For those of you gearing up to play Rockstar’s upcoming crime thriller Max Payne 3, we’ve prepared this primer on the plots of the first two games and a look into what's coming up in the third. Whether you’re new to the series or a veteran looking for a refresher, this is everything you need to know about the sordid saga that brought Max Payne to the streets of Brazil.
Max Payne (2001)
Gathering of Developers, Rockstar Games
We’ve grown accustomed to more adult tales in video games – even ones that delve into moral ambiguity and tragedy – but it’s important to note how different the original Max Payne was in tone from the action games and shooters of its day. While the long-in-development title received attention for its groundbreaking “Bullet Time” slow-motion mechanics, the game also delivered an emotional film-noir tale of betrayal – in many ways setting the stage for Team Bondi and Rockstar’s later L.A. Noire.
The story was told in a unique way. Perhaps due to technical constraints, developer Remedy (later known for the Alan Wake series) eschewed conventional pre-rendered cutscenes in favor of graphic novel style storyboard vignettes to deliver the story, written by Alan Wake scribe Sam Lake. This low-tech approach, coupled with amazing artwork and actor James McCaffrey’s indelible noir-style voiceover, created a narrative with a remarkable impact. Sam Lake, who would later go on to pen Remedy’s brain-bending Alan Wake, wrote the original script.
Max Payne is nearly bursting with (sometimes improbable) plot twists, double-crosses, and convoluted plotlines, so take a deep breath before you read this. It wasn’t easy to summarize.
The game borrows the common cinematic technique of beginning right before the end of the story, and then flashing back to the events led our hero to the top of a New York City building in 2001.
After this ambiguous opening, the game skips back to 1998. Here, we witness the tragic event that would color the rest of Max Payne’s life. In horror, we see a gang of thugs (high on the new designer drug Valkyr) murder Max’s wife and daughter. This troubling sequence clearly establishes the series’ mournful, noir tone.
The story then picks back up in 2001. Max has left the NYPD for a post in the DEA. He’s on the trail of the drug Valkyr – specifically the Punchinello crime family, which is trafficking the substance in New York. He gets an urgent call from his fellow agent Alex Balder, who wants meet. When he arrives, there’s a shootout with the Punchinello underboss Jack Lupino and his goons. Unfortunately, Balder is killed and Max is now a suspect in the murder. To boot, Payne was working undercover in the Punchinello family, and his cover is now blown.
Max then sets on a mission to both take down Lupino and clear his name. While he eventually finds Lupino and executes him, he ends up being drugged by a beguiling femme fatale Mona Sax, who is an assassin. Sax delivers a drugged Max to the Punchinellos.
Things only get more convoluted from here. Max escapes the mob and enters into an uneasy alliance with Russian organized crime boss Vladimir Lem, who’s been warring with the Punchinellos to gain control of the city’s Valkyr trade. Max takes out one of Lem’s men who had betrayed him for the Punchinellos, then stages an ill-fated attack on the home of Don Agnello Punchinello. He arrives to see the dead body of Mona Sax’s sister Lisa (who was the leverage the Punchinello’s had over Mona to kidnap Max) and learns that the Don had only been dealing Valkyr at the behest of the Aesir Corporation. After the battle at the Don’s, Aesier head Nicole Horn administers an overdose of Valkyr to Max, who blacks out and suffers disturbing visions of his dead wife.
Max regains consciousness in an abandoned foundry that hides a military facility. Here, the true nature of the drug Valkyr is revealed. As it turns out, the drug was developed by an illicit military program to improve soldier’s field performance. It proved dangerous and was officially discontinued, but Aesier secretly kept it in production. Max’s wife had discovered the truth – which led to Horne sending Valkyr-addled goons to kill her in 1998. As if on cue, Horne arrives and attempts to destroy the complex – with Max inside it.
Our hero escapes, and meets up with another fellow DEA Agent, B.B., who cops to killing Alex Balder at the beginning of the game and framing Max. He then tries to kill Max again – an attempt that ends with Max killing B.B. Max then receives a call from a mysterious older gentleman named Alfred Woden.
Woden reveals that he’s part of the “Inner Circle” – a secret society that dates back many years and has connections to the highest levels of society and government. Woden feels that Horne and Aesir have gone too far, and tells Max he will ensure that the murder charges he’s facing will be dropped if he eliminates Horne.
The final battle takes place at Aesir’s headquarters, where Max goes to end things with Horne. He’s surprised by Mona Sax, who is still tasked (for reasons that aren’t entirely clear) with killing Max. However, their burgeoning romantic tension stops her from pulling the trigger, and Horne’s men shoot her.
Max runs to the rooftop (where we saw him at the beginning of the game) and begins a final fight with Horne. Horne attempts to escape in a helicopter, but Max topples the building’s antenna, which falls on the helicopter and bathes his nemesis in flame. In the aftermath, Max is arrested, but as he’s being walked out in handcuffs he exchanges a wry glance with a watching Alfred Woden, safe in the knowledge that Woden will clear his name as promised.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003)
Subtitled “a film noir love story,” this chapter in Max’s saga explores another dark period for the beleaguered detective. The game begins with Max back at his post at the NYPD. Though Alfred Woden cleared him of all charges related to the events of the first game, he was not able to get Max back in the good graces of the DEA. In his daily detective duties, Max begins to chase the trail of an assassin group named “The Cleaners.” During his investigation, he once again crosses paths with Mona Sax – who we had assumed was dead at the end of the first game.
Mona is a suspect in one of the Cleaners cases, and is arrested for the assassination of a senator in spite of Max’s efforts to save her. When she’s in the station for booking, the Cleaners attack and Mona flees. Max and Mona meet up later and successfully fend off another attack by the Cleaners. Suddenly, Max’s partner Valerie Winterson arrives on the scene and pulls a gun on Mona. Mona tells Max that Winterson is dirty – in league with the Cleaners. She must be convincing, because Max shoots Winterson, but not before she puts a bullet in Max as well.
After he comes to in the hospital, Max continues his quest to sort out this sordid tale. However, he’s captured by an old frenemy, Russian drug kingpin Vladimir Lem from the original Max Payne. Lem, who is part of scion Alfred Woden’s Inner Circle, wants to kill Woden and take control of the secret society. Winterson is his hired gun (as well as his lover). On the other hand, Woden ordered Mona to kill Max and Lem. After this revelation, Lem shoots Max, who is rescued from the now-burning building by Mona.
The game comes to a climax at Woden’s mansion, where Mona is overcome with love and can’t bring herself to kill Max. Lem, who was hoping his enemy would take out the man who now knows too much, shoots Mona. In a flurry, Woden leaps at Lem and is killed.
Max and Lem have a scuffle, which is brought to a swift conclusion when Lem activates a bomb he’s planted in the mansion. A final gunfight culminates when Max succeeds in bringing down the platform Lem is standing on, killing the mobster.
Interestingly, the game actually has two endings. The first time you play through the game, Max goes to Mona and watches her die. After completing the game on the default difficulty level, players open up a hard mode. If you play through and beat the game on the highest difficulty, Mona survives.
What’s Next For Max?
While we won’t know the full scope of Max Payne 3’s plot until the game releases, we know a few basics. The following is culled from impressions we’ve gleaned from some live demonstrations.
A number of years (Rockstar wouldn’t specify exactly how many) have elapsed since the end of Max Payne 2. Time has not been kind to Max. He left the NYPD and fell into a haze of drugs and drink in his apartment in Hoboken, New Jersey. Opportunity knocks in the form of Raul Passos, an old acquaintance from the police force who offers Max a job in private security in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At first, a cynical Max declines.
A few minutes later, the job suddenly becomes more appealing when a crew of mobsters headed by Anthony DeMarco pulls up. DeMarco wants revenge for Max killing his son. With the building under siege, Max and Raul quickly make a run for it, clearing out hallways of attackers in sequences that call to mind the action of the first two games. For a second, it looks like Max is going to meet a premature end, but a strange homeless man saves his life for no apparent reason and engages our anti-hero in a small, almost surreal moment of conversation.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, he begins working in the shadowy world of private security for the local scion Rodrigo Branco. Predictably, everything goes to hell when Comando Sombra, a street gang with ties to the drug trade, kidnaps Branco’s wife, Fabiana. Max is tasked with bringing her back, and the result is a whole lot of gunplay.
That’s the basic set-up for the game. However, if Max Payne’s past is any indication, we can safely assume the plot (and the motives of the main characters) are much more complicated than they appear.