Max Payne is not a very likeable guy. He’s old, addicted to booze and pills and generally does everything in his power to make as much a mess of his own life as possible. For as long as it has been since the last installment of the Max Payne series, Rockstar really had a lot of room to play with characters, setting and story. With great characters like Niko Bellic and John Marston to draw inspiration from, it’s difficult to understand why Rockstar failed in Max Payne 3 to create a compelling protagonist.
Imagine the opening scenes of a typical Die Hard movie – gravel voiced ex-cop, wallowing in his own misery, taking pills to fight off hangovers. You get a real sense at the start of just about all those movies that Bruce Willis’ character is washed up, but wants to be a hero, wants to find some sort of redemption. Imagine now that opening sequence playing over and over again throughout the entire movie, beating you relentlessly over the head with just how washed up the main character is. Interspersed between these anti-hero moments are acts of unnecessary violence which serve only to make you like Max, and consequently the game itself, less.
Right away in beginning the game you’ll notice that MP 3 is capable of a high level of visual quality. The graphics don’t necessarily impress on the same level as a game like Uncharted did, but that has much more to do with a lack of interesting set pieces over the course of your journey which Rockstar never takes the opportunity to show you, rather than what the company was capable of accomplishing. Another thing you will probably notice is that there are random flashes of color and words that appear in large print on the screen to punctuate your conversations, which persist throughout the entire game. It is never explained why this occurs, but presumably it relates to how washed up Max Payne is – either that or it is meant to induce epileptic seizures. Granted, it doesn’t quite reach the garish visual atrocities of Kane & Lynch 2, but it comes inexcusably close far too often.
As far as gameplay is concerned, MP 3 is a linear third person shooter. The old system of non-regenerating health returns, where Max is forced to replenish life through prolific use of painkillers. Where GTA 4 was faulted for not having regenerating health, it seemed that Rockstar had learned a lesson in implementing that sort of system in Red Dead Redemption. It is strange then to see a return to the olden days of “health pack” gaming in MP 3, particularly in light of the fact that it was one of the weakest points of the original titles.
Often times in playing the last Max Payne game, players could find themselves literally stuck and unable to progress due to a checkpoint system that would punish poor performance. In Max Payne 2, if you barely scraped by with enough bullets and no life, hitting the next checkpoint meant you had a serious uphill battle ahead of you. Yes, MP 3 continues the series’ high level of difficulty, but it does do something to address this old problem. In this latest title, if you expended too much ammo and used too many pain killers in your last battle, when you die and restart a checkpoint enough times you will get a few extra bullets and a little more health to help you make it through.
What may have seemed like a good idea to help weaker players along really only prolongs the agony of an unnecessarily difficult game though. By rewarding failures with a slight competitive edge, you eventually gain enough to make it over the present hurdle – but just barely. What would have been much more preferable would be to simply adopt the mentality of not helping at all, thereby forcing players to improve or give up, or grant an excess of ammo and painkillers to bolster a player who is quickly losing interest and not having any fun.
Simply because a game is difficult does not mean that it is flawed – what makes MP 3’s difficulty a product of poor design rather than deliberate choice is the way in which you frequently die. It’s one thing to say that you ran out of bullets because your aim was bad, or that you died because you didn’t stay in cover long enough. In Max Payne 3, death itself often results in cheap surprises and enemy ambushes that you reasonably could not have seen coming. The only method of preparedness in those situations is foresight gained from previous failure.
To provide one specific example (out of many), there is a point in the game where you are fighting across a rooftop which is slowly collapsing beneath you. As you approach what looks like a door to salvation, the doorway falls in, enemies rush out on top of the building above you and make quick work of you, as they have the high ground and you are nowhere near cover. It is a difficult situation to have to fight through, even when you know it’s coming, because you are forced to break cover to approach the door and trigger the enemies spawning. This experience is relatively consistent and frustrating throughout the entire game, with enemies popping up from cover, hiding around blind corners and bursting through doors as though they were zombies trying to give you a cheap scare in a low budget horror movie. But it’s far worse than that: these are zombies with guns.
Max Payne isn’t difficult simply because there are cheap scares. It is difficult because Rockstar also made the poor decision of sticking with the same targeting system used in GTA 4 and Red Dead Redemption as well. The game really hinders itself by employing a dot based targeting reticule, as opposed to traditional cross hairs. The problem with using dot-hairs is that the dot gives the false impression of pinpoint accuracy. Players will place the entire dot over the head of a bad guy and all too frequently be left wondering why it doesn’t result in the death of an enemy (or any other noticeable response). Why? Because the true spread pattern of the gun exists in an invisible circle around the center point – the dot – of where you are actually aiming. But without providing you with some other visual cue (and generally obscuring your target, to boot), it simply makes the hit detection feel broken.
Again, to provide a specific example of this frustration, there is a point where a sort of “mini boss” appears inside a building, heavily armored and wielding a large machine gun. With the target squarely on his head (and at relatively close range) you can rattle off dozens of rounds and see nothing more than the enemy stumble. “Eureka,” you think as an experienced gamer, “what is required here is to stumble the boss enough times until he reveals some fatal weak point.” Die a few times operating under that false assumption and you’ll be floored to see eventually, on reloading the checkpoint for the fifth time, that the mini-boss really only took two bullets to kill.
Apparently there is a specific point to shoot on that enemy’s head that results in his demise. Good luck randomly stumbling upon it using your innately imprecise dot-hairs. At some point developers will learn to avoid this obvious folly, but it is unfortunately too late for Max Payne 3. In the mean time, get used to actually being angry when you snap to a target and pull off a headshot that kills the bad guy in one trigger pull, when doing the exact same thing moments ago literally produced absolutely no results.
Don’t expect that level of inconsistency to remain consistent either – just wait till you hop on a speeding bus, hanging out the door, holding an uzi in one hand. In a situation where you would actually expect not to be able to hit the broad side of a barn, you’ll be able to mysteriously pull off one hit kills with ease.
That leads well into the next point, which is that either the developers, Max Payne himself, or possibly both, make chronically poor tactical decisions. For some reason, though you would think that a rifle with a laser sight on it would be a bit more practical and precise (yet isn’t), every time Max walks through a door, the game changes your equipped weapon to a pistol Max holds in just one hand. As much of a point Max makes to tell you that he was a cop, it makes little sense why he insists on going against his training by preferring this approach – he may just as well hold the gun sideways and run through the streets of Brazil with his pants around his ankles. At least in that situation you would know why you were missing (which is why dot-hairs for inaccurate pistols are acceptable in Saint’s Row.)
As if none of that were enough challenge to overcome in drawing players in, there are plenty of forehead-slapping bugs to discover. Though thankfully none of them happen too frequently, you are certain to see during your playthrough such broken staples as enemies stuck in walls, enemies standing on top of cover instead of behind it, your character’s arms pointing 180 degrees in the wrong direction , guns firing at you with pinpoint accuracy despite the fact that no one is holding them and dead bodies sliding along on the ground.
Still, if you are a die-hard Max Payne fan determined to press on through those inadequacies (which lots of people actually are), be prepared to hate your eponym. As mentioned before, Max isn’t the most likeable character. He does things like shoot innocent people, open fire on police officers and get drunk when he is supposed to be protecting others. While the moral shades of the game’s gray areas are hard to argue with, what cannot be denied is that the dialogue in Max Payne 3 is persistently horrible. Max Payne is a washed up cop, I get it. He’s not the brightest individual. Okay. Stop reminding me of that every five seconds.
Lest anyone think I am being overly critical in this last instance, I’ve taken the liberty of including real, actual quotations taken directly from the game. As you play through the campaign, these are literally, exactly the sorts of absurd things you should expect to hear:
“Only blind luck it meant the blast wasn’t fatal.” (No, “it” meant your editor was sleeping.)
“I was a dumb American in a place where a dumb American was less popular than the clap.” (I infer then that A: there are places where dumb Americans are more popular than the clap, and B: there are places where the clap is popular.)
“Look at me, I had been contracted to protect two people…” (This one is just funny because when Max says it, the camera pans in to look directly at him, then you die in the middle of your exposition, crushed by a burning building.)
“I was jumping the gun with bullets left to shoot.” (Metaphor: will it blend?)
“’Me and Passos went to the Academy together.’ ‘Did you?’ ‘I don’t f—ing know!’” (No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!)
“It was perfect. Everyone wanted a ticket for the Max Payne express.” (That’s because they couldn’t get tickets to my gun show.)
“You’re pissing in the wrong pool Max!” (You want the yellow pool, over there Max.)
“And now your local forecast: boy it’s dark in some places and sunny everywhere else.” (Let’s talk more about those dark places, attractive sounding anchorwoman.)
Needless to say, with writing of that caliber the story itself never feels gripping. It is more a series of stumbles that Max drinks his way through, which you accept as a necessary vehicle to facilitate gun violence. Without giving away any plot spoilers, Max begins the game by laughably sucking at his job, transitions to just sucking at his job, then ends up simply sucking, at something he isn’t even getting paid to do.
There are plenty of other frustrating points to go over, but for the interests of brevity we’ll skip to the multiplayer. One of the few aspects where Rockstar seems to have learned some lessons is in this mode. In the beginning only standard death matches are available, but after you have earned a few kills and ranked up your character, more game types become available. Here you will have the opportunity to customize character loadouts, have a specific button for melee attacks (missing from the single player game), and actually have crosshairs for certain weapons. If you enjoyed multiplayer in Read Dead, you may find this system familiar, but what you may sadly miss is that open world to roam. Yes, the game does a good job of giving you golden gun parts and clues to find, as well as weapon/kill specific challenges to complete in single and multi-player. The levels in multi-player are more open than those in the campaign, but that isn’t saying much.
All in all, Max Payne 3 does have something to offer fans who are willing to forgive certain shortcomings. If you never liked Max to begin with, this title certainly won’t change your mind, and as far as history goes, though the game seems to be enjoying some relative popularity at the moment, given enough time and distance it will most likely be remembered as the game that definitely wasn’t as good as Uncharted 3.
Red Dead Redemption: Max Payne is not John Marston. Though they both have similar eerie abilities to slow down time, John’s health regenerates, giving him the edge in combat. Also, despite the fact that Marston’s weapons should be historically more inaccurate than those wielded by ex-cop Payne, Marston can zoom in and place shots with greater accuracy than Max can.
Kane & Lynch 2: Both games have the same gritty feel. Thankfully there is no nudity in Max Payne, whose visuals otherwise do not reach the same blurringly awful level. Also, the combat is more accurate and suffers from fewer bugs in MP 3 as opposed to Kane & Lynch. Where it comes to multiplayer, the concepts on offer in Kane & Lynch are decidedly better – who doesn’t love pulling off a bank heist only to shoot your accomplices in the back, Reservoir Dogs style? But the execution of MP 3 is far more polished, making it clearly the better play.