Reviewed on XBOX 360
Almost nine years after Max Payne 2 graced consoles, everyone’s favorite down-on-his-luck, alcoholic, pill-popping ex-cop is back on duty. Sort of. After a chance encounter with old acquaintance, Raul Passos, and some junior mobster douchebags in a Hoboken hole in the wall, Max gets recruited as a bodyguard for a rich and powerful Brazilian family. But the sunshine and house music do very little to brighten up Max’s dire mood as things quickly turn bad and he finds himself engulfed in a series of kidnappings, gang wars, and everyone and their South American cousin shooting at him. Rockstar skillfully weaves the hard-boiled ex-cop story and the shoot-em-up elements Max Payne fans have grown to love with a new and visually interesting cinematic style, creating a sequel that is truly a worthy addition to the franchise.
Any worries that the Brazilian setting would diminish the tone of the first two games quickly become unfounded. It’s dark, gritty, and incredibly atmospheric. The locales of the game are gorgeously rendered, from Max’s Hoboken apartment building to the depressing favelas of São Paulo. The largely destructible levels are extremely detailed, and little things like the bloody trail of footprints Max leaves after stepping in blood or the way max carries his two-handed gun (instead of having it disappear magically when he’s not using it) add to the truly immersive experience of the game.
Cut scenes take on a subdued, flashy quality reminiscent of the painkiller effects (and oddly, exactly what my TV does when it’s on the fritz), at times bleeding in and out of flashbacks or splitting into motion comic panes, with key bits of text blended into the scene. Even the death screens (of which I saw more than my fair share) are stylish and cool, showing the killshot in three-pane comic book style. It somewhat mitigates the pain of getting shot in the head repeatedly, and tt’s an effective update of the signature style of the past games. All of this is tied together by an immersive score and the return of James McCaffrey as the grumbly voice of Max and his fantastically written inner monologue.
But really, all of that is second fiddle to the gameplay, which remains a strong example of how to make a modern third-person shooter while retaining the fundamentals of its predecessors.
Bullet Time, the slow-motion action cliché, is back in all its glory, for those times when you need to get the upper hand on a bunch of bad guys or round the corner to find that a heavily-armed Brazilian special forces soldier has you in his sights. It also triggers automatically in Last Man Standing situations, where you get one last chance to save yourself from what would normally be a mortal wound by killing your aggressor in a limited timeframe, assuming you have the painkillers to back it up.
Bullet Cam has been expanded from just the sniper rifle (in Max Payne 2) to all the available guns; and for me, this is an absolute highlight. It triggers upon killing the last enemy in a section, and allows you to to follow the fatal round, controlling its speed, then watch as it eviscerates your opponent (and, if you wish, continue pumping rounds into the corpse). It’s gruesome and gory, but fits beautifully with the tone of the game.
Shoot Dodge, the adrenaline-driven Bullet Time dive, also returns, and while it looks awesome, it suffers somewhat from the fact that it often leaves Max exposed. Shooting from the prone position is fine, but there is no way to transition back to cover cleanly, so Max ends up standing up into a hail of gunfire.
In fact, the only gripes I really have about the game revolve around the cover system. It’s easy enough to get into cover; there is enough of it and it’s blended well throughout the environment. However, getting out of cover, rounding corners, moving from cover to cover, and sometimes shooting from cover tends to be a little bit clunky. And in the heat of battle, clunky gets you killed.
And you will get killed. The enemy AI is highly skilled at flanking and getting that perfect shot at your bald, bearded head. Additionally, there is no health regeneration, forcing you to enable poor Max’s painkiller addiction to stay healthy. I played through the campaign on medium (easy, medium, and hard are available to start, with unlockable hardcore and “old school” levels) with soft targeting assist, and was presented with a pretty solid challenge. Thankfully, there are a number of ways to ensure the right difficulty level. Hard targeting assist and free aim are also available. Aim speed and acceleration tweaks make the free aim mode more comfortable.
The one thing that takes a little getting used to is the lack of the quick save. Some rough sections of the game made me wish it was still an option, but for the most part, the auto-save checkpoints are reasonably well placed.
When you’ve finished the single player campaign (and you’re probably looking at about 12 hours there), multiplayer offers an excellent complement and features many of the same great levels, often expanded to better accommodate 8 or 16 players. These are really well done, and range from the expansive bus depot and dock levels to the smaller office (read: killzone) map.
Multiplayer staples, deathmatch and team deathmatch modes, are available, as well as Payne Killer, a king-of-the-hill style game that has two players take on the role of Max and Raul Passos as the massively-armed kings. Earned XP unlocks additional loadout options, including body armor, new weapons, burst perks (like increased perception), or added firepower. Gameplay is nerve-wracking and frenetic, and surprisingly addictive as hell.
Arcade mode lets you play in either score attack or New York Minute mode, in which you race against the clock, notching additional time for kills and headshots, and earning multiplayer XP along the way. They’re nifty alternatives to the story mode, but don’t really add all that much to the game as a whole, especially in contrast to the addictive multiplayer.
The idea of Max Payne 3 has been kicking around a long time, and I’m glad Rockstar took their time and did it right. While the story feels a little clichéd at times and there are minor issues with the cover system, those flaws are more than made up for by the game’s gritty, film noir style, cinematic feel, and adrenaline-pumping gunplay. The addition of a remarkably fleshed out multiplayer system is just the icing on a really tasty cake.