It’s a great game for all the wrong reasons: not the gameplay, oddly dated and ridden with flaws, but the grim, noir narrative and the exuberant style. Max Payne 3 isn’t Rockstar’s best game by a long shot, or even a brilliant third-person shooter, but it’s tremendously exciting to play. It’s a game that shows how the word ‘cinematic’ can be double-edged, but that still scrapes through to be one of the most memorable action games this year.
Early on, we weren’t convinced. Max Payne 3 exemplifies Rockstar’s love of the talky cut-scene, and while the lengthy cinematics that punctuate the action in the first two levels show off the beautifully-rendered characters and an eye for cutting and camera-angles, they also slow the pace to a crawl. More worryingly, what action there is exposes the game’s biggest failing: it’s incredibly linear and there’s just not much variety to what you do.
That’s because it’s all built around cover-based, third-person shooting and a slowmo mechanic that was all very new back in 2001, but which has since seen action in everything from FEAR to Rockstar’s own Red Dead Redemption. For the most part, Max Payne has just three variations on combat: the bit where you cower behind something and take potshots, the bit where you press the right thumbstick, engage slowmo, and blast everything you can before the guage runs out, and the bit where you press the right bumper to hurl yourself into the air and blast everything before you hit the ground.
It worked in Remedy’s original Max Payne and it works just as well here. But it can leave you feeling: surely, there must be something more than this.
In terms of storyline and style, however, it’s fantastic. Where everyone else is content to do another story about space marines or special forces troops on the trail of terrorists, here’s an honest-to-goodness thriller with a flawed hero (Max is an alcoholic and distinctly past his prime), a great setting (Brazil’s Sao Paolo) and a story you can believe in.
The dialogue comes close to Ellroy/Chandler-parody at times, but it’s engaging, smart and rich in pitch-black humour. And the presentation? Well some might say that it’s all trying a bit too hard, with split-screen, double-vision and weird video artefacts everywhere you look, but it makes all that blasting and leaping look amazing. We haven’t had a finer example of great style over not-so-great substance since the risky Kane and Lynch: Dog Days – a game Max Payne 3 resembles in a number of ways.
Sadly, these ways extend beyond a bold style and a hard-edged story to the fact that Max Payne 3 can be a hugely frustrating game. Enemies are numerous and hard to kill, requiring several shots before they’ll go down. It’s hard to complain about a lack of realism when Max himself can take a volley of gunfire and fix up with the aid of a handful of painkillers, but some guy you shot point blank in the chest shouldn’t get up a second later and come running at you, good as new.
Meanwhile, it’s not unknown for Max to go down with just a few shots, or occasionally one decent blast. The game has a very nice mechanic called Last Man Standing, where you get a second chance if you can take your killer out in slowmo as you fall, but it only kicks in under specific conditions, and even then doesn’t always give you much hope.
This in itself wouldn’t be a problem, but the game uses a checkpoint system and the checkpoints are – at times – unforgivably spaced out. Though the game tries to fudge this by doling out free painkillers when you fluff a section too many times, it is annoying. It also gives Max Payne 3 a weird rhythm, where the action can’t always flow because you’re forced to take some sections again and again until you get it right.