Max Payne 3 is one of those “adaptations” where a well-known franchise is used to guarantee sales of an original and untried script.
Sure, it’s yet another adventure for the hard-boiled, leather-jacketed hero sharing the series’ signature bullet-time mechanic, but the word “sequel” implies continuation – of plot elements, characterization, or even just central premise/aesthetic. And Max Payne 3 is in a real big hurry to jettison most of these – his dead family, old haunts, and even the aforementioned leather jacket are all discarded, leaving Max a suit-clad, drunken loser working the nightclubs of São Paolo, Brazil.
Really, Max Payne 3’s storytelling pedigree owes at least as much to Rockstar’s past gleeful gangbanger sandboxes like Grand Theft Auto as it does to the previous Payne titles. It even (eventually) finds a good reason for you to make the transition from gunning down gangsters to the Rockstar protagonist’s favored prey: cops. And although it has a solid foundation of good ideas and some stirring setpieces, the single-player campaign is plagued by uneven difficulty, drearily sordid subject matter, a dearth of fleshed-out characters, and problematic racial and sexual insensitivity.
Eight years after Max Payne 2, our unfortunately named hero is pretty much rock-bottom at his job as a bodyguard for Brazil’s wealthy Branco family. He lives in an almost permanent drunken stupor, shepherding the younger Brancos around their glittering world of wealth and indulgence above São Paolo’s crime-ridden favelas – until Fabiana Branco, trophy wife to patriarch Rodrigo, is kidnapped for ransom by drug-runners. And each rescue attempt by Max and partner Raul Passos just puts her further and further out of reach while steadily revealing the dark side of the Brancos’ fortune.
This seamy setting is vintage Rockstar – an urban jungle where human life is cheap and shoot-outs occur on every corner with little to no provocation, the glitzy high-rises of the rich or the blighted and lawless favelas separated only by luxury. The campaign starts off strong with two well-paced chapters, but the third and fourth chapters feel sluggish and directionless without a clear antagonist or many particularly interesting gameplay segments. More than halfway into the game, there’s still precious few actual characters to consider protagonists or antagonists, and they appear and disappear abruptly without development.
Really, Max has no business being there. His connection to the game’s events is minimal, especially compared to Passos, and his darkly sarcastic narration reveals a distrust and scorn for almost every single other character. All Max’s past traumas are essentially rolled into a neat little ball of misery; they’re there merely to give him an excuse to be a hard-drinking loser, not to serve his character growth. An excellently portrayal by voice actor James McCaffrey makes Max likable, but the script makes use of him as an archetype without doing much with him as a person.
Graphically and audibly, Max Payne 3 continues the trend: a solid foundation weighted down by bad choices. A warm, sometimes riotous color palette and extremely detailed environments bring São Paolo to vivid life, and high-quality character models spice up the long cutscenes probably used to mask loading times. Battles are excruciatingly violent with detailed exit wounds and blood spraying in slow-motion dark crimson arcs.
But the production values are then tainted by a parade of distracting “cinematic” visual effects – split-screen for no apparent reason, emphasizing random words from the script with highlighted text. Most obnoxious is a frequent, eye-hurting blur effect, perhaps a failed attempt to represent Max’s brain marinating in booze.
Racial and sexual undertones might seem like a minor note, but they’re especially jarring in a game set in Brazil, one of the world’s most multicultural developed nations. Nearly every sympathetic character is on the lighter end of melanin content, and dark-skinned folk are represented almost entirely among the snarling ranks of brutal enemy thugs. Then you remember that Max’s goal is to rescue a pale, wealthy damsel in distress from them and the ugly undertones rise up. Not that she’s alone – nearly every woman in Max Payne 3 is a shallow, helpless socialite, an awkward contrast to the noir genre’s traditionally strong “femme fatale” character (as represented in past entries by Mona Sax). All these might be just niggling worries in another game, but with Rockstar at the helm and an ethnically diverse setting, one begins to wonder.
On the topic of gameplay, Max Payne 3 is so eager to provide you with targets because shooting (ethnic, untranslated Portugese-speaking) dudes is the entire single-player experience. And this is where the game wins its greatest successes and commits its greatest gaffes.
Max is armed with a variety of standard firearms – he never gains any new abilities, picks up grenades or even body armor to bolster his fairly fragile health bar. His signature bullet-time and shoot dodge maneuvers return, he can lock onto targets (a very necessary ability that actually makes scoped rifles worse than superfluous) or guzzle pain pills to heal, and he’s now got the requisite ability to press himself up against cover. If he’s taken down by a shot but has a pain pill remaining, he automatically enters the Matrix Zone and if he kills his would-be killer before he runs out of ammo or time, he’ll heal automatically. All told, the engine is simple but robust, and would seem ripe for balletic gunplay sequences – indeed, multiplayer leverages these features to excellent effect.
The problem is that as the single-player game progresses, enemies increasingly shoot with near-pinpoint accuracy, soak up bullets like sponges whether bare-chested or armored, and attack from prepared positions in tightly-confined spaces in groups of six or more at a time. The series’ John Woo-inspired gunplay is an excellent way to get yourself killed – and you will die, a lot, thanks to the aforementioned crack marksmen with bulletproof skin. (A crack about cinematic pretensions and constant retakes would be apropos here; fill in your own.)
It’s far more effective to pick up a rifle, duck behind cover, activate bullet-time, peek out, and blast each gangbanger in the throat or face. Then wash, rinse, repeat, barring the occasional sequence where the game actively sets up a “shoot dodge” sequence while Max enters the Matrix Zone for a scripted reason. With precious few differences between enemy henchmen and plenty of prolonged shootouts between the occasional thrilling setpiece, Max Payne 3’s single-player experience is at times about as monotonous as one of Max’s hangovers.
After hours of “Sorry, Max, but your Trophy Wife is in another castle!” moments and frustrating, occasionally unfair gunfights, the distressingly bland gunplay and sordid aesthetic wears at your resolve more than Max’s plight. Max Payne 3 has plenty of bright spots – a nostalgic flashback set in Jersey is almost perfectly paced and wonderfully stylish, for example – but it’s definitely worth a preliminary rental to decide if all its many flaws are too much pain and too little Payne.