This discussion contains spoilers for Max Payne 3.
Max Payne 3 is an exciting shooter. The controls allow for some impressive precision. The options of choosing how to target enemies in “hard lock,” “soft lock,” and “free aim” modes separate shooting difficulty from enemy difficulty (which is a great idea that deserves its own blog post). The combat scenarios are varied and interesting. On the whole, it does everything that a good shooter should do, but it takes a very different road to get there. Call of Duty, Gears of War, and the rest are also exciting shooters, but their excitement stems from their sense of empowerment. Playing them is fun because it makes us feel stronger than we really are, capable of going toe-to-toe with an entire army and winning. The same can’t be said about Max Payne 3. Sure, you still go toe-to-toe with armies and win, but just barely. Max Payne 3 is not about empowerment.
Max himself is not an empowering character. In the Max Payne series, he’s defined by failure and loss, his constant failure to protect those he cares about from the loss of his wife and his daughter to the loss of his job to the loss of his former lover Mona. While most game heroes start their adventure with a specific goal and constantly work towards that goal, Max begins with a vague goal that narrows the more that he fails. In Max Payne 3, at first his goal is to “Protect the Branco family,” but as more and more members of that family start to die, his goal becomes more specific. “Protect Fabiana” becomes “Protect Marcelo,” which becomes “Protect Rodrigo,” which becomes “Protect Giovanna,” and this narrowing makes Max increasingly motivated to protect the few family members that remain. This is what separates him from most of gaming’s heroes (and anti-heroes). Max doesn’t fight to gain something; he fights to keep something. He’s always on the defensive, fighting back the forces that would kill those around him.
The cut scenes highlight this idea. Sometimes Max gets pushed around by people and doesn’t fight back. When he first ventures into the favelas of Sao Paulo, he encounters a gang of thugs who rob him, pistol whip him, and literally throw him in the gutter—and Max just takes the beating. He’s not looking to fight, he doesn’t want to go on a killing spree, and he doesn’t mind getting beat up if it means he can avoid a fight because he knows when he does fight back there are serious repercussions.
In a flashback, we see Max drinking at a bar in New York, and a young guy with comes up to him and starts harassing him. Max does nothing, it is Passos who saves him from this beating, but when the guy and his gang return, they’re out for blood. Max fights back, shooting the guy in the chest, and ends up with a bounty on his head because the guy he has shot has a mob boss father. That’s why he leaves New York—Max is rarely on the offensive because he knows that never ends well.
The animation and character model sell this atypical hero. When Max jumps, he’s slow to get up. Pushing himself up to his feet takes just a second too long. This animation makes him look like he’s reaching his physical limit and that he could collapse from exhaustion at any moment. The character also looks heavier than he was before—clearly Max has let himself go. Max isn’t an in-shape soldier or a buff demigod. He’s just an average, burnt out ex-cop. This kind of avatar is not empowering, but this kind of avatar makes combat more exciting because your fights seem to carry greater risk. The super soldiers of Call of Duty aren’t going to be killed by a faceless guy with a gun. If such a character diesm he’ll go out in a blaze of slow motion, ultra dramatized glory. Yet, for Max Payne, it’s not out of the question to see him gunned down by a random thug. Such an end seems in character and fits the overall bleak tone of the game.
These qualities don’t lend themselves to an empowering hero. Max is an action hero who’d rather avoid action, but that lack of empowerment doesn’t mean a lack of excitement. In fact, Max’s reluctance to fight imbues each gun battle with more tension because you intuitively understand that if Max is shooting at someone, then the situation has deteriorated into chaos. There really is no other solution; it’s kill or be killed.
This is where the mechanics come into play. Max Payne 3 is a game that highlights death. Not in a trial-and-error sort of way, but rather the systems that guide the action constantly remind you that death is close at hand.
The lack of regenerating heath in the game is a big part of characterizing Max. Since any damage is permanent, every hit that we take reminds us of our vulnerability. The introduction of cover and even the use of a controller contribute to this feeling: Max can’t jump into a crowd of guys anymore, he has to hide and take them by surprise. He is not as spry as he once was, aiming with a controller is slower than aiming with a mouse.
The most notable mechanic that marks this latest game is Last Man Standing, which manages to make the game more accessible for modern players without making things any easier or any more empowering. The system essentially gives you an automatic do-over. If you’re carrying some health (pain pills) and you get shot dead, the game automatically switches into a one-on-one mini-game between you and your killer. If you win, one of your health packs is used to save your life. So the game doesn’t just let us die if we run out of health, it assumes that we would have wanted to use the health pack and just takes that simple action for us. However, by forcing us to play the mini-game first, Max Payne 3 forces us to recognize how close we came to dying.
Max Payne 3 is not empowering, but it is still exciting. It proves that a shooter doesn’t have to surround us with increasingly explosive spectacle to remain engaging. It’s okay to take a step back and shrink the action down. Of course, I say that even though Max Payne 3 has a level where you hang out the side of a speeding bus during a car chase and another that has you launching grenades at a plane on a runway. This game has its share of big action moments, but thankfully, they remain grounded by Max’s inherent vulnerability.
Winning can get boring, but barely winning is always intense.