On the surface, a Max Payne sequel in the year 2012 was no doubt going to raise some eyebrows. With rumours of the next generation of consoles bubbling to the surface and the last two games approaching ‚Äėclassic‚Äô status, Max Payne 3 looked like another victim of game publisher tropes; the bizarre requirement that every beloved franchise be made into a trilogy, the not-always-advisable ‚Äėmodernising‚Äô of a vintage formula, and the uneasy method of staying true to the originals whilst providing enough modern updates for the current-gen gamer. Thankfully, while Max‚Äôs return to consoles suffers the odd misstep, it‚Äôs never anything less than utterly pulse-pounding.
If anything, Max‚Äôs eight-year absence seems excuse enough to make some instantly noticeable alterations. The gritty, New York setting of the originals is replaced by a sun-drenched Brazilian slum, whilst the graphic novel narration is replaced by a controversial mash-up of floating text, deliberate video glitches and 24-esque screen-splitting. It seems blasphemous to remove such a beloved gimmick from the franchise, yet Max‚Äôs demeanour has too become corrupted; after the tragic events of the previous games, he‚Äôs a pill-popping, self-loathing alcoholic, and whilst the dizzying new narrative formula seems designed primarily to induce migraines, it layers the game‚Äôs cut-scenes with a fractured sanity not unlike Max‚Äôs own. It helps that the storyline nips along at a blistering, suitably ridiculous pace and yet still finds time to sympathise with its damaged protagonist, making for a story just as riveting as its prequels. Max himself is as strong as ever, right down to his tortured metaphors ‚Äď even if his appearance is more Die Hard Bruce Willis than Sin City Bruce Willis ‚Äď and his fall from grace is surprisingly emotional to behold even if some clumsy scripting occasionally causes the story to drag, Max‚Äôs brooding prose somehow finding three different ways to say the same thing repeatedly. Must be an early case of Alzheimer‚Äôs.
While our cynical hero has aged, then, his game has only matured. The slow-motion bullet-dodging is as satisfying as ever (which may be why it features so prominently in shooters since being popularised by the original game). Yet it doesn‚Äôt simply allow the player to breeze through the game in exaggerated leaps and bounds; surprisingly, it‚Äôs backed up by the now-obligatory wall-hugging from more methodical shooters such as Gears of War. Any fears that the formula has been ruined, however, can be put to rest. Max Payne 3 favours neither the old-school shooters nor the contemporary, instead simply combining the two. While the results aren‚Äôt ground-breaking, they‚Äôre complimented with such balance that the game‚Äôs gunfights are both tense and tactical. Stay behind cover for too long, and enemies will lay down suppressive fire so a squadmate ‚Äď usually one with a shotgun ‚Äď can charge Max from the sides and take him down instantly. Leap around with reckless abandon, however, and Max finds himself dead before he hits the ground. No one mechanic is given priority, nor is one more favourable than the other; rather, these are abilities as much use to the player as the guns they arm themselves with. Snaking from cover to cover, blindfiring to ward off enemy advances, carefully popping off a headshot and then diving through a glass window to deliver a fatal shotgun blast ‚Äď all captured in gleefully perverse ‚ÄúBullet-Cam‚ÄĚ ‚Äď is as satisfying as it sounds. Max‚Äôs animations are fluid, considered and believable, giving his on-screen presence a weight and responsiveness that sits alongside Alan Wake‚Äôs as some of the best yet seen in a third-person game. While Max is lying down, for example, the player can rotate him as he fires an endless stream of shrapnel into his pursuers, all the while his legs shuffle, his body leans appropriately and his arms adjust to his firing position without obscuring player aim. Meanwhile, players who remember how easy it was to dive up and down stairs in previous games may be shocked, though perhaps not surprised, when attempting to do so here; it results in Max tumbling down them in a painful heap. This is more than just attention to detail, it lends a physical presence to Max‚Äôs world that the player has to always consider. It‚Äôs implemented with universal consideration, though it does threaten to eliminate the liberating bullet-dodging of earlier games when Max‚Äôs leaps can be cut short by a handrail to the ribs.
Nontheless, such burdens are eliminated by the game‚Äôs many set-pieces. Here, control is taken away from Max as a partner pilots a vehicle and the player is left to fire wildly at pursuers. A speedboat chase, a stagecoach getaway and a particular end-of-game gauntlet too good to ruin here are but a handful of action-movie clich√©s, all shamelessly stolen yet beautifully reproduced. They even find time to mix up the on-foot shooting, a duel taking place across two parallel train carriages requiring skilful aiming as the speed of each carriage varies and the two split off onto separate branches of track.
If any criticism can be levelled at Max Payne 3, then, it‚Äôs that the only thing there is to do is shoot people ‚Äď ridiculous as that complaint may sound. Yet while the shooting remains satisfying and challenging, it lacks the surprises that add so much zest to other action games. The derailed train from Uncharted 2, Half Life 2‚Äôs zombie-infested Ravenholm, the haunted cathedral from Thief 3 ‚Äď in Max Payne 3, there‚Äôs no equivalent, and in spite of the game‚Äôs utterly glorious combat it soon finds itself with little more to do than just throw more enemies at the player. In a gaming generation that sees its titles renowned by their most bombastic set-pieces, the series that popularised violent showboating probably deserved more. Whilst the final battle is suitably exhilarating, the endless swarm of soldiers beforehand threaten to crash the momentum fatally, resulting in a monotony bought on not only by repetitive design but by the frequent player deaths at what is, essentially, a challenge steeped in artifice.
Like Max himself, Max Payne 3 is relentless, tenacious, but also prone to the odd drunken stumble. Yet despite the missteps, the game‚Äôs ceaseless action and gripping story are enough to keep the player addicted through the 12-hour campaign. Even the multiplayer, often an afterthought in third-person shooters, is chaotic enough to warrant the odd thirty-minute blast. Do the best franchises really peak at their third instalment? On the evidence of Max Payne 3, we can only hope not ‚Äď there‚Äôs a great game here, and the potential for an even greater sequel.