Released this week on PS3 and Xbox 360, Max Payne 3 is Rockstar’s big title for 2012. You should be able to find it online for around £35.
Max Payne 3 isn’t the best game ever made – far from it – but it does enough, every ten minutes or so, to make you forget everything else out there and just run riot with a massive grin on your face.
It is, if you like, one wickedly cruel solitary drinking game: when Max looks into a half empty glass of scotch in a monochrome close-up, take a shot; each time he overdubs a solemn, insular voice over about how his life is utterly shit, gulp two fingers of a pint. Painkiller addled visual cues, clumsy landings against hard surfaces, extreme shots of an enemy’s face being cratered with a 9mm bullet? Better take it easy with those, or you’ll not make it past the first section.
He’s right though: this third game might be set a good few years after the last, but Payne’s inner turmoil hasn’t healed or waivered, instead his alcoholism has set in for good, the same demons still haunt his memories and – naturally – he’s now somewhat older. The Force is long out of the window, of course, his pay cheques now being written by a wealthy Brazilian businessman with a trophy wife who forms the impetus for a good chunk of the game’s eight hour single player.
This twenty-something socialite wouldn’t normally provoke much in the way of emotion for the majority of gamers, but it’s in Rockstar’s skilful exposition that the connection is made, and in particular the way Max relates to the capture (and subsequent descent into chaos and double-crossing). We don’t really care about Fabiana Branco, but we care that our character cares, and that’s as good a link as we could expect with someone clearly in the deal for nothing but money. Not that such a motivation can last forever, of course, and Rockstar pull no punches.
As it happens, there’s a solid group of characters in the game that, through some top tier voice acting and some incredible, natural looking animation from the capable Euphoria engine, come across as believable and realistic, which of course living up to the hard-boiled, pulpy over-dramatised talking heads that we wouldn’t have a Rockstar game without. Max is the key, James McCaffrey’s return to the role crucial but it’s work that’s coupled with a great script and expert pacing and editing.
Quit out of the game and jump back in later and the loading screens, intro and menu backgrounds will show you your current location and a silent but useful recap.
The cut-scenes that punctuate the game continuously are never intrusive, partly because the segues between action and animation are absolutely seamless, but also because they drive the linear plot in a way that no amount of player expectation could ever do. They’re a pleasing constant, thoroughly enjoyable and – nicely – hide any loading. Once the game is in flow, it doesn’t stop unless the plot dictates a pause, and never to ask you to ‘please wait’.
Technical merits abound – aside from the flawlessly mixing sections you play and those you don’t (and there’s one such treat just before the halfway mark in an office that’s wonderfully done) it’s far to say that the visuals are astonishingly good. Lighting, powered by Rockstar’s RAGE engine, is up there with Naughty Dog’s finest work and the organic animation perhaps betters the likes of Uncharted; the sheer amount on-screen at times is mesmerising, particularly in the middle distance. Textures might not be razor sharp, but they’re impressively varied, rarely do you come across the same thing twice.
Kill the last person in an area and you’ll watch the bullet fly in slow-motion towards its fleshy target. Tap the trigger again and you’ll see the impact first hand.
But it’s in the clever visual effects that Rockstar have really pushed the boat out. Bullet Time might be present and correct (and complete with the ubiquitous slow-mo) but it’s the drugs and booze that cause the most distinctive tricks: flickering colour separations, glitchy recording techniques and age-old cutaways and multiple shots that resonate nicely with the developing story.
There’s more than enough fan service for those that enjoyed the first two games, with some lovely flashback sequences adding to the plot.
And whilst Max Payne 3 attempts to convey a film-like experience to the player – and largely succeeds – sometimes something happens that breaks that fourth wall like a sledgehammer, spoiling the flow. This is notably when Rockstar decide to throw in a segment that demands something different of the player, and comes with a sudden fail state that requires a restart from the last checkpoint – these parts are rare enough, but no matter how well you might breeze through the main shooting sections some of these kill the pacing outright. A sniper portion, for example, that suddenly removes any Easy Mode reticule snapping, or a Matrix-style dive into a half dozen enemies that spikes the difficulty for 10 seconds.
And then there’s the faux-mystery collectables, fully voiced and – yes – relevant to the plot, but coming with an obvious prompt and sadly only there to total towards an arbitrary set of check-boxes and the option to discover some ‘golden’ weaponry rather than forward much characterisation. They get better towards the end, though.
But don’t get us started on shooting grenades out of the air whilst speeding on a boat, spawning enemies or the bullet-sponge mini boss – they weren’t fun in Operation Thunderbolt decades ago, and aren’t now. In a game so otherwise brilliantly tight and fat-free, these little niggles feel a little like last-minute padding and tweaking and could have easily been trimmed back.
But don’t worry – none of the above could really spoil this party – Max Payne 3 is otherwise expertly produced, and so clever at keeping the player moving downstream in a game that might well be linear but always seems to move in the direction you’d want it to. Even death isn’t final if you’re carrying pills – the enemy that sapped your last drop of health a still-downable target as you’re left laying on the floor shooting on your back: take him out and you’re back on your feet. A weapon wheel keeps your options open too – Payne can carry two hand guns (that are optionally duel-wieldable) and a further rifle or shotgun – easily switched with the back left trigger.
Much like the Xbox 360 version (which is the one we tested) running across two disks, Max Payne’s single player is very much a story of two acts, something that’s hinted at in the game’s very first cut-scene; and Brazil’s São Paulo plays host to two very different sets of lifestyle. The rich and famous, partying until the early hours dozens of floors above the street and the poor, down in the favelas – we’re not here to spoil the story, of course, but you’ll have seen screens of Payne with his head shaved, and as the story moves on and the odds stack up, sometimes even someone as deadly as the protagonist needs to shake off a few long-held habits.
Multiplayer gameplay. All LIVE play undertaken for this review was done at both Rockstar’s headquarters and via a pre-arranged Rockstar-led online meet. Oddly, we were blacklisted by Microsoft for playing early.
But it’s in the game’s multiplayer where most surprises are – the presence of online match-ups might have been a shock to fans of the series, but there are two things to consider here.
Firstly the inclusion of multiplayer hasn’t hampered the single player one iota, and secondly it’s hardly something that’s been thrown together at the last moment, coming complete with deathmatch and King Of The Hill variants in addition to story-based Gang Wars, which plays off key moments in the main game with changing objectives and the same visual stylings that makes the Story mode so powerful.
Multiplayer mode uses exactly the same engine as the Story mode – the visuals are the same, the controls are the same (although you can adjust them if needed) and the same amount of attention and care has been carried over wholesale, making this anything but a minor addition, so if you had any doubts that Max Payne could support multiplayer – rest easy.
In addition to ‘crews’, which interestingly will carry over to Grand Theft Auto V when it releases next year and allow like-minded people to join together online, Rockstar have introduced ‘vendettas’ between players that kill each other twice in a row and a strong experience (XP) based system that boasts ranks, cash and weapons. Players are free to spend their winnings on whatever they feel works best for their style of play – it’s a smart, open-ended methodology that works throughout every aspect of the online mode and offers a rewarding, objective-based system that we think some will find highly addictive and should last a while.
Finally, there are Bursts, which are Max Payne’s version of perks, and include Bullet Time (which works online via a ‘line-of-sight’ mechanic) and each Burst has three levels, which require Adrenaline to pull off, bringing an additional layer of tactics into the game.
Tip: switch to control method 4, which keeps the standard controls but fixes reload and cover to their more ‘natural’ buttons from other games. You might also need to adjust the right stick sensitivity a bit, the default is acceleration-heavy but slow to aim.
An Arcade mode rounds off the deal, which allows players to run through any completed single player sections in a score-based (or, ultimately, time-based once you’ve beaten the game) lighter mode, which strips out anything unnecessary and forces quicker reactions, better accuracy and speedier gameplay. Your achievements are ranked, and each level has various medals attached to it, which should ensure an almost endless competitive aspect to the sometimes tunnel-like levels that make up the main game.
Like everything about Max Payne 3, it feels part of a complete package – but if you’d like to read more about the game’s online section, read our full report here.
Max Payne 3 is a great looking game, at least on the 360.
That’s the key, really – completeness. Max Payne 3 is a thrilling, lengthy but well paced single player and an engaging, comprehensive multiplayer – one that doesn’t require knowledge of the prior two games and for the most part is happy to work with whatever third person shooter skill level you might have. Punchy weapons, a smart cover system and a great story with some knockout characters make for a game that verges dangerously close to being essential.
It’s a seriously good game, from an explosive start to a gripping finale, through a few plot twists and action that rarely lets up. The emphasis on cover is intelligent, and works well with the Bullet Time system, and some of the visuals really are ground-breaking – Rockstar know how to make a cinematic game, but Max Payne 3 pushes the genre way beyond the likes of GTA or even L.A. Noire, with some lovely animation and acting that keeps the player connected as the story comes to its dramatic conclusion. And again – spoilers be damned – there’s some utterly fabulous moments here to savour.
So, not the best game ever made – but it does do enough, every ten minutes or so, to make you forget everything else out there and just run riot with a massive grin on your face. And sometimes, when games are knocked for taking themselves far too seriously, a game like Max Payne 3 – which keeps on eye on that still-cool scrubby detective vibe (if you can’t find a silencer, a water bottle will always do) and another on planting C4 whilst under-fire and levelling entire buildings – is at worst refreshing but at best an absolute delight. It’s not perfect, it’s really not, but it’s balls out brilliant entertainment.
Bleak, sometimes frightening, always powerful and quite often shocking, Max Payne 3 takes the third person genre about as far as it can go, and most likely does the same this with this generation’s now ageing console hardware. Polished to near perfection, with just a few minor sticking points that dent – ever so slightly – what is overall a wonderful slice of gaming. Enjoy.