Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Surpassing all my expectations, Rockstar has delivered one hell of an action game that without a doubt lives up to the Max Payne name

At just around the time the gaming industry was ready to be flipped on its head by the release of Grand Theft Auto III, another little game was making its rounds. The original Max Payne, a title mixing some truly dark storytelling with stylish action and addictive gameplay, was getting under gamers' skins bit by bit. With strong writing, a compelling main character, its great noir setting, plus the awesome ability to control your own bullet time as you took out enemy after enemy, Max Payne seemed like it was on its way to becoming one of gaming's biggest new franchises. Take Two Interactive seemed to think so, as the publisher bought the Max Payne series from Remedy (its original developers,) though they paid Remedy to return to develop the sequel, which, despite being better than the original in every way, didn't do particularly well commercially. The result was that Max Payne has remained a dormant franchise since 2003...forgetting the awful film adaptation, of course. 

When Take Two Interactive announced their plans to develop a 3rd Max Payne, I was worried, to say the least. Remedy opted not to participate in its development, choosing only to provide advice and input while writing and development rested entirely in the hands of Rockstar Games (GTA). Images of a bald Max, a sunny setting, and initial reports that the studio was not looking to bring back actor James McCaffrey as the voice of the title character (a decision they thankfully went back on, more on that later) had me worried, but now that the game's here, my fears have been put entirely to rest. As a fan of the series I felt right at home the second I heard McCaffrey's gritty and sarcastic narration, and it became clear very quickly that not only would this game live up to its legacy, but it would surpass it in nearly every way.

Graphics: Visually Max Payne 3 is stunning. The decision to set the game in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo has provided Rockstar with countless opportunities to dazzle us, and from the polish of its office buildings to the bustling of its nightclubs and the chaos of its slums, the setting created here is every bit as compelling as the dark and snowy New York neighborhoods from the first two games. Atmospherics are top notch, with great use of background music (especially in the slums) to make you feel like you're in the moment right along with Max. Whenever you find yourself at the top of a skyscraper and get to witness the city sprawled out below (often in the midst of a dramatic sunset) it's jaw-dropping, just as much as when you're battling for your life in the claustrophobic alleyways or dark bars of the slums. The game runs without a hitch, and the cutscenes, this time all handled in-game, transition so seamlessly into your gun battles (and back again) that it actually keeps you on your toes. With an incredible visual style, perfect lighting effects, and a consistently fluid framerate, Max Payne 3's visuals do not disappoint.

Gameplay: Developing a sequel to a franchise from the past is often a difficult task, especially if you're taking it over from another developer, but Rockstar finds the perfect balance between being both faithful to the gameplay of the originals, as well as adding new features that make sense. The basic gameplay remains the same: you control Max through linear environments, gunning down wave upon wave of enemies and witnessing story sequences and hearing Max's entertaining narration. With the click of an analog stick you trigger bullet time, which lets you dive through the air as you take out enemies in wonderous slow-mo. Health does not regenerate, but rather is replenished when you devour painkillers, which can be found throughout the environments. Weapons and ammo are collected the same way. While playing, you will encounter objects that you can investigate and television you can watch, (including the return of Captain Baseball Bat Boy) all of which immerse you further in the game's world, while at the same time giving you more opportunities to admire its incredible writing.

New to Max Payne 3 is a cover system, which allows you get behind cover with the press of a button, and despite my initial misgivings, I can't picture playing Max Payne without cover now. Utilizing cover definitely provides you with an advantage, but there are almost always different ways and strategies to dealing with the many groups of enemies you'll face, which is what I've always loved about this series. Your path through the adventure will be linear (almost all doors but the correct one are locked) but the way you deal with enemies is almost entirely up to you; the option to make use of cover just adds to this mix.

Also new to this installment is the ability to "save yourself" if you're near death. If you have at least one painkiller in your possession and an enemy fires a shot at you that would otherwise kill you, slow motion automatically triggers, allowing you a few additional seconds to "save yourself" by killing the enemy who fired at you. You have limited control in this mode; if you're out of ammo, you can't switch to another gun, and you have no ability to move your character, so if the target is blocked by something, or if you can't line your shot up and fire at him in time, you're out of luck. Like the cover system, this turns out to be another feature that I didn't realize this series even needed, but it's one that benefits the gameplay in countless ways. No longer do you have to watch your health meter obsessively to make sure you use a painkiller before dying; instead, this system allows you to be wary of your health and the amounts of painkillers you're carrying without making it a constant worry.

Playable cinematic sequences will occasionally occur to shake things up, and these slow-motion and controllable events are always a lot of fun; what would normally be a sequence that you'd view in all its glory in a cutscene is instead made playable, and there are some epic ones that I'm not going to spoil. It all feels so perfect, and for the most part, it is.

Really, the only flaw that I'd say stops it from achieving perfection is that a couple of the later levels, especially one taking place inside a police station and parts of another one in an airport baggage claim, feel uninspired, (and a little too cover-heavy) especially compared to what came before. They aren't awful, but it definitely feels like the smallest bit of filler rears its ugly head towards the end, and this filler makes the ending, when it does arrive, less climactic than I think it otherwise would have been. 

But that's really the only flaw that I can think of. With its frequent story sequences, nearly non-stop action, and Max's both incredibly funny and thought-provoking narration, the pacing here is pitch-perfect. This is a game that moves, and from start to (almost) finish, Max Payne 3 never falters.

Storyl......oh wait, I forgot. There's multiplayer, too. This isn't going to be a big part of the review; multiplayer's here if you want it, and thankfully the single-player's more than enough to be worth the $60 without it. I spent much of this past console generation away from home, far from my own Xbox 360, so for the most part I went without Xbox Live. So if multiplayer over the past several years didn't involve split screen with three buds playing along with me, I generally haven't been interested, especially considering how forgettable a lot of multiplayer modes are these days; why it's required to be shoehorned into almost every major release, I don't know. That said, I did dig up a 3 month Xbox Live subscription card I had lying around just so I could give this game's multiplayer a shot, and though it feels nothing like the single player mode and undoubtedly was developed by an entirely separate team, likely one in a different country, it's...fun, for what it is. I played it for a couple hours and have little desire to go back to it, but I can imagine gamers who are more into this sort of thing getting more involved and having fun with it. I don't know what it is, but playing multiplayer modes like these after such incredible single player experiences, to me, always feels like adding a video to the end credits of Goodfellas featuring Henry Hill and other characters from the movie running around and killing each other. I just can't help but wonder, "what the hell am I playing here, and what does it have to do with Max Payne 3?" Needless to say, Halo: Reach, this isn't.

Storyline: Though series creator Sam Lake has voiced his approval, the fact is, he had very little involvement in this story, but as much as I expected this to hurt the game, I have to hand it to Dan Houser and the others at Rockstar; I wouldn't have been able to tell. The storyline here is very well-told; Max has been given more personality (and dialogue) than he's ever had before, and the quality of the script and that of the performances has improved significantly. Though this is a new scenario taking place many years after the events of Max Payne 2, it never forgets its roots, and the playable flashbacks to New York City and its surrounding areas are some of my favorite parts of Max Payne 3. In its first hour or so the game almost seems a little *too* cutscene-heavy, but then it balances itself out very quickly; rarely have I seen a storyline in a video game woven in so well with its gameplay. Max Payne 3 doesn't feel like it's divided between gameplay and story, instead feeling like one single experience, merging the intense and powerful (if occasionally a little over-stylized) cutscenes with the gameplay, for the most part, seamlessly. If you allow yourself to be pulled in by this story and the character of Max Payne, brace yourself for one hell of a ride. The only aspect that's missing, the one and only aspect, is the overall weirdness; the disturbing dream sequences, the journeys into Max's mind, the use of Norse mythology....they're nowhere to be found here, and if there's one thing from the first two games that the storyline to part three is missing, it's this.

But that's a very minor complaint; with a story told this well, with a main character you not only care about but root for, and with such incredible writing and immersive settings, I didn't find myself missing them nearly as much as I thought I would.

Sound: The soundtrack, composed by the band Health, sets the scene perfectly, its subtle intensity mixing in well with the action while never over-powering it. The use of licensed music as background noise also works perfectly and helps to create a world that feels truly alive. Sound effects too are excellent, but this is all nothing when compared to the performance by actor James McCaffrey as Max Payne. His acting, already strong in the first two games, is even better here, and it's crucial this time around; Max has a line of dialogue almost every time he picks up a painkiller. Thankfully, McCaffrey has proven more than up to the task, giving a performance full of subtleties and always hitting the right notes. It’s work that he should definitely be proud of; with Max Payne 3, he’s truly made the character his own. I don't think anybody else should ever play this role.

Replay Value: You can play through the game's missions arcade-style, with leaderboards and a time limit. There are harder difficulties, and the aforementioned online multiplayer. Though I'm not sure exactly how many hours it took me, the main story feels longer than that of the first two games, so I'd say Max Payne 3 is a good value for your $60.

Verdict: Max Payne 3 is, as far as I'm concerned, a true benchmark for the action game genre and, even beyond that, one of the best games I've played in a long time. A compelling narrative blends with an almost perfect gameplay experience, one which improves upon the first two and modernizes them while keeping intact what made them great. But this is all about the title character, and a quality script and a near-perfect performance does not let him down. Whether you're a fan or have never played Max Payne before, if you love action games or are a sucker for a strong story, I'd unquestionably recommend Max Payne 3; for me it not only delivered, but shattered all of my expectations.

Presentation: Great story that will have you itching to see what happens next. Jaw-dropping action, minimal HUD, and, once the game boots up, no loading to speak of...in single-player, anyway; multiplayer's a whole other story there, though thankfully you can avoid it entirely.

Graphics: Stunning art direction and use of lighting, plus a high attention to detail and varied environments grab you immediately. Occasional bland area aside, the game's a constant visual treat. No slowdown.

Gameplay: Near perfection. Max Payne has never been so fun, and its gameplay and story have never before been so seamlessly woven together.

Sound: Great music, incredible performances.

Replay Value: It's there in the form of some arcade time attack modes and leaderboards, as well as a fully developed online multiplayer mode if you're into that sort of thing. The storyline itself offered me plenty for my money, however.

Overall: 9.5/10.

Note: My reviews go by a .5 scale. This is a review of the Xbox 360 version.

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