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There’s a fantastic moment halfway through Max Payne 3. The titular hero has reached his boiling point, shaved his head, and gone underground into Sao Paolo’s gritty favelas. Things are looking down. A local gang has robbed him of guns, watch, and even his sunglasses. He’s been kicked into a ditch full of trash and sewage. And as he traverses through a stream of filth and philosophizes about his lot in life, we understand how he’s somewhat complicit in perpetuating this societal imbalance through his steady stream of gunfire to protect the wealthy. It’s a segment that feels like a filth-smeared complement to Uncharted 2’s critically lauded “Tibetan Village” section. And it’s a moment that beautifully epitomizes the experience.
At its most distilled essence, Rockstar’s fabled series is a giant shooting gallery. You move from spot to spot in a rather confined experience, all while largely doing the same activity. But once you pile on the layers of depth –its hallucinatory visuals, exciting locales, gruesome executions, and the ugly consequences of addiction – you’ve got the makings of a phenomenal action title. Even out of the hands of original dev team Remedy and writer Sam Lake, Max Payne 3 updates everything for a new age, and resultantly, it’s a must-play game.
Max Payne 3 finds our hero in Sao Paolo, albeit older, heavier, and scarred from the events of the prior games. He's working security detail for Rodrigo Branco, a wealthy Brazilian banker whose trophy wife, Fabiana, has been abducted by a notorious street gang, Comando Sombra. The Branco family, from hard-partying Marcelo to local politician Victor, are well-off and offer Max plenty of exposure to the city’s elite. And its bottles of brown liquor.
Max isn’t quite the hard-boiled cop or the star-crossed and conflicted hero of the prior two games; instead, he has grown into a self-medicating mercenary. Whereas painkillers were used as a healing device in the prior games, Max not only uses them as in-game healing, but constantly comments about his dependency on pills. On many occasions, you’ll see him in cutscenes with booze in hand, or waking up with a hangover. As every single attempt to rescue Fabiana fails, Max and his partner Raul Passos find themselves getting more desperate, and find out just how deep the motives behind this abduction get. Based on your familiarity with law enforcement, poverty, and blatant civil and human rights violations in large South American cities (or viewings of movies like Brazilian action blockbuster Elite Squad), some of this may not be so shocking. But it’s still well-told.
Along the way, you’ll shoot your way through a variety of colorful and beautifully designed locales – each following the game’s formula of big slow-motion setpieces and opportunities for big action movie-driven moments – from a nightclub shootout that evokes Tom Cruise’s stand-off in Collateral (gray suit included) to a bloody escape from a soccer stadium to the same level of massive moments that drove John Woo’s finest Heroic Bloodshed genre. It’s a fascinating contrast to Remedy’s visually darker, grittier East Coast corridors (and yet, those moments aren’t as far removed as you’d expect). Again, at its core, Max Payne 3 is a glorified shooting gallery. But what a gorgeously laid out gallery it is. The game’s charming and driving achievement is the concept that no matter how similar the gameplay is from moment to moment and beat to beat, the world is so gripping that you can’t help but to feel engrossed.
Aside from the colorful and exciting backdrops, the gunplay has taken on a different style in Max Payne 3. Bullet Time and Shootdodge still allow you to deal death in slow motion, but Max can now stay on the ground and shoot from prone positions. You have the option of three shooting styles that let you choose between traditional free-aiming, semi-assisted target, and full-on assisted targeting, all of which complement the difficulty curve. With the introduction of heavily cover-based gameplay, Max Payne 3 beautifully weds the unique elements that defined the classics with a contemporary feel. Also, in later stages, the difficulty ratchets up as dissolvable cover starts to pop up, and you’ll see flimsy shanty walls and barriers become more susceptible to gunfire.
There’s a new feature, Last Man Standing, that adds a great new dynamic to the action. Rather than simply auto-refilling Max’s health when he takes too many bullets or simply letting him die, Max Payne 3 implements a one-hit kill opportunity in which the screen colors desaturate, except for the gunman who’s made the fatal shot on Max. There’s one chance to kill him and stay alive, at the cost of one painkiller dose. And yet, while Last Man Standing is a great feature that chains combat, it does point to some wonky moments in the game. The camera works exceptionally well 95 percent of the time, but there are moments in which the Last Man Standing camera doesn’t fixate properly, or it shifts away from the intended target. That happens a lot when the feature clashes with the game’s excellent collision system, which finds Max realistically rebounding off walls. It results in slow, agonizing deaths that you can't prevent as you wish the game would hurry up and let you retry the section.
Features like Last Man Standing complement the gameplay wonderfully. On Normal difficulty, enemy AI is smart enough to flank and attack Max, and as the game progresses, it gets tougher and tougher to advance quickly. And while the game’s checkpoint system is mildly irritating in the early stages, its pacing can be downright frustrating as you inch toward the final and find yourself saying “oh, man; I’m all the way back here again?” As the game clamps down harder with tougher enemies and more damaging weapons, you’ll be repeating more often than you expect.
Max Payne 3 offers up Arcade Mode, which allows you to extend your smiting beyond the campaign. New York Minute returns, and the time-based mode is just as much fun as it was in the prior games. You have one minute on the clock, and each kill gives you more time to rack up a higher body count. New to this sequel is Score Attack, which lets you replay prior chapters while keeping a steady score ticker at the top of the screen to determine how efficiently you can take down thugs. You can compare your stats across a few filters, including global servers and your friends list. It helps give the game longer legs than simply mowing through multiple playthroughs. It’s a fun addition that we used to rack up the points by popping skulls for 500 point multipliers.
The other big addition to Max Payne’s universe is the addition of multiplayer. As third-person action games go online, it works well. It’s a bit reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto IV in the sense that the game has a big map and plenty of opportunities for chaos in deathmatches. You’ll need to rack up a certain quantity of kills to unlock some of the extra features (which may annoy some), but the core game works well.
There’s also the excellent Payne Killer mode, which resembles Juggernaut mode found in other online shooters, but with a twist that Raul Passos is a vice-Payne of sorts, so big team matches will find you hunting down two buffed characters to steal their crowns. Gang Wars, the biggest feature, creates a playlist of mixed objectives that you and teammates will play through to relive certain events from single-player mode. All of these modes are designed to foster both community, via the clan-driven Online Crews (which will carry stats over into GTA5) and rivalry (you can designate rivals and earn extra XP for taking them down). All in all, it’s an entertaining mode with lots of potential for long legs, especially if the announced add-on content comes close to the quality seen in Red Dead Redemption.
Max Payne 3 marks an exceptional comeback for the series. The plot wraps the neo-noir storytelling around a bright and exotic locale while peppering the action with enough backstory to stave off boredom. While prior games were certainly dark tales, the stories of addiction, double and triple crosses, as well as some grim surprises ripped straight from urban legends. It maintains the mechanics that made the prior games great while modernizing them to excellent effect. Between the arcade mode and multiplayer, there’s enough substantive content to keep you hooked for some time. While there are some mechanically wonky moments, they’re too miniscule to tank a stellar sequel that was worth the wait. Between its pacing, its presentation, and its excellent gunplay, Max Payne 3 has raised the bar for other action games to follow. Welcome back.
This game was reviewed on Xbox 360 as the lead platform. We will update our review shortly with any notable differences in the PlayStation 3 version.