It’s never easy redefining an old hero for the current age or bringing back an old favourite. All too often, changes in both the culture at large and gaming itself make it hard for something to retain its relevance without major alteration to the template that made it successful in the first place. Max Payne is arguably such a character, so steeped in late-Nineties gaming tropes that his return could have easily been handled the wrong way. While the original games were elevated by the way Remedy wrapped its action shooters in a clever pastiche of hard-boiled action cinema, crime noir and Norse mythology, that approach could arguably never have worked in 2012 – it would simply come off as cheesy or, worse still, feel like a tired re-tread of old ground long since covered.
Thankfully for the tortured New York detective’s fans, Rockstar is clearly aware of the double-barrelled challenge it has set itself in bringing back Max and his particularly bombastic style of shooter play for Max Payne 3. This isn’t quite the same maniacally grinning, gun-toting detective we all remember; he’s being reflected through a far more modern lens. It’s a brutal revenge drama in the style of Man On Fire and unmistakably a Max Payne adventure, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
It certainly means the story beats are quite different, as we join an aged, fat and alcoholic Payne, lured by old friend Raul Passos into working in Sao Paulo, Brazil as a bodyguard to the decadently rich Branco family. Max – voiced by returning glass-gargler James McCaffrey – is forced to rely on his gunplay skills while being pushed towards the edge of reason. As ever, Rockstar is not only playing with storytelling as you bounce in and out of Max’s life at various parts of the narrative, but also making its standard wry social commentary. The contrast between the gleaming world of the Sao Paulo jet set and the poor of the favelas is slowly revealed to only be skin deep, as the ugliness under the surface of both bubbles to the top. The narrative becomes brutally harsh, although old Payne fans may feel Max himself isn’t quite personally tortured as much as he has been in the past.
But what really shines is the return of Max Payne’s stylish and bloody third-person shooting. It’s gratifying how much Rockstar has retained the feel of many Payne staples – like the now ubiquitous Bullet Time and his classic shoot-dodge – but has also given them a new flavour, mostly thanks to the best use of Euphoria and NaturalMotion yet. The physics make combat in Max Payne 3 simply jaw-dropping. Bullets strike enemies with furious impact, sending blood spiralling into the air and bodies spinning to the ground in spectacular fashion. As you’d expect, combat is all about forward motion; where other third-person shooters would force you into conservatively using cover, Max Payne 3 demands you dive in with gusto. Bullet Time takes centre-stage, triggered either by shoot-dodging, which sees Max launch himself into the air at enemies in slow-mo, or by clicking the right stick. There is a new cover mechanic but relying on it too much often sees you swarmed. And besides, you feel far cooler diving through the air and blazing away at enemies – especially when you kill the last man in the room, triggering a final kill cam that tracks the bullet in agonising slow-mo as it enters their body, and lets you keep pumping bullets into them.
While you feel deadly, Max Payne 3’s difficulty level is slightly old-school; its health mechanic, based again on taking pain pills and the amount of damage you take from hits can quickly put you down. It makes for an interesting risk/reward system as you tackle foes, and makes its polished, stylish moment-by-moment combat gripping. Some clever design, especially in the favelas, means that combat works on several levels, and the freedom offered in the heat of battle breaks up any feelings of linearity.
Yet for all its polish, it often feels like there’s a bit of an internal struggle going on in Max Payne 3, as it attempts to wow with its bombastic combat while telling its gritty story. Sudden, staccato shifts from gameplay into cut-scenes occasionally feel imposing, especially in quick succession, and the way Rockstar blocks out encounters makes its checkpoint system occasionally frustrating – you can battle through an entire slew of enemies, only to fall prey to a lone gunman and have to replay a large section of the game.
Worse yet, it can sometimes feel like you’re simply moving from one ‘kill box’ to the next. To be fair, Rockstar has tried to counter this issue by offering players additional pills after multiple deaths, and injecting a great deal of variety into stages with set-pieces based around Bullet Time or particular story moments, and the approach largely works. Having Max fall off a scaffolding or zipped up a pulley in slo-mo as you painstakingly take out an entire group of enemies, for example, is a real thrill, as are the vehicle sections that see you defending yourself against hordes of chasing enemies. One such sequence, which throws Max into the middle of a boat-based chase-and-shoot at the end of the game’s first disc, is particularly spectacular, and moments like this very much fit Max Payne 3’s modern action movie vibe, and you can’t help but get caught up in the immediacy of the moment.
Ultimately, none of the story beats or polish mask the fact that Max Payne 3 is very much a refinement of an old formula, and if you’re looking for something brand new or revelatory it just isn’t here. However, what is amazing is how Rockstar has fallen back on its trademark production values and sublime attention to detail to update the franchise in a compelling way. Factor in some impressive multiplayer offerings and it’s still head-and-shoulders above most of its trigger-happy ilk. Which perhaps says as much about the state of the genre as it does Rockstar’s obvious skill.