an alcoholic, he’s the living bloody avatar of Jack Daniels, come forth into this world to wreak terrible vengeance on the gangsters who agitate his hangover with their gunshot noises. Every cutscene jumps, shivers and judders constantly, like Max’s drunken psyche, or my drunken lovemaking technique. He regularly does toe-chewingly retarded things, feels pain in the same way Mitt Romney feels poor, and has the social skills of a racist Rottweiler.

On the other hand, a lot of attention has been paid to Max’s whining, and the characters it describes. It’s all very high-budget, well-written and voice-acted, with some really realistic faces.

All this leads into a game very much dominated by its own story. Cutscenes interrupt constantly, which is admittedly seamless thanks to concealed loading times and Max’s continuous narrations, but always annoying when it takes control away from the player for no reason. “Thank you, game, I’m sure I couldn’t have walked down that corridor by myself without your help.”

It also lets the game make Max do some INCREDIBLY stupid things, which may very well be justified by him being high on morphine and drunker than a Scotsman at Schoolies, but still comes off as a transparent way of starting more gunfights for the player to finish.

All this – the many cutscenes, the high budget, the noir themes and the verbose, relentlessly dark protagonist – all seem to be leading into something great. I kept waiting for the story to come together and deliver some masterful character development for Max, or some brilliant twist, or simply a very bleak Aesop. But it never really does. Max doesn’t seem to change as a character – every step towards character development is quickly overturned and ignored within ten minutes of shooting and chatting. The plot is incredibly simplistic for the budget and length of this game. Even the constant bleak darkness of the violence and Max’s narration doesn’t go anywhere, or mean anything more. All Max Payne 3 really has to say is ‘gang violence in South America is bad, and being a depressed alcoholic sucks.’  That may not be controversial, but it’s sure as heck not SATISFYING after fifteen hours of cutscenes and Max doing Rorschach impressions. I can’t help but get the sense that the game hoped, by making meaningful, plot-like noises, it would magically become thematic and meaningful and complex. But just as mumbling 70s porno music doesn’t make you attractive to women, constant similes from your protagonists about puppy murder doesn’t mean your game has any real weight in the storytelling department.

This ties in to my unfortunately-semi-topical jokes from the start. Despite what the vagrant population of Brisbane may say, I am very anti-murder, controversial as that sounds. And murder is something that Max Payne (and shooter protagonists in general) do a lot of. You’d THINK that a dark, story-focused game about an American soldier in the poverty-driven meat grinder of the Brazilian crime game might make some ironic comment knthat, a la Spec Ops: the Line. But it doesn’t. While Gameplay Max kills literally thousands of people (mostly poor, teenaged petty criminals), Cutscene Max agonizes over euthanizing one man, and despite his sunny disposition, basically seems like a pretty decent guy. It’s inconsistent.

Tonally inconsistent!!!

And with that tidy, killing-related segue, on to the gameplay. More specifically, an explanation of what I was talking about at the very start of this review.

Stripped down to its bare bones, Max Payne 3 is a barely-competent third-person cover-based shooter. You can rub your back up sensuously against a pillar, stick your head out and pop away at the bad guys’ heads, and duck back in again. There isn’t any regenerating health, so it’s a little more challenging than Gears of War, but really… If you’re tired and just want to finish this section, you will sit behind a chest-high wall and pop away at interminable hordes of incredibly bullet-resistant enemies, and have a pretty boring time.

And if you did that, oh boy; are you missing out, son.

There is a REASON it was Max Payne who invented bullet time.

You can slow time down, vault over objects, dive headlong through the air, somersault around like an angry opossum (I may not actually know what an opossum is or how it moves when angry) and dual-wield pretty much anything. There’s nothing to encourage you to use any of these features. It’s far, far too easy to just sit behind cover and play whack-a-mole with hiding enemies. But if you take full advantage of Max Payne’s unique blend of shotguns and slow-motion, you’re in for some freaking unbelievable gunplay.

 

You can dive out through a window into the middle of a room, shoot three guys in mid-air, slam down onto your back and waste the last guy. You can stride confidently forward hip-firing a machine gun, keeping an enemy behind cover, seamlessly dropping the big gun when it runs dry, drawing a pair of pistols and nailing the bad guy in slow motion when he sticks his head out. You can replay one checkpoint a dozen times over, just looking for the quickest, most foolhardy, or just plain SEXIEST way to clear a room of meat puppets.

 

It’s all enhanced by the RAGE physics engine and graphics that make the real world look like a black-and-white silent film. Every single bullet, shell casing, magazine and drop of blood is individually modeled and behaves realistically in normal speed and slow motion. Enemies (and Max) run, dive and get shot in deliciously kinetic, often fantastically gory ways. The environments are beautiful, not to mention COVERED in moving, destructible and useful objects. From the several square kilometers of glass you’ll cathartically shatter over the game, to the kitchen stoves that can be blown up to set enemies on fire, to the office full of cubicle walls, paper, stationary, computers and printers that all fall, fragment and fly in eye-gougingly gorgeous detail…

None of this is at all essential to the gameplay. But with everything combined, it makes Max Payne 3 the most VISCERAL shooter I’ve ever played. When you cut loose with an automatic shotgun, you really feel like you’re wrecking shit up. When you plant a slug straight into a kidnapper’s skull, that popping eyeball and blast of blood from the exit wound is a thousand times more satisfying than a chainsaw attack in Gears of War, or any sex a person who writes about this stuff is likely to get.

For me, the most memorable moment of the game was when I replayed one of the first levels, a running gunfight in a football stadium, trying to do things with as much unnecessary leaping and mid-air posing as possible. Moving out along the top row of a set of bleachers, I was blinded by the glaring flashlights of six bad guys coming up the rows from below and to the right. Dropping my shotgun, I whipped out an Uzi and a pistol and DIVED, without hesitation, straight down the bleachers. I fell wildly through midair, feet skimming over the tops of the seats. My guns blared, my fingers didn’t lift off the triggers, and following me was a long trail of fracturing seats and spinning concrete fragments as enemy fire impacted just behind me. I hung in the air in glorious slow motion for a few beautiful seconds before I crashed down onto the stairs, rolling and tumbling painfully, before slamming to a halt at the base of the bleachers.

Every single enemy collapsed with gaping wounds in their faces.

So my final point winds up being fairly simple.

Max Payne 3 is a bit of a mess, from a storytelling perspective. It’s got as much real substance as string theory and like my casual references to quantum physics, desperately tries to seem smarter than it is. Rather than use its dark tone and noir feel to address the real horror of gang violence and poverty, it just attaches them inconsistently to the fun, mindless violence of its mass-murder gameplay, like truck nuts on the towbar of a Prius. But none of that matters, because as awful as its subject matter is, Max Payne 3 makes killing a lot of fun.

I don’t know whether that suggests some problem with the human psyche in general, or mine in particular. But it’s definitely not a problem with the game.

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