By Leo Stevenson
I want to preface this review by saying, "Yes, Max Payne 3 was released over a month ago and this review is late!" Still, Max Payne 3 is quite simply amazing.
I want, nay, need to tell all Steviants about why and how this is the best game I have played this year. Rockstar have managed to create something very, very special in Max Payne 3, from the deeply engrossing, emotional and engaging story, the brilliant and pitch perfect voice acting, the impressive and often quite pretty graphics, the cinematic style and flair with which the entire package is wrapped in and of course the intense and frequently jaw dropping action. It's fair to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the hours I spent in the company of Mr. Payne who, in my opinion, is a true and fully realised character. In fact, I think Max Payne as a character should take his place alongside some of the greatest and most complex "hard men" or "action heroes" of the silver screen. One of these "action heroes" particularly reminds me of Max and Max Payne 3 could well be a sequel to his film series.
The man is John McClane and the series is, of course, Die Hard. Max Payne 3 is everything that Die Hard 4.0 should and evidently could have been. There's the ever-deepening plot, revealing double-crosses and dirty hands, the hordes upon hordes of gun-toting henchmen, the incredible set pieces and of course the violence. Don't be fooled though, the violence in Max Payne 3, while both shocking and exciting serves a deeper purpose. It reveals the man who Max is and the man he has become. It shows us the world in which he operates and gives us a glimpse into the fractured psyche of a broken and desperate man. Both John McClane and Max Payne are troubled and flawed heroes. Both men have been pushed to their limits and both have an incredible knack for finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. The similarities don't end there though, both are cops (well ex-cop in Max's case), both can't resist the call of the drink and both are fundamentally good guys, who when backed into a corner will do their all the see justice is served.
The key difference is that while John McClane has suffered loss, it doesn't even come close to the Greek Tragedy that is Max Payne's life. Losing both his wife and daughter, Max has descended into a deep and spiralling depression, long having lost any desire to exist within the world, instead waiting for the day he's removed from it and is able to join his family. But somehow too stubbornly alive to "take himself out". Preferring instead that someday, somewhere a thug has a bullet with his name on it and while in the course of Max Payne 3, many thugs and baddies try to give Max what he desires most, it isn't time for him to leave this world just yet. Not when there are women needing saving and bad guys needing killing.
If there is one thing that Max truly knows how to do and how to do well, it's kill. Thankfully, the action in Max Payne 3 is a giant ball of fun from go to whoa. Bullet time and Shootdodge make a welcome return and for all veterans of the previous Max Payne titles you'll be pleased to know that they are functionally unchanged. It really can't be emphasised enough how much fun it is to dive from behind cover in super slow motion and headshot 5 or 6 enemies before you hit the ground. Your ability to enter Bullet Time is governed by a gauge in the bottom right of the screen which gradually fills over time and can be filled more rapidly by killing enemies or by taking damage. The more filled the bar is, the longer Bullet Time lasts. In the current state of shooters, both first and third person, regenerating health is the norm. Not so in Max Payne 3. Next to your Bullet Time gauge is a silhouette of Max that fills with red the more damage you take. Fill it completely and you're dead. However, if you have a supply of pain pills you can heal yourself and trust me, you will need to heal. A lot. It's when the Bullet Time and Health gauges are used in concert that an interesting and very cool feature of the game is revealed. If you have pain pills on hand, have some Bullet Time in reserve and take a fatal shot the game enters "Last Stand". Last Stand slows the action right down and whips the camera around to focus on the enemy which fired the killing shot. If you manage to shoot him before your Bullet Time gauge is depleted, one bottle of pain pills are consumed and you are safe, fail to kill him however and its game over for you and Max.
Guns have a heavy feel and a meaty sound and dual wielding is still the core of Max's arsenal. Cleverly, Rockstar have allowed Max to carry two single handed and one double handed weapon. If you switch to dual wielding Max will discard the two handed weapon. This small element adds a level of tactical decision making. Whilst carrying a two handed weapon Max is able to wield one of the single handed weapons and is animated carrying the larger weapon in his free hand. It's a minor detail, but I found myself impressed with it time and again.
Aiming feels natural whether in Bullet time or not and for those not entirely comfortable with the aiming controls, Rockstar have included two versions of auto aim to assist: Hard Lock and Soft Lock. I played through exclusively on the "Free Aim" setting, but did try both Hard and Soft locks and am happy to report that while making the aiming significantly easier, the excitement and most of all, the fun of the shootouts wasn't diminished. That being said, purists will want to play on Free Aim as the auto-aim options feel just a little bit like cheating. I had only minimal issues with the aiming controls being that when popping out from behind cover the reticule was often not where I expected it to be and occasionally was rather difficult to see, as it is just a small white dot. As I said, these issues are minor and don't serve to spoil the gameplay. It may be more a case of becoming used to the aiming system because as the game progressed I found these issues cropped up less and less often.
Max Payne 3 is filled with visual and cinematic effects. Scan lines, focus shifting, shifting film stock and discolouration abound during cutscenes and gameplay alike, and while initially jarring and intrusive, they quickly become part of the game's style. These visual flourishes don't only serve to stylise either, but re-enforce the notion of Max as a man disconnected from the world around him. One effect in particular served to enhance the gameplay. Whenever you achieve a headshot the screen would briefly flash and the colours of the game world would become washed out. Once I understood this meant the enemy was down it made the gunplay flow more smoothly, which in turn provided a richer gameplay experience.
Without sounding negative, the gameplay in Max Payne 3 never really changes from beginning to end. You pop out from cover and shoot enemies. You Shootdodge and kill enemies. You enter Bullet Time and shoot enemies, etc. I could see that some players may find this a tad repetitive, but I never tired of it, which may be, in part, due to the stellar narrative and story telling of the game. I was so engrossed in the characters and so intrigued by the ever deepening mystery that I needed to find out more. Cutscenes are bookend each level and are interspersed frequently within. I never found them intrusive or annoying though. The writing and acting are of an incredibly high calibre and the game is all the better for it. And while the story may be fairly clichéd and standard action fare the tone and characters make it shine. Any fan of 80's/90's action films will love the story, and if the final cutscene doesn't make you grin ear to ear then you may have missed the point. Either way, this chapter in Max's story is bigger, bloodier and darker than any that have come before and suits the series perfectly.
The single player campaign will, depending on skill and difficulty, last between 10 and 15 hours. Max Payne 3 feels like it comes to a natural conclusion and doesn't over stay its welcome. Those hungry for more action have a variety of options in front of them. Completing the story unlocks "New York Minute" mode. You begin each level with only 1 minute on the clock. When the clock hits zero it's game over, but here's the trick, killing enemies adds time. Learning spawn patterns and getting headshots is the name of the game and with online leaderboards those with a competitive streak will be set for many hours. For those gamers looking for a more direct form of competition, look no further than Max Payne 3's excellent multiplayer mode. All the old favourite modes are there, as well as some clever new ones for good measure. The objective based "Gang Wars" is where the real fun begins, tasking two teams with completing a variety of missions against the clock and against the other team, with objectives changing in subsequent rounds based on the outcome of each mission. Perks or "Bursts" as they are known in Max Payne 3 are essential to Gang Wars and have the ability to completely alter the direction a round is heading in. Alongside Gang Wars are deathmatch varieties which should keep fans going long after the campaign has been completed.
Max Payne 3 is a simply astounding game, packed full of character, gameplay and story. You will truly feel for Max as he stumbles through an ever worsening situation. Desperate to make things right and not really sure why. You'll laugh out loud and shout in delight at some of the truly over the top action set pieces and you'll be on the edge of your seat for the duration. Kudos to Rockstar for taking an established franchise and while maintaining what made it great elevated it to truly legendary status. Max Payne 3 should and will be looked upon as a benchmark of adult video game story telling and gameplay. Let's hope it's not so long between drinks for Max next time around.