Max Payne 3 reminds me a bit of "Man on Fire," the Denzel Washington movie about a burnout ex-military badass named John Creasy who works security for a rich family in Mexico and dissects everyone in his path when the family's young daughter gets kidnapped. Christopher Walken describes Creasy's pain-bringing powers, summing it up with the line, "A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
The concept of artful death is Rockstar's brush in its attempt to paint a masterpiece, and in many ways, it succeeds. It's also as much an examination of a flawed hero as it is a well-crafted offering to single- and multiplayer gaming.
Payne and Creasy are similar is that they're both American, find themselves as the last (or only) line of defense for rich families in other countries, and wade through a daily self-imposed crucible of drugs and self-loathing before laying waste to their foes. They differ in methodology: Creasy uses a combination of torture and blunt force, while Payne is able to shoot everyone in slow motion. This special talent was evident in the first two games, when he was a younger but still frayed New York detective fighting the mob — and his own demons.
The first few minutes explain this edition of Max in a nutshell: He's in São Paulo, Brazil, he still drinks himself into oblivion, he's still on painkillers and he still likes telling his story in his own words. As in the past two games, Max's omnipresent narrative guides the player through the experience, which is the most complete sensory package I've witnessed from Rockstar's action games.
Artistically, Max Payne 3 emulates the atmosphere of two different parts of the world, São Paulo and New Jersey. Max's Brazilian security exploits take him from the thumping beats of the club-tastic high-life scene down to the dingy earth tones of the favelas. Other arenas include an airport, dive bar, police station and soccer stadium. The East Coast scenes mostly serve as flashback missions and convey a vibe of sadness. They counter São Paulo's vibrant colors with darkness, as mostly everything takes place at night, whether it's a shootout at a cemetery or taking down mobsters in yet another watering hole. The hotspots can tell you a lot about both places: São Paulo has neon lights and electronic music while Jersey has rock music playing in a mostly empty bar with a pool table. One of the best examples of the game's visual flexing occurs when Max has to escape from a burning office building, with floors crumbling beneath him and explosions scattering charred debris in front of him.
There's also a slight psychological edge to the visuals. The past two games featured at least one sequence where Max battles within his own mind, running down endless corridors or wandering in a pitch-black space with only a miniature river of blood and cries of a baby to guide him.
No such scene exists in this third installment, with the game instead intermittently toying with the player's visibility the same way an old television's picture becomes fuzzy or a security camera gets jiggled. Certain words during conversations flash on-screen, both to accentuate key points and to help non-Portuguese-speaking Max make some sense of what the non-English-speaking Brazilians are saying to him. It's a trick I also saw while watching "Man on Fire," oddly enough, further conveying the feeling that Max — and the player — are out of their normal element.
That is, of course, until the shooting starts. For all its newfound visual glory on contemporary platforms, the Max Payne series has always come down to gunplay in slow motion, known as Bullet Time in the Rockstar lexicon. With the right thumbstick, Max can slow down time and shoot enemies while watching bullets fly by him. It's also triggered with a click of the top right shoulder button, which also sends Max into a slow-motion dive ideal for taking out bad guys around the corner. It can also lead to some extremely satisfying self-made action stunts, such as diving from a higher floor and assailing a cluster of enemies from above. Moments like that are entertaining minigames for a player who wants to see how many guys he or she can take out before hitting the ground. Bullet Time also leads to moments of superhuman reflex for Max, since he can now shoot rockets and grenades out of the air.
Bullet Time is finite and can be recharged simply by taking out a few people without using it. Most experienced shooters won't have a problem keeping the gauge filled, so there are plenty of chances for players to craft a bullet ballet on the fly. I also found myself being satisfied with playing stretches of the game as a straight-up shooter and marveling at how the physics of gunfighting still appeared impeccable in "real" time. Max has also entered modern shooter times with the ability to enter cover with a press of the X button and shoot around corners.
Morbidly speaking, watching enemies fall down steps as Max pops them in the leg, or watching another guy twist and wiggle while being perforated with machine-gun fire offers a sense of eerie realism that doesn't come across in many shooters. The game also deftly works in some Bullet Time-oriented act-or-die stunt sequences, such as Max holding on to a falling water tower or stopping the driver of a speeding jeep that crashes into a lobby and hurtles toward him.
The flexibility is engaging and finds a way to add more dynamism to an already chaotic shooter. There are even interactive moments of "cool," as the game highlights whenever Max kills the last of a cluster of enemies. Players can hold down the A button to track the fatal bullet and watch it tear into the last remnant of opposition. If you have painkillers (press up on the directional pad to use), what would normally be a kill shot leads to a "last man standing" moment, where Max has a few Bullet Time moments to seek out the man who shot him and instantly kill him. If you successfully shoot him, you live. If not, you see Max plop to the ground, dead.
I won't spoil parts of the story here, but there were enough layers to keep me mentally engaged in Max's journey through self-pity as well as his battle against external forces, which range from gang thugs to armed mercenaries. One can, however, question a lot of his logic, as he sometimes seems hell-bent on wandering unprepared into the worst possible situations. He at least acknowledges this at some points, pointing to his own "bad haircut" and "ridiculous shirt" upon entering the ghettos of Brazil in a sad example of rampant gringo-ness. It's not a particularly complicated story, but it's driven mostly through Max's beautifully built inner monologues. Some might feel Max probably thinks out loud a little too much, but I found the constant chatter a way to keep me locked in while walking through hallways or transitioning from one part of a level to another. The final airport sequences combine all of the experience's elements in compelling fashion — narrative, action and the eventual violent payoff.
Even in the face of the single-player craftsmanship, it is Max Payne 3's multiplayer that carries truly addictive qualities. It is wholly fun, accommodating to both new and experienced players, and has found a way to work in its core gameplay mechanics without much compromise. For me, Bullet Time in multiplayer was a sight to behold, especially when squaring off against another who had the same intention of using it. Some of the ensuing mini-duels are reminiscent of older John Woo gun battles, with two people flying in midair emptying clips at each other. Multiplayer Bullet Time also has strategic value, as it can help your teammates get their bearings in the heat of battle or perhaps allow them to get some stylish killings as well.
I enjoyed how the third-person multiplayer experience allows the player to work at his own pace and still enjoy the experience, as opposed to most FPS shooter experiences, where lambs are often led to slaughter at the hands of genre aficionados. The concepts of cover and movement seem to have more meaning this way, and I was able to roll my way (in slow motion, sometimes) into better fighting position. There are also rewards for looting the fallen as well as various performance boosts for kill streaks. Amid the multitude of deathmatch modes, I found the most enjoyable experiences in Payne Killer and Gang Wars. The former is a nifty king-of-the-hill survival mode, with the "hills" being the skins of Max Payne and his buddy Raul Passos. Kill the ones assuming their forms, and you become them and try to stay that way as long as possible. Gang Wars is a multi-stage, narrative-driven exercise in multiplayer diversity. Players fight through stages of the story in an effort to win the "war," with the stage objectives featuring everything from straight-up deathwatch to variations of sabotage and capture the flag. I spent an hour or two of my days off melting away in this mode alone, and as others have pointed out, this game's multiplayer experience signals Rockstar's intentions of making its mark in multiplayer circles.
My only real gripes come in single-player action. Max has a very annoying habit of automatically switching to a handgun any time he's about to enter a cinema screen despite the fact that he might be carrying a perfectly usable assault rifle. There were some occasions the strongest rifle I was carrying in my arsenal practically disappeared after a bit of storytelling. This sometimes put me in precarious positions where I had to pull out a ridiculous combination of Bullet Time, rolling and melee (not always Max's strongest suit) to reach a weapon with more ammo in it. That led to a few expletive-laden moments, but it wasn't enough to get me to stop playing.
Even in those instances, I enjoyed practically every depressing, gritty, painkiller-filled moment of Max Payne 3. I found it interesting that for all his talk about being a washed-up "avenging angel," he has become a sort of bald, fat death-dealing Achilles, wiping out truckloads of Jersey and São Paulo's worst. In the body-counting sense, he's joined other modern action heroes in creating his own masterpiece of death.
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