Review: Max Payne 3 – Rockstar Vancouver – XBox 360 (2012)

Another day, Another Videogame.

I first played Max Payne in 2001. Marouda and I were staying in town for the weekend, and during a bit of a browse at a now-long-closed PC game store I picked up Max Payne on impulse because it looked pretty cool on the back. I didn’t buy a whole lot of software back then – if you know what I mean – but I did try to when I could afford it. I bought Max Payne 2 pretty much as soon as it was released. I enjoyed both games immensely.

Max’s traditional look – as he appears in the flashback levels…

Up until this most recent PC (ok, it’s 5 years old now), I’d “christen” my new computers by first playing through Max Payne and then Max Payne 2 on them. Windows 7/widescreen/Steam issues killed that when I got this one, but point remains that Max and the sequel have been probably my most replayed games. I never bothered with New York Minute or any of that stuff, but it was always fun to play through them again with the graphical settings turned up to max, as I always found them to be detailed and good looking games for their time.

So why has it taken me so long to get to part 3? A combination of leaning towards dumping large amounts of time into on-running, MMO or MMO-lite-type games, whether it’s Rock Band or WoW or Titanfall or LotRO or WoT or Destiny – and an insane tendency to “save” lots of my “better” games for “later”. I would normally have purchased and played this on PC, but all of that Rockstar Social Club additional-DRM bullshit was off-putting – so in the end I purchased Max Payne 3 when it hit discount status on the console instead. Anyway, this summer I finally put Max into my list of prospective games to play, and after a few games that I didn’t find amazing, one that was fuckawful and one that was merely decent, it was time to give myself the chance to play something I knew that I’d enjoy. Right?

Now when I recently played Metal Gear: Revengeance, I hated the constant interruption of gameplay for the endless cutscenes. I found them to be badly written, badly acted, and worst of all, incredibly jarring. After all, when I play a videogame, I’m doing so because I want to play the thing – not watch it.

All I knew about Max Payne 3 was that the developers were no longer Remedy, who had gone on to make horror-flashlight simulator Alan Wake for Microsoft, and that Max’s third outing was now a Rockstar Vancouver project. Sam Lake hadn’t been used as Max’ likeness since the first one anyway, and we all know Rockstar’s pedigree- though that mostly comes from Rockstar North (DMA Design! – GTA) and to a lesser extent, Rockstar San Diego (Red Dead) – all separate dev houses under the R* publisher banner.

The only other thing I was aware of was that some people disliked the radically different look that Max had been given. Bald, paunchy, beared, sunglasses. None of that was the Max that we’d all played. I was willing to put all of that aside and give the game a chance, but (spoiler alert) I avoid reading much about games I own in my (digital) pile of shame, so I wasn’t aware of anything else about it.

…a transitional shot from another level…

Imagine my surprise when I played, and found that instead of the “animated graphic novel” to introduce chapters, the game had not only cutscenes to intro each section, but constant expository and plot-driven cutscenes throughout. Constantly. Interrupting gameplay.

The biggest surprise then, is the fact that I found myself really enjoying the story and …well, the experience. The gameplay is pretty much standard Max Payne, but due to the consolised controls, I found it a bit difficult to play. I’m fine with FPS and even third person games like Saints Row and GTA5 with a controller, but for some reason I found I just sucked at Max Payne. So restarting on Easy I found it to still be awkward, but playable enough that I played for a solid couple of hours, making it to the start of Chapter 5 (of 14) before taking a break from my first session when I noticed that it was almost 3pm and I really should do something else for awhile.

As you might have guessed, I have an affection for Max in terms of having really enjoyed the previous games, and I found the story and characterisation – while filled with tropes – to be entertaining and well-written enough to hold my interest solidly. It’s certainly better written and acted than any number of action movies that seem to do decent box office without the nonsensical, illogical crazytown of that bloody Metal Gear game that gave me the shits last week.

The gameplay, as stated, is pretty much standard Max Payne. Bullet-time (awkwardly placed for me as a right-stick click), shootdodge, and basic cover shooter mechanics – all wrapped up with a version of the slow-mo killshot that Sniper Elite took to it bloody and gruesome conclusion, taking it to its bosom as the Sniper Elite raison d’être. I have to say that Max’s game is also pretty gruesome in terms of headshot decals, with a bit of disturbing imagery here and there. It comes across as a fairly mature title, rather than gratuitous – but then I guess the whole thing is pretty gratuitous.

If you want to talk immersion breaking or annoying, there’s an urgency to the game – both from Max’s narration (as the game is narrated/told in a series of flashbacks as with previous entries) combined with your mate urging you to hurry up. The immersion-breaking part is that there are a large number of “golden guns” broken into three parts which are scattered around the levels. So the game actively encourages you to search out and magpie these parts (that upgrade your weapons) while wanting it both ways and telling you to hurry up. When you do certain things such as kill the last guy or walk near the doorway that leads to the next section, it often triggers a cutscene – which hides the load for the next section of level but also can lock you out of the opportunity to search out or even pick up a piece of gun.

…and a significantly different look later in the game.

This is due to the common design element of games of the PS360 era – due to the memory that it takes to hold the whole level, well, in memory – so you have a whole lot of doors that automagically close and lock behind you. Sometimes it’s explained story-wise, or it’s the usual long drop down – but mostly the doors just close behind you.

My solution to this was to play through the 4 completed chapters with a “find ‘em” walkthrough the following day. The next day I played through 2 more chapters immediately following up by doing the search-a-thon. So having just finished the game today – a good week after I started it, I’ve actually played through twice in this last week or so with a couple of days not playing any videogames. The game didn’t feel short or overlong. I was ready for it to finish just a little earlier than it did, which is pretty good, in my opinion.

About the most unbelievable part of the story which involves Max gunning down hundreds of mooks and jumping forward as things explode behind him in the Action Movie Hero style is that neither he nor his sometime partner have mobile phones. Actually, it’s kinda believable. For Max. In the flashback scenes. But not in the later scenes where he’s working private security.

Several of the missions are told in flashback form, so you get to play as Max through his visual evolution from the look that we’re familiar with from Max Payne 1 and 2 to the bald, bearded look. It’s actually quite well done.

There are some annoying niggles, though – through the magic of cutscenes, Max will occasionally run from a great piece of cover to an awful, exposed bit of cover, before giving you control (and you may then want to run right back where you came from – getting hit in the process!) It took me until the final level to work out how to turn off things like flashlights and laser sights on weapons. Actually, the flashlights are fine, but the laser sights are awful and seem to take away all my accuracy, so that’s what prompted me to see if you could turn the damn things off.

Yes, there are sniper sequences.

One of the missions has you tasked with a form of escort quest. Now the woman you’re escorting through it can’t get killed through the usual AI stupidity, and is basically out of your way 100% of the time. However, the devs apparently couldn’t resist making her hysterical half of the time and fucking annoying all of the time. Seriously, I was talking to my television saying things like “Shut the fuck up, you stupid bitch.” (and far worse) for most of the level. I mean, I get what they were trying to do, and hysterical is probably a quite natural thing for someone in that situation – and not everyone can be, say Mona Sax – but all it did was annoy me, because she basically won’t shut the fuck up and everything she says is hysterical and annoying. Or to put it another way – I’ve always enjoyed the Max Payne games, I regret not playing this one much earlier since it’s been sitting in my pile of shame for years, but I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it, yet I can only ever see myself skipping this particular level in any future playthroughs.

There’s a little bit in the ending that also rubbed me the wrong way, especially after all that Max (and you) had been through – and why. I felt it was both out of character and disappointing.

Throughout the game to mix things up there are a few sniper sequences. Also a couple of on-rails shooting sequences (that thankfully give you unlimited ammo). Almost all levels have a cinematic bullet-time sequence to kill some guys or save someone by, erm, killing some guys – and I have to say that all of these (except for two) managed to work for me – just a couple of the on-rails shooter sequences fell down for me, while the others were fine.

Graphically, I found the game to be very good in the same way that I found the previous entries very appealing – not that the graphics are photorealistic, but the levels are very, very detailed with lots of small minutia – virtual set dressing in what is clearly a very carefully handcrafted world. That sort of thing always really appeals to me – in the same way that it does in miniatures painting or scenery building. Having said that – I found the graphics to be pretty bloody good anyway, which is a good thing considering how much the game relies on its in-game assets for the numerous cutscenes. In fact – some googling seems to indicate that the game features 3 hours and 15 minutes of cutscenes. Good thing that the script, though cheesy in points and trope-ridden is well done, and having James McCaffrey reprise his role (instead of just getting Troy Baker or Nolan North to do the character) really makes all the difference.

The shooting mechanics… well, having played on the 360, and not being a l33t console shooter player by any means, I played on easy as I mentioned before with the targeting on hard lock (think quickscope FTW). If I were playing on PC I’d have probably played on Normal – but either way we’re not talking about amazing shooting mechanics by any means – even with bullet-time added in. I mostly hid behind cover popping out to, well, pop them – often using bullet-time to line-up headshots rather than shootdodge my way through the combats.

How did I end up enjoying something with so damn many cinematics?

The game is very linear – just as others in the series (and most shooters) are. There are some much larger areas scattered around, but there’s no getting around the linearity of the game – it is what it is. There are a few callbacks to previous entries in the series in a few of the levels – a train station, an abandoned skeleton of a high-rise building – they’re not presented with a nod and a wink, though – and it’s the better for it. There’s no “baby nightmare” stages here, either. Probably worth mentioning.

I didn’t even bother trying the multiplayer, because fuck bothering with tacked-on, bullet-point multiplayer designed to sell DLC maps and Season Passes. Think anyone is playing this over CoD or Battlefield or CS or TF2? Especially now, almost four years on? Yeah, exactly.

So what we have here is a game with a 12-hour campaign where three of those hours are cutscenes. The shooting is decent, but not much more than average. On paper, this is a game that I should have completely hated, yet it’s one that I really enjoyed. More than any campaign I’ve played for quite some time in fact. The rotten underbelly of São Paulo more than works as a substitute for the rotten underbelly of New York, and the flashback-narrative nature of the game means we get a couple of levels set in New York and other locales to boot.

Clearly the reasons are because I like the character and I enjoyed the story – which ultimately fits into the “Action Hero” category with a touch of noir added in. For a videogame, this is an exceptionally well-written story, and to be frank, the storyline here is better than a lot of actual action movies’ plot. I never thought I’d write those words, as usually the very best videogame plots (think Mafia II) are a pale shadow of their inspiration. Max instead aims for a much lower-quality genre, and more than meets the mark. Will I now have to brave the Max Payne film, featuring Marky Mark?

A future worth risking?

So would I recommend Max Payne 3 to the curious? Do you need to be familiar with 1 or 2 to play and enjoy the story? Well, the game does a good enough job of introducing and explaining Max as he is “today” to not need to play the previous entries. With the caveats/warnings about the number of cutscenes and shooting quality, I say…

Recommended.

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