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Max Payne returns in style

 

When last we saw Max Payne, it was 2003. This was before third person shooters like Resident Evil 4, Gears of War and Uncharted had changed the gaming world and evolved the shooter into what it was today. We also last saw him forced to watch the woman he loves die in his arms, right after losing his apartment in an explosion, killing his partner, and losing many of his coworkers in an attack on the police station he worked at. Needless to say, things weren’t looking too good for Max Payne, but luckily in the able hands of Rockstar Vancouver, we can relish in his sorrow as he shoots baddies in a sequel worthy of the name, mixing new and old into what is easily the best pure third person shooter out there.

 

When we see Max, he’s settling into an apartment in Sao Paulo Brazil after accepting a job offer from an old academy friend to work private security for some rich businessman and his family. After circumstances that we won’t go into force him to accept, he expects an easy job of lounging around and drinking. But of course this wouldn’t be a very fun game if things didn’t go very wrong, very soon would it?

 

The story is well told, though eschewing the old comic style panels for modern cutscenes, it oozes with style, with a striking visual effect (that can be obtrusive to some), and words popping out in the screen and different screens giving us what seems like a mix of the old comic style with modern cinematics. The cutscenes are fantastic and do a great job of setting up the plot, giving us our motives, and delving further into the characters and their motivations, but as mentioned it does have a screen effect reminiscent of Kane and Lynch 2 that might tear some away from the plot, and the cutscenes have a tendency to be a few minutes too long, occurring a bit too frequently. Of course the cutscenes do have a dual purpose of masking loading screens, and rewatching the fantastic cutscenes is preferable to watching a long bar (and when loading up a game you get some old school comic panels that catch you up to speed).

 

The plot and writing definitely show that it’s not a case of style over substance, with characters getting plenty of screen time, and Max explaining everything in his classic monologue. The new writing does a much better job of avoiding the overly cheesy feel of the writing in the previous games, while still keeping Max’s thoughts available in an incredibly dramatic voiceover (expertly done by James McCaffrey, who has voiced Max since his first outing). Though none of the other characters are quite as detailed as Max, this goes in the favor of some as we see hidden motivations and character details unfold, especially with Raul Passos, Max’s partner who comes off as a great friend and likeable ally with some secrets of his own. Some of the other characters don’t get as much time as they deserve, and others tend to come off as a bit one dimensional, but with the wealth of characters present it can be hard for some of the more minor characters to not come off as one dimensional stock characters.

 

The gameplay is where it really shines though, with Rockstar’s Euphoria Engine at its best and the most polished gameplay we’ve seen from them so far. The gunplay is amazing, allowing you to run and gun in the vein of the old titles, while offering modern features like shoulder aiming and a fantastic cover system that works well in tandem with Max’s rolling and shootdodging abilities. Max is capable of holding two pistols at once and one large weapon (which is dropped when Max is dual wielding). In cutscenes, Max will be shown wielding whatever he was using beforehand, with the rifle in his left hand and one of his equipped handguns in his right hand, which shows some incredible attention to detail. In some scenes, Max will even take the time to set down his large gun when he needs both his hands, a nice feat when most games opt to simply give you a stock weapon or cause the weapons to disappear altogether during cutscenes. Oddly enough Max is incapable of using projectile weapons while enemies can, and players are able to use them easily online, but this is more of a personal preference than anything else, it simply sticks out when Max can carry a grenade launcher with 18 rounds, yet Rockstar must have thought that one grenade would break the game.

 

The AI is some of the best AI I’ve come across, and really forces you out of cover with flanking tactics and communication that you rarely see in other titles, laying down cover for allies or grabbing at their injured body parts as they bleed out or try to steady themselves. Though Max can take down dozens of enemies in a row, even one lowly thug can put Max down with just a few bullets or a shotgun blast, forcing you to move fast, aim accurately, and take liberal use of Max’s signature bullet time ability. In fact, this is a game where moving out of cover and shootdodging repeatedly can be safer than using cover, especially when cover can be destructible and when shootdodging puts you into bullet time regardless of how much is in your bullet time bar (allowing you to take out enemies at your leisure while soaring through the air).

 

Though Max Payne mainly takes place in Sao Paulo with flashbacks to New Jersey, and the game is mainly comprised of you shooting other people without other game mechanics (like platforming or investigating things) happening, the game never lets repetition set in. Different locations like a big soccer stadium to a cruise liner are all locations Max will be shooting dudes in thanks to his lifestyle as a private security for one of the richest men in the city. Enemies and weaponry also change up as you go along, starting from slower, less experienced thugs with basic weapons, moving up to elite special forces with varying levels of heavy and medium armor, and tactics like window breaching and covering the area with smoke to keep you on your feet.

 

As the game goes along you also get small moments of respite (though brief), and a few fantastic sequences involving Max shooting things out of a moving vehicle really break up the gameplay without feeling like an overdone turret segment. Even Max himself changes through the course of the game, from looking like an older version of the Max we all know and love, to a bald, bearded, vacation shirt wearing man we see later on (in what is apparently his attempt at a disguise). Even the objectives change frequently, preventing the game from feeling like a shooting gallery from A to B, even though that is kind of what it turns out to be. Some things like the basic shooting mechanics and kill cams are constant, but the satisfaction in seeing an enemy’s eye blow out the back of his head doesn’t get old, and it adds a hefty and realistic weight to the violence allowing you to empathize with Max and his self-pity for being good at killing other human beings (especially with several throw away lines that make some of the bad guys Max brutally kills out to be just victims of circumstance, much like Max himself).

 

One big flaw the game has is how incredibly linear it is in comparison to older titles, and even other third person shooters like Uncharted. There isn’t much incentive for exploration with most clues and golden weapon pieces available in plain view, with the few times you can go off the course simply being another room containing a clue or a painkiller, but never really allowing you to veer off course. Combat does feel much more open and generally allows you to carry the weapons you had before into your next battle, but this isn’t always the case. The linearity is also compounded by levels that force you to move or fail and be sent back to the next checkpoint, and even levels where you aren’t in a particular rush have Max goading the player into moving with his monologues (which at least change frequently). This does work in favor of the game’s pacing and keeps you feeling on edge, but it’s an unfortunate way to do so.

 

For the first time in the series history, you now have online multiplayer available in a Max Payne game. Rockstar has actually done a stellar job with the multiplayer, with character customization being rather extensive for the different clans, as well as the fantastic crew and vendetta system that can turn some battles into a personal war between crews, one that could last all the way into Grand Theft Auto V if Rockstar is to be believed on how the crew system will carry over. The content and ranking system are extensive, but the gameplay is stellar as well. With the standard Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, there is also Gang Wars and Payne Killer, the two stand out modes online.

 

Gang Wars is reminiscent of Killzone 3’s Warzone multiplayer mode, tasking two teams with different objectives that earn them points, which will give them an edge or handicap in the final Deathmatch battle. Gang wars also comes with an ongoing narration by Max Payne himself, who gives match details and motivations for each team, and it works very well, especially as it gives backstory and history on the enemies Max faces in single player. Payne Killer is almost like a co-op mode in its focus, but instead of AI enemies you face other human players. The first player to get a kill becomes Max, the second becomes Passos and players must attempt to kill them while they fend them off with their bloated health and stock of painkillers, bullet time and heavy weaponry. This mode is tense and it feels great to finally take down Max or Passos and use your abilities to mow down other players as if they were simple AI enemies, and each map even gives you a different version of Max and Passos to play as well as a different type of enemy team to play as or against, adding some variety and making sense within the context of the map.

 

The online mode isn’t perfect, it feels reminiscent of Uncharted and some of the bursts and weapons can feel a bit unbalanced (though bullet time works amazingly well, the ability for anyone to trigger it with a shoot dodge makes basic bullet time useless as a burst), and the heavy amount of players and matchmaking, as well as the game’s lethality and fast pace means heavy connection issues for anyone who doesn’t have a perfect connection. Despite several attempts, I’ve only once been able to play with friends, and I was constantly taken out of matches or placed in empty lobbies.

 

If you aren’t the kind to play multiplayer but want to get the most value out of the game, you also get a return to the score attack as well as various achievements and story grinds to keep you playing that give you extra XP, bonus characters, abilities, or golden weapons with extra power and ammo. One issue is that the game makes it hard to know what score you need to unlock certain things, but it’s a blast going through a level trying to get the most stylish kills to keep your clock counting down in New York Minute, or trying to test your mettle by playing through the Hardcore difficulty mode.

 

Overall, Max Payne 3 is a fantastic game, and one of the best third person shooters I’ve ever played. Whether you are a fan of the old games, or just a newcomer to the series, you’ll love the direction Rockstar has taken, keeping Max as fans remember him and with a nice nod here and there, but changing him to reflect on him attempting to move on with his life and dealing with his loss and depression so long after the events of the older games. This is a great game, with a host of content and that Rockstar stamp of approval that anyone willing to put up with the violence should check out.

 

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