Max Payne 3 is not the Max Payne you remember. This is a distinctly different game both in style and tone, the noirish sensibilities of previous games having been replaced with a gritty and deadly serious crime drama. Whether that’s good or bad depends entirely on personal preference, but it’s worth knowing before diving in.
It makes sense then that the old noir visual style would be replaced with something else, and in its place, is a flashy style that seeks to assault you with various visual tics: color separation, writing text on the screen, double vision, cutting up the screen 24-style, and a couple of others. Rockstar has cited Tony Scott’s Man on Fire as a direct inspiration, and it shows.
Unfortunately, Rockstar also shares Mr. Scott’s habit of over-stylization. It seems like not five seconds can pass without some visual trick, regardless of what’s going on. It’s most jarring in the beginning when things are fairly calm yet the screen still flashes and flickers as if Max is having a seizure. It gets better as the game goes on though, much, much better. Not because the style becomes less obvious, but because once Max begins his downward spiral, the visuals perfectly encapsulate the feeling of coming unhinged. What once took you out of the game now sucks you in to an uncomfortable degree. You can really feel the alcohol, pills, adrenaline, and stress wearing on Max. It doesn’t feel good, but this is what makes Max Payne 3 so special; it’s mechanics embrace modern shooter conventions, like cover and checkpoints, but the overall tone established by those mechanics is anything but the conventional empowering hero worship that most shooters cling to.
Max Payne 3 is not an empowering game. Sure, there are plenty of exciting cinematic moments, and Max is certainly capable with a gun, but the story is a downer that stacks failure after failure on your back and escalates from there. This weighs on Max, and it will weigh on you. The tone is so bleak and brutal it makes GTA look like a kid’s game. It might be hard to take at times, but the writing and acting are so uniformly excellent that it is also hard to look away.
The brutality and disempowerment are reflected in the combat. Max can take cover now, but he’s also weaker than ever. Bullets do a lot of damage, so cover is necessary during the bigger firefights later in the game, but unlike most cover-based shooters, there’s no regenerating health. This is partly what makes Max feel so vulnerable. Damage actually matters, and you can’t come back from the verge of death without using up an important resource: pain killers. The game rations these out at a good pace, always giving you just enough to feel uncomfortably exposed but never too little that you get stuck in a loop fighting a fight that you can’t win.
The best new combat mechanic is called Last Man Standing: As long as you’re carrying some pain killers, you won’t die if an enemy gets a kill shot on you. Instead the game goes into bullet time, and if you can shoot your would-be killer before times runs out, you’ll survive — though you will still use up a pain killer. It’s a great system that keeps the game’s pace moving forward. There’s no waiting behind cover for health to refill, and you don’t have to stop fighting to look for health packs when hurt. It keeps combat center stage while also highlighting Max’s vulnerability. The Last Man Standing moments are exciting to watch and play, but they also remind you that you almost died. Combat as a whole is thrilling, not because Max is powerful, but because he barely scrapes by.
All this creates a game that just flows. Max Payne 3 could be used to teach proper pacing in game design. Cut scenes are long, but they’re well acted and written and push the plot forwards. And they always lead directly into some cinematic gun battle, which then leads back into a cut scene. No matter how dark or graphic things get, the game is so well paced that you won’t want to stop.
Sadly, for all the praise that I’m lavishing on the single player elements, the same can’t be said of the multiplayer. Which is not to say that the multiplayer is bad, but it never rises above competent. You kill, rank up, earn new stuff, choose loadouts, kill again, rank up again, etc, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Having bullet time affect everyone is an interesting concept that adds nothing in execution. Your opponent still shoots you while you shoot him; bullet time is only relevant if you get the drop on someone, but at that point, it’s so easy to kill people — why waste your bullet time?
Without going off on too much of a tangent, this is the most frustrating kind of multiplayer any developer can make since no one will be playing it in six months. However, it still stole development time and money from the single player game. This raises the question, could the single player be better if no time and money was wasted on the multiplayer? Thankfully, the single player in Max Payne 3 is so good that it assuages these fears, but the fact that there’s a multiplayer mode at all is a sad sign of the times — at least there’s no online pass.
Max Payne 3 strikes a perfect balance between the gritty and the gamey: the way Max slows to a walk when you’re about to trigger a cut scene, so that you’re never surprised by the switch; the way the reticule turns into a cross when you kill a guy so you know exactly when to stop shooting at him; the way Max is slow to stand, as if exhausted and old; how the inventory limits you to only what Max can realistically carry. All of these tricks and more create an immersive experience that washes over you. This is definitely one of the best shooters of the year, and easily the best shooter that Rockstar has ever made.