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Review: Max Payne 3

Rockstar caps its hard-boiled trilogy with a masterpiece that says more about the human condition than a hundred awful indie games combined.

In Max Payne 3, Rockstar Games has developed what may very well be the apex of the narrative-based shooter. By that, I mean to say Max Payne 3 has a linear story to tell you. You have no impact on its outcome. Your influence on the game world extends to your gun and your ability to slow time to a crawl. If you were to remove the interactive aspects of Max Payne 3, you’d be left with a pretty great night at the action cinema. And yet, to do so would be an atrocity, because shredding virtual human flesh with virtual bullets has never been more fun than it is in Max Payne 3.

Shredding virtual human flesh with virtual bullets has never been more fun.

Max Payne 3 takes a no-bullshit story and hurls it face forward into a set of mechanics that, in the year of our lord 2013, stands as the most exhilarating way to murder digital people. Make no mistake – when the frauds that have infested the games journalism racket clutch their pearls over video games being murder simulators, Max Payne 3 is the game they are talking about. 

This review is going to go a whole lot smoother if I break it down into two sections. As such, we are going to examine Max Payne 3’s mechanics and storyline/presentation separately. Each of them are wonderful.

Mechanics

Max Payne 3 brings a most compelling innovation to the world of shooters: Sometimes, after you’ve slowed time, lept across the room with your guns akimbo, and unloaded enough hot lead into an enemy to put him down; it will cut to a close up of that enemy as he is being shredded. During this brief close up (which can be extended by holding down the slow-mo button), you can continue to tweak your aim and fire your gun to inflict even more brutality. 

There’s no gameplay benefit to this, as more often than not, the game will only go close on the final enemy in the room after you’ve already inflicted enough damage to kill him. And yet, it’s worth doing each and every time, in large part because the tissue damage is so lovingly detailed. That is to say, if you shoot a man in the head five times, five different holes will spring forth, five different misting geysers; accompanied by five exit wounds.

maxpayne3headshot

when the frauds clutch their pearls over video games being murder simulators, Max Payne 3 is the game they are talking about.

By collecting various tucked away items in story mode, it’s possible to unlock a toggle that allows this close up to occur after each and every kill. This mode arguably makes playing through the game a second time even better than the first, especially after collecting every golden gun component for infinite ammo.

To the frauds, hipsters, and armchair sociologists who have infested games journalism as of late, this high praise of excellence in gore depiction may seem troublesome, perhaps even psychotic. But for those who both know and accept that games are at their finest when they allow us to indulge our deeply set propensity for combat, it is not overly hyperbolic to suggest Max Payne 3 is a life changing event. Be warned that it is entirely possible, even probable, that one will finish Max Payne 3, only to find oneself with tarnished memories of gaming past. Yes, Virginia, Max Payne 3 raises the shooter feedback loop bar so high; it makes previous genre standouts seem a bit bland by comparison.

Story and Presentation

Max Payne 3’s visuals and audio work hand-in-hand to deliver the gamer a playable mashup of Man on Fire and Miami Vice’s 2006 reboot. Even more impressively, the game does what any number of indie frauds claim to do – it captures the essence of the human condition… that being misery and loss.

It is not necessary to be familiar with the first two games in the series to fully enjoy this installment. Still, consider the history at play in Max Payne 3, even before the first bullet is fired: The titular character has already killed hundreds, maybe thousands, in an attempt to avenge the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of a drug conspiracy. Though he gets another love interest killed along the way, ultimately he succeeds. The ending of Max Payne 2 wasn’t exactly a happy one, but it ended on a hopeful note that implied Max might start to find some closure and acceptance re: the death of his family.

For most games, that would be all she wrote. But Rockstar isn’t most developers, and Max Payne certainly isn’t most games. In one of the rawest, bravest narrative choices of any game to date, Max Payne 3 eschews the film noir motif of its predecessors and fast forwards 10 years later to present day. In this harsh, new sun-drenched reality, none of Max’s past perceived victories matter. Every last person responsible for the former NYPD detective’s life-changing tragedy is in the ground, and yet, he’s still a broken husk who finds solace only at the bottom of a bottle. So it is that an aging Max, now a high-priced bodyguard for a family of wealthy scumbags in Brazil, carries on in the only way he knows how – with a gun in his hand to protect another doomed dame.

Max Payne 3 was released at a time when the entire games press was tripping over itself to fellate Journey for being beautiful, or bittersweet, or whatever else it was doing instead of being a fun video game. At the same time, the masters at Rockstar delivered a refreshingly cynical assertion that this, this, is the true “deeper meaning” video games ought to wave like so many dicks in the faces of their detractors: Awful things happen, and when they do, it’s not “bittersweet,” or “beautifully tragic,” or whatever other flowery language the games hipsterism cabal prefers to employ.

sometimes, horrible shit happens for no reason, and you don’t ever come back from it.

In a year where we’d been led to believe that video games ought to all give their players a heart hug in the name of being more “inclusive,” Max Payne 3 was unapologetic in its counterpoint: Being human means that sometimes, horrible shit just happens for no reason, there’s no resolution, and even if there is, sometimes you don’t ever come back from it. This harsh truth permeates through every crack of the game. Max’s latest and greatest slide into hell takes him into the darkest, most desperate corners of the South American underworld. Extreme poverty and wanton squalor is masterfully brought to life in supersaturated warm tones to serve as the backdrop for a unflinchingly gritty tale of despair and human misery. Max Payne 3 is a game where police brutality, government corruption, disregard of human life, and even sex tourism simply serve as warmups for the big reveal.

And when that reveal comes, it’s a gut punch that kicks off an explosive third act, culminating in an airport finale that stands as the most legitimately awesome sequence I’ve ever played in a linear, story-driven shooter.

***SPOILERS FOLLOW*** 

As Max navigates airport concourses in desperate pursuit of the turncoat brother-in-law politician of the (now brutally murdered) vapid trophy wife he spent half the game trying to save, this amazing song kicks in and Max blasts through endless waves of armored special forces as he chases his target to the runway.

As a gentleman in the Youtube comments of said song helpfully observes, you can’t help but GO HARD at whatever you’re doing once that beat drops. More poignant, even as the bullets fly and the bodies fall, a glance at the lyrics of this song suggests an imagined message from the late Michelle and Rose Payne, surging through Max’s own weary psyche.

After the gunshots go silent, Max finds himself somewhere tropical, again without a mission to dull his pain. Again, the series denies us a strictly happy ending — the dame is dead, along with most of her family. But this time, the hopeful note at the end seems a bit more promising. Max’s own tortured brain, worn down from years of substance abuse and grief, finally seems to be winning in its bid for self-preservation. Let them go, it’s saying, echoing the earlier remarks of Max’s partner in the bodyguard business: You’ve grieved enough.

***END SPOILERS***

The game culminates in the most legitimately awesome sequence ever seen in a story-driven shooter.

In addition to the personal demons that drive its protagonist, Dan Houser’s handling of Max Payne 3’s narrative shows what would become of an aging John McClane figure in the real world. At a time when the entire games industry is more than willing to grade subpar indie garbage on the steepest of curves for “positivity” and “uplifting themes” alone, Houser’s cynicism can only be described as refreshingly thick. Max is an action movie antihero if ever one lived, but all the bullet time in the world can’t stop him from looking like an absolute putz as he wanders aimlessly through Brazilian slums while sporting an awful Hawaiian shirt and a spotty, half-shaved head. Rather than stand in fearful awe of his lead-slinging prowess, a late game antagonist pejoratively refers to Max as “the great American savior of the poor.” There are any number of video games willing to make you the paragon of righteousness, but Max Payne 3 offers the oh-so-rare pleasure of playing a miserable bastard holding on for (what’s left of) his life.

VERDICT:

By staying true to both the gritty, grounded spirit of the character and the airtight mechanics which made him a star in the first place, Max Payne 3 gracefully closes one of the all-time great action game franchises while setting a new standard for the genre on the way out.

GRADE: A+

Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform: 360, PS3, PC

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