Review: Max Payne 3

I’ve finished Max Payne 3.  Is this the glorious slo-mo return of the hardboiled hero we were hoping for?  Read on to find out.

I used to love Max Payne 2 for one thing.  The ragdoll physics.  Sure, there was a compelling noir story, and a lot of gunplay to wrap my head around, but it was always what happened after you shot a bad guy that was really fun.  He flopped over and died in a thousand and one random ways, affected by the trajectory of bullets, what kind of gun you used, and whether or not the victim stood on a high enough platform to make a splat when he dropped on to the ground.  This was at the time, “realistic” physics.  Most others games coming out around the same time were still struggling to free themselves from the shackles of static death animations.  Now, every next-gen title has ragdoll physics.  Battlefield’s got it.  Skyrim’s got it.  Trials Evolution’s got it.  Ragdoll physics is now so part and parcel to gaming, that to kill somebody in a game and have them flop over in a pre-rendered death animation would just seem like a jarring break of the fourth wall.

It was the thing I was most excited to experience again with the new Max Payne, but by then, I had been so anesthetized by game violence that ragdoll physics didn’t move me anymore.  I didn’t stop by corpses to peer curiously at their final poses of death, and then shoot at them repeatedly to watch their ragdoll dance.  I just pushed on to keep racking up the body count.  If I remembered correctly, every kill in Max Payne 2 felt weighty.  Even if only because ragdoll physics made them look more like “real” people dying.  In Max Payne 3, bad guys were killed in droves so much so that Max himself had to comment on the  inconsequential bloodbaths that he was enacting with each passing minute.  Mobsters, Brazilian hoodlums, corrupted cops, everyone died to the side-ways diving antics of one grizzly old hack, jacked up on booze and painkillers.

It was because of this that Max Payne 3 felt like a different beast to me than its predecessor.  There was a lot more explosions, lot more chaos going on with each scene, that it distracted somewhat from the act of killing.  People had to die, it was part and parcel of the sound and fury of violence.  Every modern triple-A title worth its salt wants to be compared to cinema now.  So when you first start the game, it feels really like Rockstar missed the mark here.  That it was really not the sequel to a great bullet-time shooting game.

But just like grizzly old Max, the game takes some time to warm up to.  Everything was designed in deliberation to play up a satire, a black comedy of the modern day violent video game, and of the heroes who throw themselves into frays willingly.  Max is as reluctant a hero as they come, wanting to just hide in some corner with a bottle of Jack and a little container of pills, but is constantly being pulled into the most ridiculous of circumstances, protecting the most ridiculous of damsels in distress.  Idiotic rich boys and vapid wives all get kidnapped for some bigger conspiracy which really doesn’t have to be followed, with the world’s biggest loser right smack at the center of it, having to battle his way out, one slo-mo bullet at a time.

It’s only about half way through the passable, convoluted plot, and Max’s constant failings as a bodyguard (getting his wards kidnapped or killed constantly), and his resolve to sort his shit out, that you start to feel for the guy.  At the start, even McCaffrey’s brilliant voice-acting becomes grating when Max flogs the dead horse of his murdered wife and kid for the umpteenth time.  But it all is in favor of the dramatic shift, when Max shaves his head, goes off the booze, and decides he wants to fuck things up in the right way.  Rockstar took a risk with this kind of narrative, and I can see why many might be turned off even before the decent second half of the game kicks in.

Bullet-time is well and alive, and the encouragement to use it in this outing is tenfold.  Max faces armies of bad guys, and without bullet-time, he dies a lot quicker.  Pushing the space bar and diving everywhere, placing headshots in all the enemies and watching them all flop down dead together as soon as I come out of bullet-time is helluva entertaining, albeit really easy once you figure it out – even on Hard mode.  My only gripe is that including a cover system feels like a misstep.  Bullet-time was invented to deliver a sense of chaotic but continual ballet of violence enacted by one of the most badass characters in gaming history, and yet, Max Payne 3 forces you to occasionally place the grizzly old warrior behind cover to duck from potshots.  It breaks up the flow of action, and also gives you time to realize that every shooting gallery is pretty much the same after awhile.  The only thing that changes is the environment in which you’re fighting in, even as shiny and well-realized it all is.  And that Max Payne 3 is pretty much a one-trick pony.

Compare this to Stranglehold, a direct John-Woo Hardboiled-the-movie inspired game that also features bullet-time and the original hero of the sideways diving trick, Inspector Tequila (aka Chow Yun Fatt).  Stranglehold had setpieces in the game where you could interact with the environment to greater effect, like sliding across tables, shooting dinosaur bones, and even swinging from chandeliers.  That had a level of interaction that Max Payne 3, 5 years later, didn’t even consider one bit.  Sure, there were moments in MP3 where you slid across push carts or swung from crane hooks as you took out enemies, but those were all scripted.  The whole cinematic angle that Rockstar seemed adamant about pushing felt forced, rather than interactive.  As if they didn’t trust gamers to have their own fun, and that we had to be told “this is a fun bit”.

On that note, the game was all cutscenes peppered with the occasional gameplay.  What gameplay was there is good, mind you, but there were a heck load of cutscenes.  Opening every other door led to a cutscene of its own.  It is no wonder the game stood at 35gb in size total.  That’s crazy.  The cutscenes are fun to watch the first time round, the post-modern noir positively drips from the visuals and the almost boozey way the camera swings after Max Payne’s hunkering frame, but it really dampens the mood for subsequent playthroughs.  I just want to shoot things up again, repeat my favorite levels, but that’s no fun when embarrassingly long loading times are hidden by cutscenes you have to sit through for the umpteenth time.  Not cool Rockstar.

Which leads me to my next point.  The tech is great – in fact, you can see the great leaps and bounds Rockstar has come with their latest physics and graphics engine in narrowing the uncanny valley, and creating really convincing looking people.  I have no doubt that this is the engine that we will see implemented in the next GTA.  But until then, the biggest challenge it faces is the ridiculously long loading times for each little corridor.  Why does it take so long?!?  I don’t even think Crysis 2 took that long for bits to load.

So when Rockstar markets that their cutscenes seamlessly weave in and out of the action, it’s all just marketing speak to dress up the long loading times, and doesn’t detract from the fact that there is less to play and more to watch.  And me no-likey this.  I kept thinking to myself as I played Max Payne 3, that Max Payne 2 didn’t make me wait to get to killing more bad guys.  And this was in a mode called New York Minute, supposedly encouraging you to play through the level faster.  It felt more like the New York Hour after I was done wading through the cutscenes.

With all the said and done, at the very least, the game was enjoyable for the fact that Max Payne is one of the coolest dudes around.  He’s been through Hell, both literally and metaphorically, and does not take shit from nobody and by jove, when you piss off a fat bald dude with a bad temper, there sure is hell to pay.

PS.  I’ll write about multiplayer at some later time.

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