Rockstar’s customary first half of the year release is this time the latest in a franchise whose last airing was in cinemas rather than on console, it’s perhaps fitting then that Max Payne 3 is one of the most engrossing and cinematic experiences I’ve seen.
For those who’ve played through Payne’s previous outings it will come as scant surprise to discover that Max is still down on his luck, still in the depths of depression and still only moments away from ordering his next drink; indeed the only real surprise is that he’s left his old New York haunts having relocated to Sao Paulo due to, as you might expect, “trouble”.
Editing techniques, from split-screen camera angles to intentional image blurring and even having key parts of the dialogue plastered on screen would perhaps seem cheap on film, here however the effect somehow works; in a way you could even say it’s a new flair for exposition that action games have been screaming out for.
Sure, the hardboiled dialogue – the usual self-deprecating clichés that alcoholic former cops seem to spout whenever they’re given the opportunity across scene or page – will at times have you rolling your eyes, but really could a character such as Max be handled any other way?
Payne’s interwoven narrative will take him through Sao Paulo’s coke-fuelled high society, its downtrodden favelas and even back to NYC, as the plot expertly guides the player through contemporary and past events as the storyline demands.
No matter where he is however, what you can depend upon is there being an army of bad guys out to get him – the game’s internal statistic tracker kindly informing me I’d bumped off 500 bad guys by the end of the fifth chapter. Even Nathan Drake can’t match Max’s murderous exploits.
Given the engine seen here is "RAGE" (the same as used in all Rockstar games from GTA IV to Red Dead Redemption) it's impressive to find that Payne handles just as intuitively as the lead in a Frostbite 2.0 or Unreal Engine developed game. Aiming is tightened, the in-game world suitably channelled and constrained and, odd scenery snag aside, animation is smooth.
For a game about shooting people it seems almost redundant to point out the levels of gratuitous violence here present, but from blood pumping out of exposed arteries, to henchmen left with half their cranium’s missing this is a particularly gruesome game which revels in its grittiness more than all but the most gory zombie movie; and all in the heightened sensory perception of slow motion.
Mention of slow motion brings us swiftly to "Bullet Time", the time slowing mechanic which returns to invoke yet more Matrix-style ballistic effects as bullet’s vapour trails carve up the air and Payne is afforded vital seconds to smash rounds through the skulls of ill-fated bad guys. Impressive stuff, if not quite as useful as I remember it being in previous games.
It’s not the only tool at his disposal either, with “Bullet Dodge” – a slow motion dive which throws him across a room at the expense of ending up lying prone and so vulnerable to any surviving hostiles – and “Last Man Standing”, a new addition which hands Payne a reprieve should he successfully despatch the foe who lands the killing blow, albeit at the cost of a pain killer.
Expect Rockstar’s decision to keep with the pill-popping painkiller health system of the previous games to divide opinion. I can see why they took the option, Max Payne has always been a game about momentum and movement, as opposed to hiding behind cover, and the ability to increase health on the fly certainly supports that, but the lack of an automatically recharging health system can quickly lead to frustration.
Take some of the more bad guy-heavy encounters for example, in which it isn’t rare to have to take on 30 or more men before reaching the next autosave point. Getting all the way to that final hostile, only to have him pop out of hiding to finish your last tiny bit of health is a recipe for much gnashing of teeth.
On the other hand, the fact a quick press of the button quickly gets you back into the fray (without long load times) does soften the blow of having to do the whole scene from the beginning. The nature of the action and its capacity to surprise through the unpredictability of the enemies’ tactics keeps things fresh, while the smart decision to buff the player with extra painkillers upon multiple deaths at the same section just about allows us to forgive them.
The in-game aiming assistance might irritate some hardcore players too but I’d advise resisting turning it off until your second play-through, if only because there’s something exhilarating about snapping between targets in the blink of an eye during a bout of Bullet Time. Elsewhere the strange decision to revert Max to his pistol at the end of every cutscene also annoys by forcing you to re-select whatever rifle you were holding; a small quibble for sure but no less annoying.
I’ve got this far without mentioning the multiplayer (which will be the recipient of its own review in due time), but the admittedly limited time I’ve had spent on Max Payne 3′s unavoidably sparse servers suggests Rockstar have pulled off their main ambition of installing Bullet Time into the online killing fields. Sparring against other players who may, or may not, have stocks of Bullet Time to deploy makes for a strange set-up, but it works in practice with players flinging their digital avatars across maps with abandon.
Much as with the single-player experience it’s all about blasting, and blasting some more, and that ultimately sums up Max Payne 3. It’s a game with all the subtlety of an AK47’s kickback, but no less enjoyable for it, proving that all-out corridor-shooting action can still be an engaging and rewarding experience – just so long as the presentation and integration is as handled with as much aplomb as it is here.
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3, PC
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games