Review: Max Payne 3 (*** stars)

TL:DR – Max Payne 3, though absolutely excelling in most of its presentational elements, unfortunately falls flat with its lackluster story and derivative gunplay. The greatness of these individual elements fail to make for a cohesive experience, which was obviously the intention; Max Payne 3 is merely average. (*** stars).

Max Payne’s hard-boiled cop on a vengeance bender struck a chord with many gamers of the early 2000s. At the same time as the word “bullet-time” was invented, Remedy Games saw a golden opportunity to reinvent the ever-rotating wheel of the FPS, which had risen to prominence with the rise of iD Software’s DooM series. Payne’s first murderous rampage, unsurprisingly, received great critical acclaim and sales, not to mention a free ride off the newly christened “adult” game industry through Rockstar’s imprint. The original still remains playable today, albeit the product of an earlier time where difficulty and speedy gunplay were all but required for an FPS-like experience.

Then came Half-Life. Valve’s masterpiece rocked the world with its fusion of narrative and mechanics which no one could deny. Innocuously released in 1999 (two years prior to Max Payne) to little fanfare, it set the standard for today’s story-based FPS (with a little multiplayer tacked onto the side). Although a positive trend in games, this would also have the negative repercussion of allowing for substandard games with interesting narratives – especially in the world of first and third person shooters.

Interestingly, Remedy chose to ignore the trend, creating a game with both a worthy story AND a challenging experience with Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Unfortunately, the game’s “love story” theme and its complicated plot didn’t set many gamers on fire. Remedy would go on to sell the Max Payne license permanently to Rockstar, who would begin the creation of a new Max Payne. This Max Payne would take all the things Rockstar learned from Grand Theft Auto IV and smoosh them into a linear 3rd person shooter with cover mechanics. Add some graphical polish and great voice acting, and you’ve got yourself a hit, right?

It’s a little heartbreaking to say that Max Payne 3 doesn’t live up to its pedigree. Now the Max Payne series, like in the game, is the old alcoholic, painkiller addicted cop, when every other shooter innovated cover mechanics nearly five years ago. Bullet time isn’t a novelty anymore – if it originally was like beating a dead horse, now we’re just hacking the horse into tiny chunks. When it comes to a brand so well known for its exciting set pieces and action sequences, it’s disappointing to say that the combat is merely “functional” rather than “excellent”. That doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining, challenging, and fun, but it’s certainly not going to win any prizes for innovation.

However, there’s a specific reason why the game has this problem: it wants to be a story first and foremost. Written by Dan Houser, who also was the brainchild behind Grand Theft Auto IV’s script, MP3 tells the continuing narrative of Max Payne, the cop whose wife and daughter were murdered horribly by drug addicts. As explained in the game, Payne can’t deal with the pain and suffering of his previous exploits racking his brain. He leaves the law enforcement business to spend the rest of his time downing brown liquors and continuing his painkiller habit. The health items of the previous games become a permanent aspect of the character – nice one, guys. He decides, at the urging of an old cop friend (and “other” violent events which I won’t care to spoil), to become part of a private security firm in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Specifically, he protects one of the wealthiest families in the area, the Brancos. From there (not unexpectedly), things take a slow descent into hell as Payne continually fails to save the Brancos from kidnapping and worse. Eventually, Max Payne must do what he does best: investigate who did what, who killed whom, and kill everything that stands in his way to killing that person.

Dan Houser writes in a very specific style that may, or may not, turn you off. If you like gritty crime films, with all the booze, babes, and “blow” that comes along with it, you’ll feel right at home observing the events in this universe. If not, I doubt Max Payne 3 will appeal to you at all. As much as it tries to emulate the style of the earlier games, it completely abandons their film noir trapping for more recent pop culture pastures. Literally a combination of all the best elements of Man on Fire, Die Hard, Heat (Michael Mann films in general fit the bill; take a look at Max Payne’s suit and tell me that wasn’t inspired by Tom Cruise in Collateral) and pretty much any John Woo movie involving guns, it’s the best portmanteau of action movie tropes and cliches you can imagine. Words flicker on screen to emphasize plot points, as in Man on Fire, and the screen glitches out intentionally to show Payne’s purportedly disturbed mental states throughout. It’s only in engaging within firefights that the flicker actually resolves itself, only exacerbating the idea that pain is all that Payne knows and all that he can contribute. The bullet time effects, in that sense, recreate that primal sense of instinct that, literally, slows time down for the individual as he shoots at myriad enemies to survive. Like the painkillers, the narrative seamlessly integrates game mechanics into its plot. Even the music, by American noise band HEALTH, really adds an avant-garde driving rhythm to the proceedings, sounding both natural, otherworldly, and Brazilian all at once.

These elements, meant to enhance the telling, also shift the balance away from the game itself. Payne will continually switch to specific weapons in a cutscene – when it ends, the player may find himself without the excellent assault rifle he obtained. Payne frequently switches back to a single pistol, and when the cutscene ends you have to switch back to a stronger weapon. Some sequences make Payne drop all his weapons, forcing you for no reason to use another weapon. These are minor annoyances, but the fact that Rockstar continually makes this mistake shows where the focus lay in this project. Switching from cover to cover isn’t exactly easy; it’s just as clunky as GTAIV, except enemies deal significantly more damage.

Even with the less-than-optimal combat, the story fails to shine. At the very least, we can say Max Payne has confusing motivations – are his dealings with the Brancos supposed to parallel his family and his failure to protect them? What of the second game in the timeline? Rockstar basically ignores the first and second game entirely, instead opting to deal with them in a few throw-away lines in the middle of the game. The setting of Sao Paolo, though interesting, could have been set in any South America country and nobody would have been the wiser. Sao Paolo doesn’t even have palm trees, yet they’re displayed prominently in several sequences for no good reason – way to research a foreign nation, Rockstar. Anybody with a brain on their shoulders can guess, pretty much on the spoken dialogue, that nothing is what it seems, and everybody’s double crossing everyone else. Payne gets caught up in the crossfire, an unwitting gringo bystander in a sea of Brazilian corruption.

Houser wants this to be a story where he highlights the divide between rich and poor, the corrupt and the pure, and shows that both are just different sides of the same coin. Watch the introduction to the game and it’s quite clear that is the intent:

From a Christian perspective, this seems all the more true.  Max Payne deals with his problems exclusively through violence. This is exactly the opposite of the Christian message, for the path of violence leads down to an empty road. You can’t conquer violence with yet more violence; you need love and grace to intervene, as Romans 12 says:

14  Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. 17  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. 19  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “ Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “ But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Still, it doesn’t matter how many witty voice-overs Payne gives, or how much he talks about the shallow nature of the rich, or the corruption of Brazil’s military, law enforcement, paramilitary, and guerilla forces: there’s just no grand narrative thread hanging here. We don’t learn much about the character, and Payne’s motivations don’t make much sense in the end. How invested can you be with an employer who represents everything you fought against in the first game? Max Payne becomes a guy who looks like Walter White from Breaking Bad, but displays none of his depth. Crafting a good, consistent story with clear character development in an eleven hour frame wouldn’t seem difficult, but Rockstar takes the easy “Payne is now an action hero route”. It’s a little disappointing, considering the depth of the character given in the previous two games. It doesn’t give us any of Payne’s desperation, guilt, or addictive quirks.

Rockstar, like most of its recent output, copies the form in deference to the content. They create pop culture moments, but they don’t create anything a person will remember. The combat, in that sense, completely gets the aesthetic portion right; shootouts in an office complex feel great, and being able to contend with 10-12 enemies at once gets the heart pumping. Battles require strategy because Max is a human being, and cover becomes essential. The game was designed around bullet time, and it shows – good shot placement (headshots) is essential to completing the game, and scoping explosive objects in the environment always makes fights easier. Ammo is limited, so you must use your bullets wisely. Victory brings a sense of elation, considering the difficulty of some sequences, and you’re rewarded with a violently fetishistic of enemies being struck by bullets. They come with their own accompanying bullet entry and exist wounds, along with juicy arterial blood spray.

Does it look pretty, and is it satisfying? Indeed! But one can’t help but feel a little empty in the end. Max Payne 3 looks pretty on the outside, but all the aesthetic pleasures in the world can’t hide the relative emptiness underneath. It wants to tell a meaningful story, but it only gives hints and fragments of an actual message. It wants you to be engaged, but only the firefights really give any sense of immersion as the cut scenes bring you out of the experience. Even those gun fights are entirely derivative save for their difficulty, a vestige of the past. The whole package never comes together into a cohesive whole; the individual parts impress, certainly, but it just isn’t integrated well.

That’s what happens when you get your GTA into my Max Payne. Like real revenge, it just doesn’t have anything to hold it up.

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About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.