• Max Payne 3 Review - Microsoft Xbox360

    Max Payne 3 is a third person action shooter hailing from the team at Rockstar. It marks the long awaited return of the titular character and his slow motion bullet dodging antics, albeit no longer developed by the series' creator Remedy Entertainment. It's patently obvious from the start that this is a typical Rockstar product, on the one hand that means fantastic production values, great graphics and top-notch voice acting, while on the other there's that now-familiar, uncomfortable issue lingering in the air as to whether the developers would rather be making movies than games.

    Who needs flak jackets when you have short sleeve shirts and body warmers?
    Who needs flak jackets when you have short sleeve shirts and body warmers?
    The presentation is fantastic across the board. Character models look great, with really nicely animated clothing showing ripples in the fabric as you move, and there's a huge variety of locations, which can be rare to find these days, with everything from the snow covered streets of New York to the high-rises and slums of Sao Paulo. The camera work during the many cutscenes has a nice naturalistic degree of shakey cam without going overboard with the style and some of the moments in these sequences look cool enough to have been ripped straight out of comic book cells. There's also some effective use of filters when Max is low on health with slick colour adjustment and a non-linear sequencing of time when engaging the slow motion abilities. To see not only this level of attention to detail but also such a variety in graphical assets and animation (Max goes through more than his fair share of personal grooming trends) is very impressive.

    The implementation of the story telling is similarly superb, if at times feeling a little too cut off from the earlier entries in the series in terms of both its continuity and style. There are moments when Max's self-loathing feels a little overdone and forced, but regardless of the odd piece of hammy scripting, the actors deliver strong performances, particularly impressive in the case of Max where his near constant narration carries the game through some of the more mediocre sections when the gameplay cannot. If there's one issue here it's that the plot isn't terribly adventurous, it's a rather basic tried and tested criminal story that lacks the emotional investment and intrigue that earlier games in the series contained. Nevertheless, it gives Max the excuse to get into a lot of exotic, dangerous places and shout a lot while firing a boatload of bullets, which is the most important thing at the end of the day.

    The character models really do look fantastic.
    The character models really do look fantastic.
    Even though the cutscenes are well directed, and this is a very good thing for the lengthy between level cinematics, there is a problem with Rockstar's obsession for consummate presentation. The simple fact is that these videos are so numerous they plague the game with constant interruptions that heavily disrupt the gameplay. Control is constantly being taken away from the player, often for rather innocuous sequences like opening doors and pressing elevator buttons. Sure the camera angles look more dramatic this way but when you get yanked out of the experience repeatedly to watch a ten second door opening animation it feels jarring and repetitive.

    Regardless of whether it is to show the sudden appearance of more enemies, a brief snippet of dialogue or the aforementioned bridging segments between two rooms, not only do these videos break the pacing of moments which could be equally well handled without such artificial separation, but they also mess with the player's setup. In Max Payne 3 you can equip your character with one handed pistols or more substantial two handed weapons such as shotguns and assault rifles, which offer a substantial boost in firepower. To save having to develop the vast number of cutscenes twice depending on which firearm type the player has selected at that moment in time, the designers have coded them specifically for Max holding one handed weaponry only. The end result is that at the end of each and every single cinematic the game forcibly switches you back to your most basic weapon.

    Sure he may have just shot you in the face, but you can't say Max didn't dress up for the occassion.
    Sure he may have just shot you in the face, but you can't say Max didn't dress up for the occassion.
    Reverting back to your firearm of choice requires a combination of holding down one of the bumper buttons, choosing from a selection wheel and then waiting the brief time it takes for the animation to play its course. At best this is a minor annoyance that gets more and more frustrating as the regularity of these constant intermissions sinks in, and at worst it becomes utterly infuriating on the occasions when you are then dropped immediately into a large scale firefight where this delay will cost you seriously in the health department. There's also the fact that the game will often mess up your camera angle during these moments, forcing a manual switch via the d-pad, both of which are a perfect example of how the designers value the integrity of their cinematic style over a smooth playing experience. Another notable facet of this design ethos is the way that Max raises weapons when near a wall and refuses to aim down the sights in order to improve graphical realism. This is great except on a few rare occasions where it actually prevents you from shooting down from a balcony onto enemies below.

    While its nice to have stylish cutscenes it often feels like too much of the cool stuff is delivered in this manner as opposed to letting the player get involved. Dramatic sequences will often play out with you entirely in the spectator seat only for it to jump back to the player at the very last moment, allowing them to take that one, final shot which it has also so conveniently usually lined up for you already. It's the same with the odd campaign moment too, such as where the player has to walk along the burning remnants of a building's floorboards without falling off. Max waxes eloquently about how risky this is, but the thing is you can't fall off, you can try but it's impossible. Simply having the main character narrate danger is not sufficient to install fear in the player, regardless of how good their delivery is.

    Seriously...  Again...  Either hire more animators Rockstar or just don't put two handed weapons in the game next time.
    Seriously... Again... Either hire more animators Rockstar or just don't put two handed weapons in the game next time.
    One excellent facet however is the way that painkillers, the game's form of health regeneration, effectively act like auto-bombs in a 2D shooter. So if the player takes a fatal hit whilst in possession of some their life will be saved, but only if you can take out your would be killer in a brief period of slow motion time. During this period the camera view is roughly pulled in towards the shooter in question, so as to give the player some hint as to who to target, and it introduces a nice fallback mechanic that requires some skill on the part of the player to survive, rather than just handing them the health boost without any effort required. It's one area where the game treads a nice balance between accessibility and challenge, as going in guns blazing without a plan first can, and will get you killed. It should also be mentioned that Rockstar have included separate leaderboards and multiplayer playlists for manual and assisted aiming. This kind of inclusive behaviour is fantastic as it provides enjoyment for both the less skilled and the more experienced players without compromising the experience for either group.

    Combat-wise things do feel a little stale, the designers haven't really used the extra grunt of this generation's hardware to open up the level design in any way, they've just made the corridors prettier. There are a couple of areas in the campaign that stand out from this with the New York graveyard sequence and airport shootouts in particular offering some more choices in how to handle the bad guys, but for the most part everything is extremely hemmed in. When coupled with the enemies' slow reaction time the end result of these design choices means that by far the most effective strategy is in fact not to engage in Payne's trademark slow-motion bullet dives at all, but to slowly walk and/or use cover, manually engaging bullet time for each shot. The cover system sits at odds with the slow motion orientated gameplay because both are a means for avoiding damage and by combining the two there's really no need to engage in any kind of flamboyant acrobatics, as you will kill fewer targets per second of bullet time by doing so than if you had just remained standing or in cover.

    The atmosphere though is undeniable.
    The atmosphere though is undeniable.
    Despite the odd rare novel set piece such as one gun fight which takes place whilst walking along a train, with the carriages turning independently of one another when navigating corners and throwing off the tight aiming, Max Payne 3 never really breaks out of this grind. The excitement of leaping through the air, bullets flying around you is gone, and in its place is a well presented but mediocre shooter carried predominantly by the storytelling. There is a multiplayer mode as well but in place of intricate level design and varied mechanics you get an XP levelling up fest, where the use of statistics and new unlockables are used to keep players returning. It stands in stark contrast to rival bullet-time shooter Stranglehold, released several years ago, which demonstrated that it is possible to create a deep, slow-motion based competitive solution without losing balance, by placing a mixture of effective and competing tools at the players' disposal. The offering here has not been built from the ground up with the franchise in mind and it shows, it's been churned out without anything to make it stand out from the pack and the lack of detailed testing is evident in the form of enemy teams spawning right on top of each other and overly basic weapon-priority based map design.

    While Rockstar are great at making open world experiences and fleshing those environments out with lots to do, their games have never stood strong based purely on their shooting mechanics and Max Payne 3 isn't any different in this. The big problem is that while in a free roaming title this isn't such a huge deal, when it comes to a linear, combat focused affair they really needed to up their game a lot more than they have. The campaign is lengthy and features a wide variety of locations and the story, while not the most original in the world, is very well handled, it's just not a great action shooter. Max Payne 3 makes for an enjoyable enough experience on a single playthrough in the form of mindless, somewhat repetitive fun but it doesn't have the legs to last long beyond the end credits. A decent enough game, but the legacy deserved more than what's on offer here.

    Max Payne 3 screenshot.
    Third person shooter
    Rockstar Games
    Rockstar Studios
    Xbox 360
    -Great voice acting.
    -Slick cinematics.
    -Varied, high quality graphics.
    -Some cool shootouts.
    -Constant disruptive cutscenes.
    -Cover system renders acrobatics pointless.
    -Uninspired level design.
    -Dialled-in multiplayer component.
    Score: 6/10