G’day, how ya going? Welcome to The Lawless Perspective, a long-running, yet ridiculously infrequent series of articles that take a second look at relatively recently released games to determine whether or not they deserve the accolades that they receive. I daresay it’s a bit unlike most of the commentary you find on games and with that, I reckon it’s time to bust a cap in the rear of Rockstar’s latest South America-set blockbuster. Before continuing, an obligatory spoiler warning. Don’t worry, I won’t go too in depth with what you’ll see.
Max Payne 3 has easily been one of the most warmly received games released thus far this calendar year, garnering an easy 9/10 from our own Nick Calandra when he reviewed it over a month ago, along with very similar praise from any number of other sources. On reading Nick’s review, you’ll notice that he insists that the teams at Rockstar Games don’t know how to make a poor quality game (a debatable statement given the reception of Manhunt 2 and the Wii version of Table Tennis, but that’s neither here not there). While that mantra holds true of Max Payne 3, this is one that highlights how far Rockstar have fallen since the days of Grand Theft Auto III when they defined not just a genre, but an entire industry.
Oh yes, the game is spectacularly underwhelming in some respects, but before delving into those it is important to note that, in terms of sheer technical proficiency, this is the development house at their absolute best. The Rockstar Advanced Game Engine may not necessarily be among the top-tier of engines available, but it has been tuned away from its usual pursuits of vast space and scale to instead present a very tight, unbelievably detailed experience. It doesn’t matter where you are in the game, the environments are filled with any number of minor contrivances that enhance the immersion of the game because of the mimicked realism of them. It’s a small touch that you may not notice immediately, but when you move on to a different game, the barrenness of most becomes all the more apparent.
Tied into this are the changes made to Max’s appearance with each concurrent chapter. Most of the time it’s a change of clothes, marking the passage of time in a way not usually seen. It goes further tan this however, sometimes altering his hairstyle and facial hair (culminating in the bald, unshaven image that has become the game’s key identifier), with the character model also carrying cuts and bruises from time to time. It’s another facet of the attention to detail, but one that really shouldn’t be overlooked. It generates an subtle sense of progression that isn’t often implemented in games.
Above and beyond all of this are the playgrounds. Primarily because of the aforementioned attention to detail, each environment is brought to life in a way that feels authentic. Backing this up is the level design and graphical backdrops that only serve to heighten that belief that Max is moving through real places in his convoluted quest. What’s more is that the game features a rather stunning amount of visual diversity without needing to rely on the overused trope of traipsing across the globe in a wannabe epic story. It is contained, but in such a way as to show off the many different facets of Sao Paulo.
All of this is aided and enhanced by Rockstar’s unfailing attention to audio design. The natural ambience of these environments is captured to great effect, but this is just one small aspect in the larger picture. The campaign is peppered with characters that speak largely, if not solely in Portuguese. I don’t speak the language myself, so I can’t put any real weight to the veracity of the vernacular being used, but the mere fact that Rockstar have gone out of the way to authenticate this world by putting such a strong focus on the language is commendable. Used in conjunction with the character accents and figures of speech that clearly mark them out as being foreign, it starts to soar.
Furthering the excellence is the talented voiceover cast, which manages to nail the personalities and manner of speech on a consistent basis. Rising above all of this is James McCaffrey’s role as the eponymous lead character. His gruff baritones match perfectly with the cynical monologues and soliloquies that punctuate the campaign. Rarely are these spoken with conviction, the driving force behind them behind a prominent feeling of weariness, as though Max has dealt with all of this before and with life no longer seeming worthwhile due to the infuriating repetition of foolishness and disempowering events.
The narrative of the game backs this up. From the outset, Max is on the back foot trying to play catch up with the forces that would derail the relative peace that he has found during his time in Brazil. The questions come thick and fast, followed soon after by answers that serve to provoke more questions as the story becomes more than a little convoluted, ultimately stretching beyond reasonable boundaries as a conspiracy is unravelled that goes further than might ever be expected in the beginning of the game. It’s a plot thread often in the thriller genre, most effectively in novel format but the execution of it here leaves much to be desired as it really feels as though the writers were grasping at straws to make the connections that they so desperately wished to.
This shortcoming certainly isn’t aided by the disconnection between cutscene and gameplay that almost always permeates such high-reaching productions. Max Payne 3 is a cinematic game, but it does not enjoy the near seamless integration of non-interactive elements with the gameplay that Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series does. Instead, it uses lengthy cutscenes to deliver information while failing to generate any coherence between them and the core game. It is only within these movies that you have a chance to relax and feel the tension generated by the story as they almost always conclude by throwing you headfirst into yet another high octane action sequence.
Herein lies one of the greatest flaws to be found in Max Payne 3, and indeed all of Rockstar’s games. The studio has always been known to push the boundaries of a level of violence that can be termed reasonable. The Grand Theft Auto series allows you full control to maim, steal and murder wantonly, while Manhunt undeniably crossed a line into indecency. This game is tamer than the latter, but it still takes far too much pleasure in promoting this love of violence and overloading gamers with an orgy of brutality. The campaign will easily see you dispatching over a thousand enemies throughout the duration with surprisingly many of these activating a Kill-Cam effect that slows time to show the gory effects of the bullet that put an end to their lives. Not only do you see the holes that appear in these poor souls, but the reinforcement of this imagery with their arching back in agony and sometimes copious blood spatter isn’t just gratuitous, but often sickening.
Much has been written in recent times about the obscene levels of violence in games, a discussion often attributed to Warren Spector’s comments following E3, and it is a game like this that deserves to cop flak in this respect. Despite featuring strong characterisation and a moderately interesting story, all else is overwhelmed by the omnipresence of this almost sadistic level of bloodshed. Furthermore, it does no favours for the derivative, repetitive nature of the gameplay, casting it into a glaring spotlight and highlighting a stark lack of imagination on the part of Rockstar Vancouver.
The Euphoria animation engine may be being used to its fullest extent yet seen here, but that isn’t enough to cover up the fact that Max Payne 3 is a stunningly conservative third-person shooter. You move through almost ridiculously linear levels dispatching adversarial NPCs with a variety of weapons that are picked up along the way, made a tad easier by the inclusion of the now-standard cover system. In saying that, the game does a couple of things that pay homage to the past. The first is the Bullet Time mechanic that made the original Max Payne games stand out. There are two ways to activate it and doing so slows time to allow you to line up your shots better. Dozens of games have used it since it was first introduced and nothing new has been attempted here, in contrast to the very similar Dead Eye mechanic of Red Dead Redemption.
The other flashback mechanic is the non-regenerative health system. Max really isn’t capable of absorbing a lot of damage, so you should have to be keeping a careful eye on the amount of health that he has left, but this isn’t really the case. Health is restored by popping painkillers, and while you can take them at will, there is often no need to thanks to automation. When the character takes a hit that would kill him, so long as he has painkillers on him, the game activates the “Last Man Standing” mechanic that sees him restored to life and the painkiller consumed provided he manages to take out the enemy that fired the killing shot. Sure, it’s fresh and new, but it is clearly aimed at the more casual gamer who isn’t likely to absorb all of the information that they are given. It’s almost saddening.
I won’t lie. Max Payne 3 is a good game, but it is far from deserving the high acclaim that has been near consistently heaped upon it. It lacks anything to make it truly shine and that it is the final verdict.