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When Max Payne switches from a two-handed weapon to the handgun in his holster, he doesn’t reach behind his back to plant the larger gun firmly on the adhesive outer surface of his jacket. It doesn’t vanish inside the TARDIS-like confines of his pockets either, sent to that mysterious alternate dimension called the inventory screen. Instead, he loosely dangles the weapon by his side, while getting to business with the pistol in the other hand. You’d think this would make reloading tricky, but Payne has a system. He tucks the big gun in the crook of his arm, grabs and inserts a clip into his pistol with his freed hand, and lets the larger gun fall back into his grip.
The first time you see this, it’s a delight, the smooth animation showcasing Payne’s efficient weapon-handling skills, while also throwing down the gauntlet to games that think details such as the practicalities of juggling a videogame arsenal don’t, or shouldn’t, matter. By the fourth reload, it already looks more canned, but by then the statement of intent has been made.
Max Payne 3 is all about such details, its astonishing production values fashioning a world richer than a string of bowls and corridors designed to showcase Payne’s athletic style of gunplay really needed to be. Turn on a TV in the empty back rooms of a football stadium and, once you’ve waited through a Portuguese-language advert for washing powder and the obligatory news report obliquely filling in the backstory, you’ll find yourself treated to a two-minute snippet of a Latin telenovela, in which an absurdly vampish mistress intrudes on a scene of domestic bliss. Unless you speak Portuguese, you’ll have no idea what the cast is saying, but the fact you don’t need to is part of the joke.
Of course, previous games had their own in-universe programming (a trick Remedy returned to in Alan Wake), but watch the shows in São Paulo and it’s hard not to be reminded of similar TV stations in Liberty City. The first Payne game to be developed by Rockstar might hew closely to its predecessors in gameplay terms, but it’s clear the New York-based publisher has brought the full force of its world-building skills, eye for cinematic flair and deep pockets to bear here.
In Rockstar’s hands, the hard-drinking, pill-popping Payne has been not so much reimagined as intensified, the last traces of his droll wit exchanged for yet harder-edged cynicism, and a greater, more explicit sense of dependency and addiction surrounding his substance abuse. He still supplies his signature noirish narration over actions as basic as walking through a door, and the dialogue still wavers tremulously on the line between pastiche and parody (“All this unfinished business and all I could think about was my unfinished Scotch,” growls a returning James McCaffrey early on). Pop health-restoring painkillers mid-game, meanwhile, and the vivid colours of the favela are temporarily traded for a muted, foggy haze. Even the cutscenes are filled with distractingly boozy blurs of smeared colour and double vision. The overall aesthetic does capture something of an addict’s hazily recalled journey through the South American underworld, with those frequent bursts of slow-mo gunplay functioning like chemically induced moments of lucidity.
Normally, Max Payne plays like any other post-Gears shooter, the intrusion of a cover mechanic into this traditionally more gung-ho hero’s world coinciding with slightly tougher enemies, more liable to drop Payne in seconds if he doesn’t hunker down. As ever, though, once his adrenaline meter is filled he can enter bullet time, a slow-mo state that allows him to carefully pick targets and squeeze out dozens more rounds than his foes. While a press of the right stick will cause simple slow motion, a tap of the right shoulder will send Payne into an unhurried dive.
It’s the latter that blends most intriguingly with the new focus on cover, the period of near-invulnerability the so-called ‘shootdodge’ conveys allowing for last-second dives for shelter. At times, the two systems are at odds, given that cluttered environments filled with waist-high walls aren’t ideal to dive across. At others, they blend well, such as when Payne transitions from kneeling behind a wall to leaping over it, twin pistols in hand, or when he just happens to find himself in a slum filled with cover spots each spaced exactly one dive’s length apart. You’re at the mercy of level design, in other words, having to work out from the lie of the land which tactic you should lean most heavily upon. Should you misjudge it, however, you may find yourself in need of the new addition to the slow-mo manoeuvres family, the Last Man Standing ability. If Payne is carrying painkillers and gets ‘killed’, he has a few seconds of slow-mo invulnerability to take out his attacker. If he does, he’ll be miraculously reborn mid-battle.
Combat is focused on prioritising targets and judiciously using bullet time to surgically take them out. Both Max Payne and Red Dead Redemption employ NaturalMotion’s Euphoria tech to ensure that a baddie shot in the leg crumples to the ground believably, but Payne’s shootouts with increasingly well-armored foes leave little time for Red Dead’s playful experimentation. In fact, naturalistic animation has become an Achilles’ heel for Payne – dive towards a wall and you’ll snap out bullet time when Payne knocks his skull on it, rather than sliding cleanly down the barrier as in previous games. It still couples with the slow-mo shooting to appropriately cinematic effect, however, allowing you to fully appreciate the Cronenberg-style holes you’ve made in someone’s face while their head snaps back.
But get past the visual flair and grisly detail, and Max Payne’s gunplay is fairly straightforward. From tutorial to credits, Max Payne 3 refuses to play with its core mechanics. This means that aside from the occasional on-rails section or slow-mo set-piece, Rockstar is reliant on the story to keep players engaged. How effective a gambit this is will hinge on your response to Max’s hardboiled schtick. He’s not exactly likeable, and while the plot dutifully conjures a series of cartoony villains even more hateful than he is, it suffers from the absence of a strong supporting cast – Payne’s sidekick, Passos, might be handy in a gunfight, but he’s certainly no Chloe, Elena or Sully.
Ironically for a game with such clear cinematic ambition and so serious a tone, it takes a pair of high-pressure score-chasing modes to rejuvenate the campaign. The first, Score Attack, rewards headshots and stylish, slow-mo kills, while New York Minute turns each level into time trial, rewarding kills with extra seconds on the clock as you attempt to carve an optimal murdering line through its courses. Both of these modes require perfectionism rather than true experimentation, but once you’ve unlocked them there’s no point returning to the vanilla story mode.
The irony of the singleplayer lacking variety is that the multiplayer’s centrepiece mode is built around it. Gang Wars is a team-based gametype that begins with rounds of objective-based games before descending into a deathmatch, and the team that performed best in the previous missions starts with a points advantage in the final battle. It’s a mode carefully calibrated to hook into some of the multiplayer’s more intriguing mechanics, such as a Vendetta system that enables you to mark players who have frequently bested you. These bitter rivalries are mirrored by tentative alliances in Payne Killer mode, a king of the hill variant in which players fight over the roles of Payne and Passos. These characters get a health and weapon bonus, but are forced into competitive cooperation as they align themselves against the combined might of the other players.
All the multiplayer modes benefit from a curious interpretation of Payne’s bullet time ability, one of many perk-like skills called bursts that players can equip, and which functions according to line of sight rather than affecting the entire map. Whoever activates the power gets a relative speed bonus, but anyone who can see (or is seen by) that player gets their reaction time dulled. It’s a rejig that twists bullet time into an attack as much as an innate advantage, but it works surprisingly well in team-based modes with clear battle lines, with savvier players able to scupper the other team’s charge across no man’s land. Free-for-all deathmatches feel hectic and confused, however, since you’re less able to predict the angles from which you’ll suddenly be struck by a speed-sapping attack.
Max Payne 3 might solve the problem of how you manage to reload when carrying more than one gun, but detailing alone can’t change the fact that this is a surprisingly conservative game from Rockstar. Its absorption of cover mechanics makes Payne feel more familiar than he should, but even then his signature tricks are over a decade old. This is a game about a world-weary killer doing the only thing he knows how to, and for all its spectacular action beats there’s something apt about Max’s fatigue.
Xbox 360 version tested. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the Max Payne 3 Edge forum thread, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.