Publisher: Rockstar Games
Genre: Action / Shooter
Reviewer: Philip Smith
Overall: 8.5 = Excellent
As with all detectives that find themselves in a film noir environment, things aren’t going well for Max Payne. After the death of his wife and child, and his subsequent lover, his life slowly has circled a drain of misery and monotony as days of pills and booze have pooled into a present as filthy as a favela’s runoff. Now a bodyguard for São Paulo’s elite, Payne finds himself protecting one of the city’s most powerful families alongside another ex-cop, and former academy classmate, Raul Passos. The family’s partying children enable Payne to drink, pop pills, and wallow in a self-induced haze that is as unsuccessful at lessening the pain of his troubled memories as he is at staying sober. It’s a bleak existence, and one made worse when an unknown group targets the family for torment.
Payne’s life isn’t all Hawaiian button-ups and khakis. Over the game’s 19 chapters, players bounce around time to see how Payne went from being a schlub nursing his wounds at his favorite haunt in Hoboken to a South American one-man army, tearing through the shantytowns of Brazil with reckless abandon as he comes to substitute drugs and drink with purpose and rage. The North American portions resemble the Payne of old, complete with leather jackets, snow-filled alleyways, and shotgun-toting mafia goombas. When in South America, the game is something like a noir-esque Elite Squad, with Payne facing off against gangsters and paramilitary police squads, slow-motion diving around in and blowing up the highest of high-rise apartments and poorest of favelas—all while waxing poetically on class disparity, his string of failures, and how he really wants to punch people in the face.
The two-disc journey is as explosive as it is cinematic, with frequent cutaways breaking up combat in favor of splash text slapping over stylistic, heavily filtered shots. Dialog streams throughout the interactive and non-interactive portions, serving its purpose best when used to guide players or offer a skewed insight on ongoing events. As with the best noir monologues, the protagonist’s observations widen the viewer’s perspective and eke more out of otherwise ordinary scenes. Payne could stand to do a little less talking, though, prone as he is to repeating obvious observations that unnecessarily force feed the point of the scene—the gorgeous graphics could take on a significant narrative load, if only Payne would let them. The ham-fisted nature of Remedy’s Payne has been replaced with a morose, verbose Payne, who has a place in this bottom of the barrel, but he could stand to let his actions do more of the talking. One bright note is his interactions with Passos, which also offer the only moments of levity, especially a particular, almost throwaway line that kept reappearing as a joke throughout most of the game.
Of particular note is the heavy use of Portuguese, which proved to be a clever and effective way to emphasize alienation. Payne, for however much he’s done and seen, often finds himself in a different world. With the subtitles by and large being untranslated, players who aren’t fluent in the language—a vast majority in this market—will be just as lost and confused as he is. This also leads to a constant state of tension, even during slow moments; those two armed, ostensibly friendly men talking to each other could just as well be plotting an ambush as much as they could be discussing how best to secure the perimeter. It also helps that the voice acting is uniformly excellent, creating a confused atmosphere.
Payne backs up his talk with action, and there’s a lot of it. Whether it’s a cold cemetery in New Jersey or a night club in São Paulo, there will be bodies littering the ground after Payne passes through. Uzis, shotguns, assault rifles, pistols, grenade launchers—the game is well served by the arsenal, with each weapon having its own heft and appeal. Movement can be a little stiff at times, and the cover system a little touchy, but by and large, gunplay is satisfying and the carnage gratifying. Destructible environments add a lot to the encounters, taking an office shootout from a dash between cubicles to an explosion of debris from all of the papers, partitions, glass, and whatever else is around.
The action doesn’t stop once Payne gets to the bottom of his employer’s dirty business. Each completed level is unlocked in Arcade, a highly replayable mode that features two styles of play and a host of rewards. Levels are initially accessible in the point-based Score Attack, while completing the game will unlock the time-based New York Minute. Score Attack has a system similar to The Club, in which points are awarded for every shot landed, and deducted if hit, with more points for harder shots and multipliers applied as consecutive rounds hit their mark. New York Minute has a setup akin to Sine Mora in that Payne has limited time—one minute—to complete a level, taking down enemies to add additional seconds while avoiding being hit to not have any seconds knocked off. There’s also a Hardcore variation of New York Minute, for those with the grit. All times are uploaded to leaderboards, as well as matched against friends and those in the player’s crew, the new persistent guild-type system that links players in Max Payne 3 and future Rockstar titles.
Crews are also prominent in multiplayer. Players who pal up will be able to designate rival crews and call on their compatriots for help, as well as receive additional experience for taking out their rivals. But multiplayer is a layered experience, and just as solo players can call (and receive) a Vendetta on another player who has cleaned their clock one too many times, with each receiving extra experience for the next kill, so too do a web of risks and rewards weave their way throughout all aspects of online play.
Rockstar does their best to force new players to pace themselves. Only a handful of preset loadouts and modes (Rookie Deathmatch and Rookie Team Deathmatch) are available at the start. It takes leveling several times before custom loadouts can be assigned, and even more before the remaining modes can be accessed. Throughout the early levels, though, players will be earning cash to use for future purchases. Those will also have to be unlocked, either through leveling or, in the case of attachments, through the use of a particular weapon. Items, from sutures to reduce the time before health replenishes to walkie talkies to see ally-spotted enemies, and burst bonuses can also be purchased and assigned. Each loudout has a weight limit, with each object (two single-handed weapons, one two-handed weapon, head and chest items, three gear items, projectiles, and bursts) adding onto the count. Once players pass set thresholds, their character will have lower stamina as well as slower health and adrenaline regeneration. Adrenaline is important because it is the means by which the three-level bursts are engaged, such as Trigger Happy, for ammo-piercing rounds and better weapons, and Grounded, to hide from the enemies’ minimaps. Setting up a loadout without accounting for adrenaline can lead to some sticky situations.
New modes become available as players progress further, including Hardcore versions of three modes that are tougher but offer better rewards. Other modes include Payne Killer, which starts with a standoff and ends with the first to kill taking on the role of Payne and the first to be killed embodying Passos, who then team up to stave off the remaining members who hunt them down as gang members. The two targets have better stats but also lead to higher rewards, and swapped places, for those that land the kill shot. Gang Wars, where two factions square off in a five-chapter sequence of dynamic storyline missions across the same map, is one of the more popular modes. Objectives shift and vary, with a Takedown goal marking an enemy for assassination one chapter and the next being about defending positions in Siege. The random objectives vary between a core set of over 10 gameplay types, with the last round tallying the scores for a final bout of Team Deathmatch.
Multiplayer is filled with great touches besides. The interface, while somewhat demanding with load times, offers a great deal of information from the main hub, including active players, making it easier to choose between the most populated of the many modes. The bodies of dead players can also be looted for a short period of time, offering up ammo, cash, or adrenaline. There are even two separate playlists for those who want Soft Lock, which nudges the reticle onto a nearby target, or Free Aim; however, Hard Lock, which automatically targets enemies, is understandably only available in Story. Experience earned in Arcade carries also over for multiplayer, offering an extra incentive to replay the story missions (sans the story).
However, there are also a few nagging issues in both single- and multiplayer. One of the most annoying was the game’s instance on Payne’s use of his pistol during cutscenes. For whatever reason, the designers decided to then force players to use the pistol after the scene ends. It doesn’t take long for problems to arise, namely that ammo doesn’t replenish during the scenes, leaving players who are out of bullets before the scenes squaring off with enemies with an empty pistol afterwards (but holding a fully loaded shotgun off to the side). The numerous cutscenes mean this is a reoccurring problem.
Multiplayer is also in need of balancing tweaks. The numerous guns have been whittled down to a handful of dominant rifles and pistols, while the game has a nasty tendency to respawn players too out in the open or too close to enemies. However, the big problem is player balance. Experienced players often dominate rounds with their kitted-out weapons and extra item slots, making short work of lower-level enemies who simply don’t have access to all of the armor and accessories to make the match-up fair. The auto-balance feature exacerbates this problem, with higher-level players frequently juggled around until the teams are mismatched. It isn’t uncommon for the game to put two extra low-level players on a team because the other has a squad filled with far more experienced players. Again, the items the latter players have access to and can afford make the match not simply one of numbers or skill, but also tech. Having more high-level players with better gear means the extra two or three opponents make very little difference. This isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of perfectly matched games going on at all times, of which I’ve played my fair share, but it’s routine during a play session to get steamrolled by a handful of pros.
Max Payne 3 won’t revolutionize the action genre, nor does it solidify the marriage of gaming and cinema, but it is a very slickly produced and highly addictive game. Payne might be a bit chatty and his actions a bit too slavish to the narrative, but there’s no denying the satisfying gunplay that is to be had with the large arsenal and varied, destructible environments. An excellent Arcade Mode captures the best elements of the campaign while Multiplayer, despite still teething with balance mismatches, is filled with enough risk-and-reward elements, and unlockable weapons, gear, and modes to keep players returning for quite a while.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)