Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Max Payne 3 - A Review

The first time I ever played Max Payne, it was as a store demo on one of the computers at Future Shop in Metrotown. I spent roughly 20 minutes glued to that PC until one of the staff finally pried me off. It blew my 13 year old mind when I first hit that Shootdodge button, time slowed to a crawl as I dove through the air, watching bullets whiz by and firing back dozens of my own. Every sniper rifle bullet fired was tracked by the camera as it left the barrel and rocketed into a bad guy's crotch (I was aiming for his head...) and when the final opponent went down, the camera spun around them in all 360 degrees as the final bullets hit home.

Not only was it absolutely kick ass from a technical perspective, it featured a gritty film-noir story of a man at his most desperate, facing insurmountable odds with nothing to lose. Though the course of the game, his wife and daughter are killed, he is framed for his partner's murder, hunted by the police, the mob, and the shadowy corporate forces determined to protect their secrets. Everybody lies, everybody dies, and Max is the last man standing.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was very similar to its predecessor, with slight enhancements. Max now has the ability to stay prone after a dodge to continue shooting, and Bullet-Time 2.0 enabled him to reload faster to keep the action fast-paced. Max's character also faced more development with the re-introduction of Mona Sax, an assassin from the first game who develops a relationship with him, complicated by the fact that he is investigating a murder in which she is the prime suspect, and she's been given orders to kill him.

You might be asking yourself why I'm going to the effort of describing the first two games in the series, since this is a review of Max Payne 3 and not a series analysis. Well, early previews of the game had fans worried that it would be a radical departure from what made the games great. Max is no longer running around New York City in the dead of night in a black leather coat shooting mobsters, he's now a fat bald guy in an ugly shirt shooting gangbangers in broad daylight in South America.

So the big question: Does Max Payne 3 live up to the legacy of the series? For the most part, yes.

Let's address the story first. Eight years after the second game, and Max has been fired from the NYPD, drinking every night and addicted to painkillers (layers of irony!). An old friend from his academy days comes along and offers him a job with a private security firm, protecting a wealthy businessman in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Seeing it as a chance at a fresh start (and having recently killed the son of a local crime lord, making him the most wanted man in New Jersey), Max takes the job protecting Rodrigo Branco and his family. When Branco's wife is abducted for ransom, Max and his partner set off to save her, and in the process he uncovers multiple hidden agendas and a deadly conspiracy. In an effort to avoid spoilers, that's as far as I'll go, but for all its intrigue and drama, there are a few issues I have with the story of Max Payne 3. Firstly, the story lacks the personal significance for Max that the first two games did. In the first two games he had a personal stake in the situation and thus his motivation was clear. Here the only reason he sticks around is either because he's getting paid to or he's decided that this whole thing is suddenly his problem. There are at least three points in the story where Max could simply have given up and moved on, with no repercussions. Secondly, Max is quite the dumbass. He constantly fumbles around and fails at almost everything. This could be explained in character with his constant intoxication, but it diminishes the character to see him as such a screwup. Thirdly, there are a couple random WTF moments in the story that make absolutely no sense:
  • A major villain responsible for horrendous actions is turned into a psuedo-ally later in the game with no real justification, and gets off relatively scot-free.
  • A hostage is held at gunpoint by four enemies, and despite being repeatedly shown that Max has the ability to shoot a half-dozen guys in a single breath, he decides to walk into the room, loudly announce his presence, throw away his gun, and attempt to negotiate.
  • Max will occasionally fit a silencer onto his pistol and attempt to stealth his way into an enemy stronghold, only to completely abandon any pretense of stealth after about a minute and start mowing people down with machine gun.
It's worth noting that this entry in the franchise was developed by Rockstar North, unlike the first two which were developed by Remedy. I can't say for sure that this is the cause of all the changes, but it's not a big deal either way. A couple levels of the game do occur in New York as flashbacks, so we get a little bit of classic Max to go with our new flavor. It's a worthy entry into the series, even if it's a little different.

Gameplay wise, the game is very much Max Payne, with a significantly greater push towards realism. Unlike the first two games, Max no longer has bottomless pockets to carry every gun he finds. He can carry a maximum of three guns, consisting of two one-handed weapons which can be holstered and a larger rifle or shotgun that is carried in the off-hand when not in use. Using both small guns in tandem forces you to drop the big gun. It's very realistic and never feels overly complicated or compromising. Shootdodging and Bullet Time are still alive and well, along with new features. Bullet Time is accumulated when you shoot enemies (or get shot at), and is employed when you need an extra edge against multiple incoming enemies. Painkillers are still the go-to healing item, but now if your health is depleted while you still have one left, you initiate the Last Man Standing feature. Time slows and you start to fall, but if you can return fire on the enemy who killed you and kill them in response, you regain some of your health and get to continue the fight. The game also employed a cover system, complete with the ability to blind-fire around cover when you just don't want to poke your head out to aim. It's a different feel from the first two games, but considering that you spent most of those games strafing left and right to duck behind pillars and boxes, this is an improvement.

The graphical leap from the previous game is very noticeable, allowing for some impressive set pieces and frantic action. Individual bullet trails are visible again, after their conspicuous absence from Max Payne 2, and several guided bullet time sequences allow you to focus on your shooting while Max is running, sliding, or falling, as the case may be. Further cinematic elements have been introduced for the sake of style, including a fancy bullet cam that is triggered by the death of the last enemy in a given group. By holding a button down, the bullet can be slowed to a crawl, and you can also continue firing to riddle your enemy with dozens of shots before their lifeless body finally drops. The level of violence in the game is severe, as well it should be. Enemies react to gunshots in a visceral manner, jerking and collapsing until they finally take enough damage to stop entirely. Gore is present, almost to a grotesque point, which serves to emphasize the brutality. Bullets travel through the body leaving exit wounds, and blood sprays from the holes, particularly with head shots. The moment you finish someone off with multiple slow-motion close-up shotgun blasts to the face and see the resulting mess, you gain a new respect for video game violence.

Surprisingly, Max Payne 3 also features an intricate multiplayer mode, similar to Call of Duty. You can customize your appearance, as well as your loadout of weapons, items, and armor to suit your tactics. Too many guns and armor make you a slow tank, but going in light makes you faster and regenerates health. You also get to choose from a selection of special abilities, called "bursts", which can help you or your allies, or hinder your enemies. The balance is well-handled, particularly with respect to the team-based gameplay modes. Of special note is the Gang Wars mode, which has two teams competing in a series of challenges (defend a location, retrieve a package, hunt a moving target, etc), culminating in a final battle that is handicapped based on the outcomes of the previous challenges. These challenges actually maintain a narrative structure that ties into the main story, which is impressive. If I have any tips for those of you starting out in multiplayer, it would be to take the high ground when possible, use cover, and remember to use your bursts when you get them. At higher levels they can really screw with an enemy team, like turning off their Friendly Fire or jamming their weapons intermittently. It's just as action-packed as the main game and a lot of fun.

Overall, I'm happy with Max Payne 3. While some might be turned off by it's linearity compared to most of Rockstar's other games, its longevity will be enhanced by additional difficulty levels, collectibles, and the multiplayer experience. I would highly recommend Max Payne 3 for anyone who enjoys an action-packed gun fest.

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