Arriving just in time to distract you from BioShock Infinite and Tomb Raider being punted into 2013, Max Payne 3 marks the latest Rockstar Games release since last year's ambitious L.A. Noire.
Max Payne is a franchise deeply rooted in PC gaming territory, so we took it for a spin on an Xbox 360 to see if the old guy's still got it.
Game trailer: Max Payne 3
Oh, Max. You drink excessively and pop pills like it's nobody's business. So then why are you so damn likeable? I'm not sure I have the answer to that, but the video game world's answer to John McClane has once again found himself amid an incomprehensible amount of gunfire and bad guys that want him dead.
Luckily for you, Max wields the secret weapon of bullet-time, a brief few seconds where he can slow time and mow down enemies in what can only be described as a gory ballet. The Max Payne series gets credited with thrusting bullet-time into the mainstream, so while I was worried the effect would come off a little stale, Max Payne 3 compensates with an impressive array of realistic physics, body movement, and fantastic attention to detail.
It's all the little things that separate Max Payne 3 from the average third-person shooter. Just pause the game midaction and look around a bit -- you'll see what I mean. And while it does feel a bit gratuitous at times, the last-enemy camera -- which triggers when you've eliminated the final foe in an area -- gives you free range to slow down time and needlessly pump bullet after bullet into a flailing corpse. I'm not ashamed to admit it, it's devilishly fun and doesn't get old throughout the course of the entire campaign.
As with any Rockstar Games release, there's an expectation of high production values, airtight gameplay, and a healthy amount of replay value. All these are present in Max Payne 3, but series veterans may not notice much in the way of innovation. It's been nearly nine years since the last Payne game, but aside from a few tricks here and there, this is mostly the same experience.
That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's almost as if the jump from Max Payne 1 to 2 was more revolutionary. The introduction of "last man standing" gives players one last chance at surviving death but is also a very telling addition of what the modern gamer expects. To that end, I really appreciated the fact that there is absolutely no regenerative health in Max Payne 3; he's once again tethered to how many painkillers he can hoard and consume.
Aesthetically speaking, Max Payne 3 has a lot of familiar stylings that 1 and 2 demonstrated, but with the introduction of Sao Paulo and some colorful and trippy video effects and playful text titling, the game occasionally channels an 80s action movie vibe. That said, the graphic novel presentation that worked so well with the original two games' noir atmosphere does linger in some of the narrative of Payne 3, specifically with the use of comic-style framing.
Even though he seems drunk nearly the entire game, Max is surprisingly agile, and the game's Euphoria engine (GTA IV, Red Dead Redemption) shines while he's in midair, diving over obstacles, or firing 360 degrees while prone. Max acts just the way he should, and can only possess the amount of weapons he can actually carry.
Technically speaking, Max Payne 3 performs mostly well, with the occasional slowdown during moments of over-the-top heightened action. A cut scene may lag here or there, but it's nothing game-breaking. The game does a fantastic job of keeping the action flowing -- there's no noticeable loading once gameplay commences.
The game's difficulty is tough, but fair. Checkpoint locations are generous, too, so you won't find yourself needing to repeat much to get another crack at advancing. I only had a very brief time with the multiplayer mode in Max Payne 3, but Team Deathmatch definitely takes a page out of the Call of Duty handbook, and I really enjoyed new additions like a target heat map that tells you where on your body your attacker struck.
The story in Max Payne 3 is strong enough to segue the action together, but there's an awful lot of cliche "ex-cop down on his luck" banter to trudge through. Aside from that and a gross misconception about what modern-day Hoboken, N.J., is like, Max Payne 3 has the goods to keep you engrossed and interested to see how things turn out for our beloved antihero.
Fans of the series owe it to themselves to experience Payne all over again, and newcomers to the franchise will have no trouble slo-mo diving right in.
Max Payne 3 is available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on May 15, with the Windows PC version hitting May 29.
For another take on Max Payne 3, here are CNET editors Dan Ackerman and Scott Stein:
Max Payne is one of the few game franchises I feel a great personal fondness for. The original was one of those oft-delayed, will-it-ever-come-out games that I followed closely as an editor at video game Web site UGO.com back in 1999/2000. The gritty NYC screenshots and the game makers' promises of slow-motion gunfights, with each bullet lovingly rendered as an individual object, made the rolling delays even more unbearable, and in fact, the game wasn't even released until 2001, after I had moved on to another job.
But it was, despite the hype, a truly transformative game. Its use of slow-motion "bullet time" -- somewhat surprisingly, a term trademarked by Warner Brothers -- was hugely influential, and marked the now-popular effect's first appearance in a video game. (Though in development partially during the same period of time, "The Matrix" was released two years earlier, and the multicamera technique bullet time is based on can even be traced back to this 1985 heavy metal music video.)
Perhaps more importantly, because of the growing power of personal computers at the time, this was the first time I had seen the look and feel of New York City accurately represented in a game. Despite being made by a Finnish team of designers and programmers (and not being based on real New York locations), the vibe was right, including the hard-to-capture subway scenes. It set the standard for every NYC-based game to follow.
That's what I miss most about Max Payne 3. Set in and around exotic South American locales, it's certainly colorful, and subscribes to the basic design aesthetic we've come to accept for Brazilian favelas and jungle camps. But aside from a little East Coast flashback action, it doesn't feel like the same Max Payne. The detailed sets cry out for close examination, but frequently the game prods you along with exhortations that time is running out -- stay in some areas for just a few extra minutes and the game abruptly ends -- whomever you're pursuing has gotten away.
The action is, quite literally, nonstop, and the now-familiar slow-motion effect still holds up, although it's no longer the game's main thrust. Not that there's anything wrong with that. However, the pace may be jarring for modern gamers, who are used to a certain amount of exploration and deductive reasoning coupled with a bit of the old ultra-violence. Here, any dialogue or exposition is relegated to lengthy cut scenes -- the game literally plays itself, until it's time to start shooting.
Playing the game on the Xbox 360, I'm reminded of how the first two Max Payne games were built for the PC, then ported, not entirely successfully, to consoles. This game was built with consoles in mind, although I'm tempted to try it on the PC as well -- the appeal of the series was always the incredible level of accuracy and sharpshooting one could accomplish when time slowed down -- the entire thing just feels less precise with a game pad. That could be why, besides multiple difficulty levels, there are also three different levels of aim assistance in the settings menu.
Max Payne 3 both presents and plays very well, if predictably. What you get, at the end of the day, is something that has the look and feel of Rockstar's recent games, especially Grand Theft Auto IV, but also L.A. Noire and Red Dead Redemption, but essentially reduced to just the shooty bits.
I'm going to skip over the history of Max Payne, because I never played a Max Payne game before. Honestly, they never appealed to me. I'm not a fan of gritty shooters, and I feel that these genres, in video games, are generally far too overexploited.
Why the heck did I choose to play and write about Max Payne 3, then? I was curious. Moreover, I wanted to see if Rockstar could make someone like myself care about a shooter more than other shooters I've played before.
What I learned is how much other shooters are lacking in terms of story. Like a genre film in the hands of a master director, Max Payne 3 infuses its set pieces with enough detail and style to overcome what's often -- at least, in the first few hours of play -- a serious of set-piece gun showdowns. That it made me care enough to keep playing was its true success. The facial details and acrobatic animations are all borderline next-generation in terms of pushing the visual envelope, yet, compared with other seemingly infinite Rockstar games, the construction of Max Payne feels too pat, too tight. In a shooter it might be inevitable, but that's the problem: when you boil Max Payne down, its essential elements of gameplay are now what's in nearly all modern shooters. Rockstar Studio-level production values and patient, mature storytelling are the true differentiating factor. Less than classic noir, much of the chapters I played felt like a living Michael Mann film. That's an achievement, but no one ever doubted Rockstar's ability to tell a story.
Flipping around in time and space across its narrative, Max Payne 3 is still a sequel that's suitable for a newcomer. I expected a little more depth to go with its unending sense of style, but it's all worth the price of admission for the single-player experience, provided you don't mind a linear type of game. I didn't even get around to multiplayer. I prefer going it alone.