They call it emergent gameplay. This idea that there is only the game, and what you do with it is up to you. We call it a sandbox. It can be anything from a real, open-world, freeform game with player-defined goals like Sim City or Crusader Kings 2, or a scripted, player-driven experience like Deus Ex or the promised freedoms of Splinter Cell Blacklist and Watch Dogs where the goals are set but the methods used to achieve them are up to you.
It’s all the rage, and many highbrow games designers are convinced it’s where the games industry is headed. Rockstar have had more than their fair share of influence in this exciting area with the open-world frolics of the GTA games. Max Payne 3, though?
In fact, as open-world, freeform games that inspire creativity and thought in the player go, Max Payne ranks as low as it gets. You’re a guy with a gun – lots of guns, in fact – and you move through a series of tightly confined levels, sometimes with literally no choice of direction at all and in many cases ‘on the rails’ as the gunner in a vehicle, and you shoot people. With the aforementioned guns. As much as in any game I’ve ever played, Max Payne 3 has the feel of a shooting gallery, with targets popping up for you to knock down. There are no ‘RPG elements’ unless you count shooting rocket-propelled grenades from the sky (with your guns) and there is no dramatically branching storyline to worry about. There are a couple of collectable trinkets scattered around, but truth be told you’re sort of encouraged not to bother with them, as any time you stop to explore you’re urged to get a move on, either by your partner or by your own internal monologue.
It’s fair to say, then, that if you’re looking for a game with complex and deep level design with lots to explore off the beaten track, there’s not a lot here for you. Also, replayability is perhaps an issue, but we’ll come back to that.
Because Max Payne 3 doesn’t want you to wander around slowly, digging through each and every rubbish bin or filing cabinet you come across. It wants you to charge through the levels guns blazing. It aims to create a white-knuckle action movie experience that gets your heart pounding. And it pulls it off with panache.
Max is an IP with pedigree, of course. Who can forget the sublime genius of the first game, with its tongue-in cheek yet excellent monologue and comic book-esque cast of characters, not to mention the introduction of the now-ubiquitous Bullet Time™? The inevitable sequel was terrified to change anything about the original and just served up more of the same, albeit perhaps in a bit more of a silly way.
So Rockstar would be fools to change the core of what made the original so good. But Rockstar are certainly not fools. Max Payne 3’s controls are incredibly similar to the original, with the inevitable addition of cover and properly destructible environments. James McCaffrey reprises the lead role, and the first time that monologue kicks in, it’s like seeing ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’ at the opening of a Star Wars game: reassuringly familiar and charged with promise. The story has a very Rockstar feel to it, and the style, pace and storytelling themes feel like they could have come from a GTA game – and it fits surprisingly well. If the design team wanted to make a Max Payne game that’s faithful to the original but with a Rockstar slant (and I suspect they did), then they succeeded.
The idea that you’re playing an action movie is incredibly well implemented. The camera shakes around in a gonzo fashion as if some poor cameraman is running to keep up with the action, and playable action transitions constantly into cutscene and back with very little fuss, although some of these cutscenes are perhaps a little long.
Gameplay does take a little getting used to and can be merciless, but it rewards getting into the thick of the action. Oddly, aimed shots (prepared by using the right mouse button to steady your aim or zoom in, depending on the weapon) seemed to me to be less accurate than just firing from the hip, and diving randomly around shooting everyone in the face in Bullet Time™ is easily the best tactic. If you have painkillers and you lose all of your health, the game offers you a free slow-motion chance to shoot your attacker, and provided you make the kill, the painkillers are used and you’re back on your feet.
Max has traditionally been something of a loner, with the exception of the femme fatale Mona, of course, but in Max Payne 3 he works mostly with a partner, Raul Passos. This interplay works surprisingly well, giving Max a foil to bounce off, and someone to discuss his plans with, rather than it all having to happen in monologue. The monologue is still there, of course, but the relationship between Max and Raul is just one example of the tightly-scripted dialogue. Max’s struggle with alcoholism and self-pity is a strong theme, and Max’s bedraggled appearance and grimy apartment give depth to his character.
So. Replay value. It’s a tough one, because there is no more or less replay value than Max Payne 1, but I’ve played that first game through to completion about five times. I know a man who played it all the way through using essentially nothing but a single Beretta, going for nothing but headshots. Max Payne 3 is not a game you’ll replay to see new things, it’s a game you’ll replay because it’s fun.
If you’ve read TeroMarsu’s review, you’ll no doubt be wondering about the problems he pointed out. Yes, it’s a little buggy in places, but I had nowhere near the trouble he did. The decision for the game to switch weapons on you during a cutscene is mystifying and certainly annoying, but once you get the hang of the weapon selection wheel it’s nothing you can’t deal with, although why you’re forced to have to deal with it I really don’t understand. I found the difficulty curve just about right, even on the hardest skill setting. It’s certainly not easy, but it’s never really infuriating.
Multiplayer is a pretty good laugh, and it’s always funny to come through a doorway and see someone flying through the air, MAC-10s akimbo, right past your nose. These insane acrobatics and the huge amount of unlockable character skins and outfits made me think of Brink. Unfortunately it’s not just new shirts and hats:- some of the multiplayer modes are locked when you start out as well. Why exactly they’d limit your choice of game modes until you’d played through a bunch of deathmatch or team deathmatch rounds is beyond me.
Oh yes, the graphics and the system requirements. The Chillaxe managed spiffingly with everything set pretty much to max (appropriately enough), so anyone with a pretty good system should be able to get a great experience. Check Game Debate’s finely tuned predicted specs to get an accurate idea of whether you can run it. The game looks beautiful for the most part, and is excellently shot and acted (like the action movie it so obviously is trying to be), although the random words that stab across the screen during cutscenes are overused a little and lose some of their punch later on. The bullet wounds, as TeroMarsu pointed out, are kind of ridiculous as well. That said, levels are occasionally interesting and beautifully depicted, if extremely linear.
There’s no taking away from it – as a fast-paced successor to the previous games with the emphasis on punchy dialogue, gritty, brooding story and rapid-fire gunplay, Max Payne 3 unequivocally succeeds. There’s room for improvement, certainly, and the lack of player choice might not sit well with some gamers. But as a playable action movie without having to put up with Marky Mark, it’s a solid choice.