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Max Payne 3 (PlayStation 3) artwork

Max Payne 3 (PlayStation 3) review

"Thinking on your feet is a necessity. The development, execution, and results of a plan happen almost simultaneously so that, by the time you've decided what to do about the guy sneaking up on your hiding place, you've already blind-pumped bullets into him, leapt out of cover across a bar counter crowded with glass, and bullet-time vaulted your way to a new hiding location—popping a guy in the head who was there before you—and are already dealing with the next situation."

It's taken me a long time to get around to reviewing Max Payne 3, especially considering my excitement for the title. I pre-ordered and beat it within the first few days of release. I played plenty of multiplayer and then... I just sort've waited. What was I waiting for? I was waiting for some kind of revelation, some kind of grandeur or awe to strike me after the fact. I was waiting for Max Payne to be more than the sum of its parts.

I need to immediately clarify that opening by saying that Max Payne 3 is a well-made game. It rises above every other third-person shooter I've played by exuding style and clever design without sacrificing control. If Max Payne 3 were in a bodybuilding competition, you might say about it that it is “well-toned,” has “good skin color,” and obviously spent “a lot of time and effort to get to this point.” In gaming terms, that translates to incredibly smooth and intuitive controls, unbelievably extensive reactions and animations, and levels that don't get lazy by recycling design or bland color palettes.

The graphics in particular are an incredible asset to the experience. Max Payne 3 uses its graphics for more than being pretty. Enemies react differently depending on where they are shot, how close they are shot, with what weapon they are shot, and the environment around them. It's stunning. A finishing pistol shot to the stomache may send an enemy in a nightclub stumbling forward onto their knees, while a submachine burst might plow someone through a high-rise office window. Every time you enter a room with enemies, even if it's only a couple of dudes with pistols, you'll know you're about to watch a mini-action film with a stylish and bloody climax. What really feels amazing about this is how much control over the “film” you have. You choreograph the action with every decision you make and each bullet you fire. And action is no longer isolated to just those moments when Max Payne enters bullet-time or slow-dives out of cover. These are still impressive moves, but now so is every move Max makes. There's a lot of weight to him. When he stops on a dime, he no longer just warps from a moving to a standing animation. No, he flows into the new position, sliding into a stop with the side of his heel and righting himself with a visible effort. Never does this affect the way the game controls. There's no drift to Max's movements. When you tell him to do something, he does it fast, but he does it realistically. Of course, Max has never held a lot of regard for his own well-being, so often this means he'll affect a quick drop to cover by slamming himself into a concrete barricade or wall. It also means that those dodges we're all so fond of are now sickeningly crunchy. When Max throws himself face first across some asphalt, you can feel the skin he's left behind.

Thinking on your feet is a necessity. The development, execution, and results of a plan happen almost simultaneously so that, by the time you've decided what to do about the guy sneaking up on your hiding place, you've already blind-pumped bullets into him, leapt out of cover across a bar counter crowded with glass, and bullet-time vaulted your way to a new hiding location--popping a guy in the head who was there before you--and are already dealing with the next situation. And the sets serve to augment the action well. Environments, especially the indoor environments, are loaded with details and everything seems able to take damage. Whether it's bullets grinding their way into wooden doors--dusting the ground with splinters--or bottles of Vodka exploding in a hail of bullets, everything in Max Payne seems designed to be a spectacle.

This intensity itself becomes its own worst enemy, unfortunately, and what I mean when I say that the game doesn't amount to more than what you'll see in the first couple of stages. The problem with having the dial turned up to 11 from the very start of the game is that it doesn't leave much room for stepping things up. It's not like Max gains any improvements to his bullet-time abilities in later levels. Oh sure, you will find a new shotgun or assault rifle every once in a while, but the acquisition of such improved weaponry is generally perfectly timed with an approaching horde of better-armored enemies, keeping things perpetually high strung. If you aren't dying every thirty seconds (playing on anything above medium difficulty), then Max Payne 3 lasts for about 10-12 hours and by the end you'll definitely be feeling like things have gotten a bit predictable. Especially in the later stages. When the enemies start coming in so many numbers that the best strategy is to lose all the impressive dodges and bullet-time rushes, things turn into a shooting gallery game. You'll stay behind cover to pot-shot at strafing enemies, occasionally freezing time to aid your aim. In fact, the last boss forces you to do this and then follows it up with an on-the-rails car chase in which you're nearly invulnerable. It's a sad ending to such a fantastic start. While the diversity of the stages and the impressive animations keep things from quite becoming stale, the single player mode ultimately limps, rather than dives, across the finish line.

There's also a problem with the storytelling. Mainly, there's too much telling spread across too thin a story. The titular Max Payne monologues a very simple tale: he finally kills one too many people in Jersey, hightails it with an old friend to San Paulo, and gets caught up in a gang war there. It shouldn't be a spoiler at this point to say that he's double-crossed by someone and gets framed for murder. This is the exact same plot that we've been playing for three games. I don't even mind that; part of what lends the game that unique Max Payne feel is the ensured betrayal and payback. What I mind is the game acting like this is some great new epic twist that deserves hours of discussion.

The cutscenes are lengthy and mostly involve dialog--in this case, middle-aged men sitting around chatting (sound familiar?). It's not bad dialog but it is mostly inconsequential dialogue. This is a definite fall from the original games where the speeches were brief but important. Everything was either a plot point, offered insight into a character, or was a snappy noir one-liner that just made you happy to be playing the game. Here, those things are present, but they seem to be buried under meaningless patter. The over-the-top comic book style made the cutscenes in earlier games feel like a bit of a reward for beating a level. They were artistic, different, and cool. Here the cutscenes use in-game graphics, and it's never as cool as what you can do with those graphics when you're actually playing the game.

One chapter started me off with a ten minute cutscene. Then I got to play for ten minutes, but all I was allowed to do was walk (no running allowed) down a linear path while listening to Max monologue inside his head. Then I saw another ten minute cutscene (of Max chatting in a bar) and then I was finally allowed to play the game. This wasn't isolated to one egregious chapter. This happens a lot in the game and it very much breaks the flow. Even skipping these cutscenes is not always allowed, as they are often used to give the game time to load the expansive levels. This, combined with the fact that you can get as much enjoyment from the action in the first three levels as from the rest, definitely hurts the replayability of the main chapters.

That's where multiplayer comes in. The multiplayer experience far outlasts the single player mode and continually provides new thrills to lovers of the adrenaline-pumping combat. Unlike many multiplayer games, which simplify animations and avatars from the single player experience, everything remains intact here. Opponents react impressively to killing shots, making it all the more satisfying to riddle a body with bullets for a few seconds after they've died or to blast a player backwards off a fire-escape with a well-aimed shotgun. In short, the multiplayer becomes a sort of sandbox experience, where every action scene you ever wanted to see played out in the main game will eventually happen but faster and with more variation. Better yet, you'll still be at the heart of it, directing the action with each dodge, each kill, and even each death. It's one game where it's kind've cool to see yourself get punked.

The level designs are far better than those seen in other third-person shooters, such as Uncharted and Gears of War. Real attention has been given to providing a mish-mash of playing styles while avoiding letting any one style rule supreme. Levels have tons of wrap-arounds and are small enough that they maintain an arena-like chaotic feel. If you get a chance to breathe, though, there are plenty of good places to sneak off to, to bag a couple kills. Nowhere in a level is safe from snipers, but each sniper's nest also has multiple backdoors leading to them, meaning you can pick one, make a kill, and run off to the next one--if you're fast enough. The game becomes almost chess-like as you try to guess where your opponents will be headed to next and place yourself accordingly.

Deathmatch supports a lot of players (I've gone up to forty, before) with no lag or server issues present. Other modes exist, as well. The most interesting of them is probably the “gang war” mode. It's really a five-round match, with each round having a new objective based on what happened in the last round. It tries to weave in a free-flowing story that changes based on the round outcomes--which is successful in a sort've unimpressive way. I mean, you just can't do that much with a story that basically reads: “Team A won/lost.” Some of the objectives are very cool, though. My favorite is a classic Mexican-stand off, where all the players from both teams start the level right next to each other. Everyone has only one life in this mode, so it becomes a bloody recreation of the Okie Corral. It's a rare objective and it's generally over in mere seconds... and it's damn great.

So that's Max Payne 3. Yeah, it took me a long time to get it out there. It was baffling for me to judge because it clearly delivered on what it had promised yet left me feeling oddly unsatisfied. The action can't be argued with: it's intense and it really does set new standards for the genre, both in terms of graphics and control. The problem, I've decided, is that it delivers on its promise too soon and then leaves itself nowhere to go. If this were still the age of rentals, I would say that everyone should play it once but only people who are fans of multiplayer deathmatches should own it forever.


zippdementia's avatar
Featured community review by zippdementia (June 05, 2012)

Zipp has spent most of his life standing in an open field west of a white house, with a boarded front door. There is a small mailbox there. Sometimes he writes reviews and puts them in the mailbox.

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bbbmoney posted June 18, 2012:

Now, I haven't beaten it yet, maybe halfway through -- currently having trouble on the part with the drive by motor boats. Playing on hard and just wasn't in the mood when the checkpoint took me so far back.

Anyways, I agree that this game pretty much says all it needs to say by the first chapter. There's no new pull to the mechanics, and so far the set ups haven't been notched up to a much higher level of intensity. But I think I'm appreciating the storytelling a lot more than you did, it felt like an important aspect of the game as opposed to an interruption.

Like that bar scene, it took control away from the player for a long time, longer than what feels appropriate for a game that people seem to look at as a one big firefight. But when the girl gets hit in the face and control swings back to the player, I see the reticle on the enemy and it's sort of at that moment where I understood Payne's character. The game told me to shoot, because of all the things Payne didn't give a shit about it, he still didn't like to see a girl get swung at.

From what we've discussed in the past -- talks over FF and all -- I get the feeling you're not a huge fan of cutscenes in gaming, or at least how they're handled. You make good cases for why, and I'd probably agree about Max Payne 3 not doing anything too special with the concept, but eh -- so far it's pretty cool. Otherwise I'd have ditched it to play more of the awesome multiplayer.

Sorry I haven't finished it yet, I know I might be missing the big picture.
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zippdementia posted June 19, 2012:

Hey, thanks for posting, holdthephone! You aren't the first person to enjoy Max Payne's cutscenes more than I did. Did you play the older Max Paynes? They were a big reason I had trouble with this one's scenes. I felt like I knew what was coming chapters before it did. I'd be curious to know what you think about the ending of the game and whether it leaves you emotionally satisfied or not. Story is always interesting to talk about, because people have such a diverse variance in how they like a story to be approached. Glad you're enjoying the action!
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bbbmoney posted June 20, 2012:

Alright after getting much further I'm more in line with your views. I stand by what I said earlier, but it seems the 2nd half of the game is sinking to the levels of MGS4.

Before, the action came at pretty meaty lengths, where I felt the cutscenes were more concise and even the long ones had some significance to the game. But while entering the São Paulo segment was cool, as it progressed from there I definitely saw where you were coming from. Literally 10 second bursts of action followed by some really winded dialogue from Payne, usually just him repeating how clueless his is. They give you control for enough time to turn the next corner and then it's another 3 minute scene of this nonsense.

Same applies to the flashback chapter in the graveyard. I just finished both of these and I'm astonished at how much fun I wasn't having. Truthfully I have little desire to finish because of this, which is okay because I didn't pick the game up to review anyways ^_^

And no, I've never played a Max Payne as being very young I wasn't interested, plus I've always thought bullet time was tacky aside from The Matrix. Going into Max Payne 3 though I really enjoyed the character, and the humor. I wasn't taking it too seriously because the game didn't seem to take itself to seriously (i.e bullets making bloody swiss cheese of your jacket) -- but now it seems very serious and bad at being so.

Enemies getting beefier now is also getting annoying. Game no longer rewards me for headshots since everyone has magical helmets on. And half the game's cutscenes leading to me ducked behind cover in some kind of espionage approach is just weird. Didn't strike me as the game to just open up with cheap pot shots after each cinematic. Send me flying through more windows or something please!
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zippdementia posted June 20, 2012:

I didn't want to say it in my last post, because I didn't want to spoil anything and I didn't know how far you were, but you are exactly in line with my experience if you started feeling this way at Sao Paulo. That's where I pretty much locked in on the feelings that eventually became the review. And now I think you know which bar sequence I meant. It's right after he shaves his head. It's like they ran out of ideas for the action and so... everyone gets helmets.

There's still nothing quite as awesome in terms of balls-to-the-wall action and certainly nothing as good visually in the genre as Max Payne 3, but it is such a rental.

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