Distributer: Take Two Interactive
Platforms: PC/PS3/Xbox 360
Estimated Date of Game Release: May 2012
Max is back. After almost 9 years of absence Rockstar has revived this great film noir franchise and created a new chapter in Max’s painful life. Except it is no longer film noir. Nor is it really a continuation of the original story. More of a reboot really.
The game’s presentation is not the only thing that has changed either. Remedy is out and Rockstar Vancouver is in, Sam Lake (the creator of the original) no longer writes the story, instead it’s Rockstar’s trusty writer Dan Houser who pens the plot. And you can tell. Instead of a well thought out story with interesting twists and turns that make the player sit at the edge of their seat, we get a run of the mill story that sort of gives the player a very loose reason to shoot a lot of bad people. Max Payne 3 seems to be going down the route of all great franchises lately – short term entertainment. Bite sized chunks of gun fun. If you happen to take a break halfway through the game to go on a Max Payne style alcohol fueled bender for 2 weeks and can’t remember anything about the story when you finally switch the game back on, it won’t matter. You pick up the controller and are right back into the action. And apparently this is what matters these days.
So is this still the Max Payne we learned to love and feel for? I am afraid not. Departing from the roots of the series was not necessarily a bad decision; a fresh take on an old franchise could have worked well. Despite winning several awards and getting a lot of critical acclaim, Max Payne 2 did not sell accordingly. So it was almost inevitable, though not less sad for that, that Remedy would make way for the larger machine that is Rockstar.
However in their quest to deliver an even more visceral and fast paced game experience, in their drive to bring an exotic new location into play, I can’t help to think that the parts that really formed the foundations of what Max Payne once was were lost along the way. Max Payne 3 was developed by a collaboration of no less than 4 Rockstar studios. It is no longer a lovingly crafted game, a one of a kind product; it is a factory created behemoth, pressed into shape by cogs in a machine, like so many other games on the market.
8 years have passed since Max’s run in with Mona and he is desperately trying to drown his former life and pains in alcohol. Hoping to escape his sad past, he takes on a job to work as an executive security guard for Rodrigo Branco, a rich business man in Sao Paolo, Brazil.
The game really opens when Branco’s wife is kidnapped and Max starts to investigate. Diving into shadowy conspiracies, following warring factions of street gangs and discovering connections to every layer of society in Sao Paolo ensue. Of course all this is glued together by high doses of gun play and the road to finding the kidnapped wife is littered with corpses.
As you would expect from a Rockstar game, money was not an issue in this development and there is a lot of attention to detail. The Rockstar research team had several trips to Brazil and spent a lot of time on the streets of Sao Paolo (something Michael Fassbender plans to do for “Shame 2”), investigating not only the location but also the gangs themselves and in particular their appearances and arsenal of weapons.
Max Payne 3 ticks all the boxes of a big production, including a beefier Max and Bronson style shaved head. It might tick all the boxes, but at what cost?
Gone is the unique way with which Remedy managed to get us all attached to a rough and burnt out New York cop. Max was never a nice guy, but we loved him anyway, because of his heart break, because we felt we knew where he was coming from. And we cheered him on as we blasted our way through the first and second game. We wanted Max to succeed, to let his guard down, to rediscover his capacity to love.
One of the reasons for this emotional connection was partially down to the game being told in a film noir fashion. Another reason was simply that Sam Lake knew exactly how to balance the knife’s edge between over the top and blatantly cheesy storytelling. Lake managed to tell the story of a down and out cop hell bent on revenge and rediscovering his own feelings, even love. And he made the player feel attached to that cop.
Gameplay wise not much has changed, and this is the one good news for fans of the series. Bullettime returns and shooting is as satisfying as it always was. Combat is brutal and there are, as can be expected after 8 years, some significant improvements and new functionality. Max Payne 3 certainly is a fast paced 3rd person shooter, being closer to an FPS in pacing than to other 3rd person games such as Hitman. Rockstar has found a clever way of repositioning Max’s upper body to always face in the direction he is shooting, allowing for fluid movement during fast paced combat.
Weapons also feel good and thankfully the new game inherits much of its predecessors, including the trademark dual wield. Animation of Max is done very well and takes into account different weights of weapons and weapon combinations.
One thing that really should have changed, considering how times have moved on, but that largely remained the same, is the heavy scripting of the game. Scenarios play out the same way regardless of how often you play them. Most scenarios will have the now familiar environmental traps waiting for the player. Ranging from exploding cars, collapsing walkways to busses dropping on AI – it’s all there and it’s all too familiar. In order to get these traps to work right of course, the AI has to actually be in the right places to get the desired effect. And Rockstar delivers on that. Though once you understand their system each fight basically revolves around finding these spots in the area you are in and using them at the right time. And while Rockstar like the boast about clever AI adapting to the player and flanking them, this is not really anything new at all, and when you observe the AI it’s also quite apparent that this is part of their scripting, and only really works in certain areas.
There is not really much in terms of tactical choice involved that makes the player feel clever. It’s more a game of cinematic set pieces than one of player freedom. Fortunately for Max Payne 3 the pace of the game itself, the well done weapons and gun play almost make you forget this from time to time.
But with all this fanfare and action the real heart of the previous games in the series, the tragic love story of Max, sadly gets left behind. Gone is the lovingly crafted story, the quirky and dark comic book style story boards. Gone is a Max that we care about and want to succeed. The new Max is a vessel which we, briefly, occupy to dish out carnage on a large scale. A vessel we discard at the end of it, not really thinking about it at all – what we remember after finishing Max Payne is not the story; it is the blood and guts left in our wake.
And while this may well attract a number of players and satisfy their need for action and shallow entertainment, it will not ring true with fans of the series. As it is, Max Payne 3 does not really push the boundaries in any way. It tries to impress but falls well short.
A lot of work has gone into Max Payne 3, that much is obvious, but Rockstar has failed to capitalize on a truly remarkable franchise that has led innovation in its own and other genres for 2 installments. Many games have borrowed ideas from the original Max Payne and its outstanding sequel. Rockstar unfortunately was too picky about what it chose to take from them. They successfully adopted the gunplay and bulletime, and in some areas even improved them with great success. It is hard to understand why they opted for a bland and uninspiring visual style and a Max Payne character that is far too easy to forget.
At times I am surprised that Rockstar has not opted to completely change the game and make it an FPS. After all, in that genre we are used to bland story, shallow characters and sub-par AI in favor of fast paced visceral gameplay. Sticking with the 3rd person genre seems to just have been a legacy more than anything. In theory Rockstar had a blank page. With a reboot such as this, they could have made an FPS game, just utilizing the world, the setting and some of the unique elements that made the original such a loved game. They could have made a new Max Payne game for today’s gamers.
11 years after the launch of the original game, people still talk about Max Payne, they remember the rough parts of the story, the fantastic and innovative way the story was told and they can clearly picture the character of Max. I fear that 1 year from now, people will largely have forgotten about Max Payne 3, bald Max being but a distant vague memory.
Thankfully there is Hitman: Absolution to look forward to for a proper story driven 3rd Person game.