May Payne is still playing it Bogart, but these days he wouldn’t phrase it that way. He still mourns his dead wife and daughter, still pops pain pills to forget, still finds himself staring at the world through the bottom of a glass. Nine years after developer Remedy gave Max’s tormented soul some closure in The Fall of Max Payne, Rockstar has dragged him back into a world of sex, drugs, and gruesome murders for another round of punishment. And while Max is still crazy enough to stroll into a room filled with armed thugs, he’s doing it as private security in sunny São Paulo, with no sign of the delightfully cheesy and overwrought noir narrative that so heavily coated his first two stories.
Fully intact, however, is Max Payne’s bullet-time gunplay. Thanks to Rockstar’s motion capture work Max moves realistically even as he ridiculously shoots, dodges and dives through windows, over railings and around corners. Bullets rip apart flesh with a meaty so-good-it’s-almost-gross sound. Shots to knees and groins will down thugs, while hits to the torso will send them staggering. Hand cannons blast enemies off their feet, while machine pistols will riddle them with bullets until they collapse. Headshots feel good. Entering bullet time, unloading on half a dozen enemies, and then watching them all topple over is the best use of the Euphoria physics engine yet.
The little touches Rockstar executes perfectly drive home the detail in Max Payne 3’s animation: Max has no sling or backpack to hold weapons, so he’ll carry a two-handed gun like a rifle in one hand as he trots through a level. To reload his pistols, he cradles it under his shoulder. To dual wield, he simply tosses it aside. And Max can’t shoot anywhere at any time—he has to shuffle his feet and twist his body to fire off to the side, and recovering from a shoot-dodge makes Max vulnerable for a few seconds as he lies on the ground.
Only a few punishing checkpoints mar the game’s dozens of shootouts and set-piece moments. For the most part, combat feels tough but fair—Max dies fast, but so do enemies, and the Last Man Standing mode provides an automatic bullet time shot at redemption as long as you have pain pills to spare. And every single battle is a showpiece for the game’s impressive visuals.
Max Payne 3 represents Rockstar’s most blatantly Hollywood game yet. Since Grand Theft Auto III, the company has steadily been working towards creating 40-hour films in video game form. With GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption, that meant breaking up open world driving, riding and shooting (and, sigh, bowling) with extensive dialogue scenes that demonstrated voice work and cinematography a cut above the industry standard. Max Payne 3 follows in Uncharted’s footsteps, seamlessly chaining together story-advancing cutscenes with third-person gunplay.
It mostly succeeds. The mo-capped characters look incredibly natural as they pace, run, crouch behind cover, or dance the night away in a São Paulo club. Max leans on walls, winces and stumbles, and at times seems ready to collapse under the weight of his bloody rampage (own dissolution?). Cutscenes will often go on for 10 or 15 minutes as Max tries to piece together information about the vicious gangs and corrupt cops out to kill or kidnap his employers.
Trade Max for Denzel Washington, and the game nearly becomes Tony Scott’s vengeance flick Man on Fire. Color filters and image distortion are pulled straight from Scott’s visual style, but they’re generally more distracting than cool or interesting. By chasing the Hollywood vision, Max Payne 3 ends up having a far more generic sense of identity than its predecessors. The style overdose feels mostly pointless, though at least one of the visual tricks, which layers CRT scanlines over the action, fits in—it adds a worn, textured look to Max’s world that mirrors his alcoholic gun-for-hire lifestyle. Max Payne 3 doesn’t quite make a clean break from its noir past, which is disappointing for a game so heavily invested in the way it presents its story.
Max’s classic voiceover remains a core narrative device in Max Payne 3, but he now talks constantly, and halfway through the 13 hour game his monologues grow repetitive. Rockstar went for hardboiled crime drama minus the pulpy camp of noir metaphor. Without Sam Lake’s expressive writing serving as a foil for Max’s cynicism, the script leans far too heavily on a few common themes: Max is an alcoholic. Max has no idea what’s going on. Max expects to die, but somehow hasn’t just yet.
Max still drops a few cheesy lines like “dimestore angel of death” or “the brochure sure didn’t mention any of this shit,” but actor James McCaffrey’s gravelly voice over is mostly wasted on monotonous commentary. The expository scenes fare better—in true Rockstar fashion, the acting and directing is top notch—but Max Payne 3 tells a pretty standard crime story that mostly just serves as an excuse for Max to gun down about 1500 people. No double-cross or big reveal comes as much of a surprise.
Technically, Max Payne 3 is a marvel. It’s easily the most gorgeous game Rockstar has ever made and proves Naughty Dog isn’t the only developer capable of converting a game into a Hollywood action vehicle. The blend between cutscenes and action is so good, in fact, that it creates a weird dichotomy between the Max we watch and the Max we control. On his own time, Max staggers around drunk, looks at himself pitiably in a mirror and talks about how much of a failure he is. When we take control, he becomes a spry murdering machine.
No one will praise Max Payne’s character arc in Max Payne 3 like the one Rockstar crafted for John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. While Red Dead weighs Marston’s sins against his intentions and explores his humanity, Max Payne 3 misses an opportunity to really address why Max so easily murders so many. After I’d killed my thousandth nameless thug—shortly before using a man’s body as a shield while riding down a zipline and bullet-time headshotting six people, and well after murdering half of Hoboken’s Italian-American community—I couldn’t really buy that Max was as washed up and out of shape as he claimed. Philip Marlowe wasn’t a spree killer, and this Payne is certainly no Marlowe.
Wes Fenlon is a San Francisco-based freelancer who writes about cool things for Tested and plays video games when he should be working. His Twitter feed may or may not mostly be about pizza.