Max Payne is a complete mess. Moving to New Jersey was supposed to be a new start away from the DEA and NYPD, a place where he could finally try to put the brutal murders of his wife and daughter to the back of his mind, and retire from the violence that had so far consumed his life.
With his mental state deteriorating fast, Max hides behind the bottle, drinking himself into a stupor and then crying about how miserable his life has become. Suicide looks to be an easy option, and possibly the only way to really dull out the pain, but when an old friend turns up Max finds himself once again dragged into a web of violence that leads him to Sao Paulo in Brazil.
Max’s new life of violence begins as he starts a new job, tasked with protecting the family of Rodrigo Branco, a wealthy industrialist. When Branco’s wife, Fabiana, is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded for her return, the storyline appears to be following a fairly predictable pattern: rescue the girl and find out who is involved. As it turns out there’s something much more sinister at work and, with a few twists and turns along the way (and a lot of bloodshed), Max eventually stumbles across a disturbing discovery.
One of the many highlights of Max Payne 3 is the storyline, but also the way in which it is told. To give players a sense of his desperation, Max Payne’s depression is reflected visually throughout the game. The screen occasionally blurs and pulses to represent his mental state and his appearance becomes more ragged as the game progresses, culminating in the symbolic shaving of his head in the final third as he prepares for the ultimate battle.
To further compound his misery, Max’s inner thoughts and emotions are relayed through his own commentary in which the game’s original voice actor, James McCaffrey, does a magnificent job of making him a believable character who is both totally out-of-control and immensely likeable.
Despite Max’s negativity and depression often coming to the forefront of his commentary, his humour in face of danger often shines through. “Sao Paulo is like Bagdad with G-strings,” he quips as he’s led to a bikini-clad party in the dangerous ghetto area of the Brazilian capital. Subsequently, you can’t help but like Max and sympathise with him. Rockstar draws you into his dark world and there aren’t many games that have managed to create such a strong lead character. With the help of stunning facial animations and the brilliant voice work of McCaffrey, Max Payne is a really memorable hero.
Rockstar has magnificently built upon Max’s character from the previous games. They’ve taken his back-story and personality and have created a character that’s exactly how you’d imagine Max would be at this point of his life having witnessed such violence over the years. This raw personality gives him a real edge that consequently makes him one of the hardest videogame characters of all time.
It helps, of course, that the character model, facial animations, dialogue and voice is so believable, but Rockstar has also created a world and storyline that stays true to the original games, wrapping around it production values that give it a truly cinematic feel.
Using stylish story-telling techniques, such as static-panels, which give the game a motion-comic feel, and the flashing up of text on-screen from in-game conversations, Rockstar has created a unique way to showcase the story, the likes of which I’ve never seen before. There are also no load times, so gameplay flows and seamlessly blurs with scripted sequences and cut-scenes, and is topped off by an audio and visual experience that would rival any movie.
The high quality of the production extends into location design and the meticulous detail that has gone into every inch of Max Payne’s world. The graphics are superb throughout with interiors of nightclubs and bars just as impressively detailed as the memorable stroll through the dangerous ghetto of Sao Paulo, where you can almost smell the marijuana and gun powder.
Though many of the locations in Max Payne 3 have been seen before in other shooters, with the likes of an airport, abandoned warehouse, football stadium and a cramped shanty town being among the backdrops, there’s plenty of variety in terms of level design with multi-tiered open environments giving way to claustrophobic bouts of up-close-and personal office-to-office warfare. Just like the original game, the focus is firmly placed on all-out action and gun battles as you take down a ludicrous amount of bad guys on your way from point ‘A’ to ‘B’.
Indeed, gameplay is just as linear as previous games, though players can stray slightly off the beaten track to search for L.A. Noire-style clues that plump up the back-story and pieces that make up the collectible golden weapons. Largely though, gameplay is about clearing areas of enemies before you can move on to the next bloody encounter. Rockstar has paced the game very nicely too so that during the latter third of the game the challenge and intensity gets even more ferocious.
One thing new to the series is the cover mechanic. Locations are littered with spots to hide behind. Enemies arrive in such vast numbers, also using cover, that diving behind a car or a wall soon becomes second nature. Bullet-time is as impressive now as it was the first time around, giving you the opportunity to go in all guns blazing as time slows down and you attempt to get clear head-shots on your opponents. The fact that the bullet-time metre refills over time also ensures that you need to use it strategically – in my case only during the times when I was seriously outnumbered.
In conjunction with traditional cover-based third-person shooter mechanics, bullet-time works extremely well, and the challenge is tough enough to ensure that a combination of both techniques is often needed to get through an area. Weapons pack a punch, but most impressive is their impact on enemies as you buckle foes to the ground with a knee shot or send them flying back a dozen yards like a rag-doll with a well-placed headshot.
No details have been spared in terms of gore and one of the most satisfying moves in the game is a close-up melee execution or the chance to spray bullets into your already dead foe in slow motion, just for the pure hell of it.
These bouts of area clearing are broken up impressively by cut scenes and interactive set-pieces that serve to add another level of excitement. Sniping from a helicopter as goons close in around the escaping Fabiana is one memorable scenario, but there are also many short scenarios where Rockstar places you in an exciting sequence of events that occasionally involves a forced-use of the bullet-time mechanic to deliver a cinematic moment.
Preventing Max Payne from being totally perfect is the fact that bullet-time hit detection can occasionally be hit or miss. Sometimes I was peppering enemies half a dozen times in the head and chest area before they died, but without bullet-time it would take them down with one head shot. Overall through, A.I. and animation is meticulous with enemies taking cover, reacting to your moves and providing a stiff challenge. The excellent physics engine also ensures that enemies die as realistically as you can imagine, toppling over balconies to their death and getting torn apart by a spray of bullets.
It’s not just Max’s character that makes Max Payne’s 3 campaign so special either, but it’s the other characters he meets, the way the storyline is told and the stunning production. Rockstar’s been involved in many videogame masterpieces, from L.A. Noire to Grand Theft Auto, and its pedigree shows in Max Payne 3 throughout the entire campaign.
Indeed, the 10 hour story mode is more than enough to justify the price of Max Payne 3, but when you take into account the additional content in multiplayer you’ve got a game where you could easily have lots of fun playing through the five difficulty settings on single player before even starting on the crazy amount of online content.
Online you can go it alone or in teams in deathmatch scenarios and objective-based modes across a fine range of small and large maps inspired by the campaign. Once again the gameplay is firmly based around action, though the cover system also caters for campers and those who like to play tactically as well as run-and-gun gamers. It’s frantic and exciting and with the leveling system there’s a massive amount of customisation to be had through various loadouts and bursts, which reward you for kills with the likes of radars that detect enemy activity and incendiary ammunition.
Away from the frantic multiplayer match-ups, there’s also an arcade mode which rewards those who have played the single player campaign, enabling you to play through each level to achieve a high score. There’s also a timed-mode that pits you against the clock against dozens of enemies and gives you extra seconds on the clock for achieving quick kills.
I remember with great detail when the gritty neo-noir style of the first game in the series, and the introduction of bullet time-based gun-fights, first blew me away. Max Payne was a cinematic experience with great audio, graphics and cutting-edge game mechanics, but Max Payne 3 takes things to a whole other level with glittering production values and non-stop excitement throughout its pulsating campaign. The campaign on its own is worth playing through again and again, while the multiplayer is incredibly rewarding and built to keep gamers amused for many months to come.
There’s not much more I can say about Max Payne 3 without spoiling the experience for you. Emotionally exhausted and still buzzing with excitement after playing Max Payne 3’s story mode throughout the weekend, I woke up this morning bursting to tell everyone that, quite simply put: Max Payne 3 is the best character-driven shooter that I’ve ever played.