profile of Paul Verhoeven

Max Payne 3 PC review

I held off from reviewing Max Payne 3 until I'd finished it. And given that it took me two days of almost uninterrupted playing to complete it, I'd say the quality of the game isn't really in doubt here.

If you played the first two Max Payne games, you're probably something of a fan of the series. This franchise is a unique beast; third person shooters don't often mix with noir, but Max Payne combined a compelling, if somewhat depressing tale of loss and attempted redemption with bullet time, a slow-motion gun ballet combat mechanic modeled on John Woo films and The Matrix. Incidentally, Rockstar had the foresight to port the first Max Payne to iPhone and Android, so you can, and should, play it end-to-end.

But if you haven't touched the previous games, that's ok. And it's rare that I'd encourage someone to play the third installment in a series without having done the homework, but in this case, if you simply must, you can. Eight years after the events of Max Payne 2, Max has been forcibly retired and has gone to seed. He's effectively a barfly, he's living in a scummy apartment, and the one distraction from his grief - work - has been gone for some time, meaning he spends his days and nights basically trying to kill himself off with scotch and pills.  These pills, of course, were what Max chugged in lieu of medkits to resort health in the first two games, meaning the very thing that kept Max (you) alive has now turned him into a wreck. And this isn't the only brilliant yet terminally depressing aspect of this game.

The game actually begins with Max some time later, back at work as private security for a rich family in Sao Paulo. The bulk of the game unfolds in various parts of South America, with Max struggling through his addictions and trying to clamber his way back towards some kind of redemption. The voice of Max throughout the series, James McCaffrey, has returned not only as the voice but as the face of Max; the entire performance has been motion captured. This might be the most startling accomplishment of Max Payne 3: it's cinematic. Really, really cinematic. It's sort of hard to convey just how ruthlessly stylised and seamless the transitions between gameplay and cutscenes are, but they really put you inside the addled head of Max. You can even control the kill-cam, meaning you can slow bullets down mid-air and change the speed with which they careen through the skulls of your enemies. You essentially end up feeling like the director of an incredible, heartbreaking and oddly uplifting action film.

The animation, physics and combat mechanics such as improved shootdodging, prone shooting and last man standing are all ridiculously smooth. But beyond the combat, the game excels: the score provided by Health is driving, immersive and thundering, and the random music playing during shootouts in nightclubs or restaurants provides an uncanny air of realism. I've only just begun dipping into the multiplayer aspect of the game, but given how much multiplayer DLC Rockstar have planned for the title, i'd say it's going to be an area of focus.

The main area of concern for me, initially, was the writing. Sam Lake wrote the first two games, but he also wrote one of my favourite games of all time, Alan Wake, and the quasi-sequel, American Nightmare. It's unclear just how much Lake and the writer of Max Payne 3, Dan Houser, collaborated or agreed on the overall arc of Max as a character, and given Housers previous works (the GTA series and the vital but dour Red Dead Redemption), I was concerned. Scared, even. But as someone who invests themselves probably way too much in the lives of characters they play, I can safely say that most of you will not be disappointed with how this game pans out.

And yes, it's a departure from the setting of the previous titles, but eight years have passed, and the game has moved away from New York along with Max. And the game really is about a still innately capable man fighting to cling to grief and blame. It's heartbreaking watching him try and fail, but this is what makes his tiny victories so incredibly empowering and edifying; Max might brutalise himself via the swathes of fantastic Noir-style inner monologuing, but whilst he's beating himself up, we're watching him either doing good, or desperately trying. He's a good guy convinced that he's otherwise, and the series is, now more than ever, about watching him reluctantly accept that reality.

If you're still unsure, go and play the first Max Payne, and if you can, the second one, too. Beyond the slightly dated graphics and the weird duck face of Max himself, you'll likely fall in love with the story of a man who really, really needs to burn off his demons with as many bullets as he can get his hands on. Then you can sink your teeth into Max Payne 3, to see whether or not he'll come close to doing it.

/Paul

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