The Bride of Frankenstein
HIGH A slow-motion, high-caliber rifle round breaching an enemy's skull is terrifyingly beautiful.
LOW Anyone else tired of morally mucked-up shooter heroes?
WTF Bullet Time©. Shootdodge™.
In this constantly changing Video Game World of Newness, 2003 can seem like a century ago. Since it's been that long since the release of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, the fact that Rockstar Games has brought back the series gives rise to thoughts of bringing back the dead. So, what's one of the world's most high-profile developers to do when in this mad-scientist kind of situation? Why, they take that new iteration and produce the sh*t out of it, that's what.
Rockstar is, of course, no stranger to lavishly-produced products, and they've done this resurrected Max Payne up so purty, she's looking like a centerfold. She's got great new graphics and kill-cams! She's got more guns! She's got hot new multiplayer! In the end, though, all of that centerfold's makeup and all that Photoshopping can't really hide that the fact that she seems,... well... dead inside.
Anyone who's played a Max Payne should know that Max Payne 3 is still Max Payne. Players take control of the titular anti-hero as he drinks, shoots, waxes poetic, drinks, goes into Bullet Time (copyright), drinks, does a Shootdodge (trademark [no joke!]), waxes poetic again, and drinks some more. This time, however, Rockstar has upped the ante and given the game its de rigueur treatment: the still-thrilling mechanics are all wrapped up in a heavily cinematic skin of wall-to-wall cut-scenes, narration, and enough adult content to choke Disneyland. It's an impressively produced package, make no mistake, and it's sure to wow most shooter fans. All of this slickness, however, can't distract from how the game stands at odds with its own presentation.
See, Max Payne 3 works, no doubt. When its Matrix-inspired action moments give the player a slow-motion ballet of bullets and bad guy collisions, it can be exceptionally thrilling. Though we've experienced these sorts of moments in gaming now for some time, it still excites here—especially since Rockstar has peppered in a dozen "climax" moments involving mandatory slowdown showdowns with a half-dozen crooks, usually while Max is somehow flying through the air via some random mechanism. There's also now an occasional slow-motion kill-cam that allows players to revel in the surgical powers of their dual handguns.
These improvements aside, the core remains the same: lots and lots of shooting crooks, with effective use of Bullet Time mechanics as the key to survival. The game ends up thrilling, but unless one is a real sociopath, rarely moving.
The issue first lies in the story. Max is portrayed as a supremely struggling man who's not only addicted to painkillers (the game's first-aid mechanic, of course) but booze, as well. Throughout the twisty plot of being called down to Central and South America as a private security officer, we see and hear Max go through endless frustration and anguish over the past loss of his family and his constant betrayal (brought on mostly by himself). We're meant to see Max as a broken man that's given up, falling back on the only two things he knows, self-medication and murder. Here's the crux, though: while some may find some dark pathos in all of this during the course of, say, a "realistic" film, over the course of a nine hour campaign where hundreds of men are killed by our hero, it's hard to see him as a real person. The experience then begins to feel like an endless string of self-flagellating poetry between bouts of systematic gunplay.
Further removal comes from Max Payne 3's rapid-fire cut-scenes. Where emulating movies outright is enough for most games, the ballistic editing of the cinematics and constant reinforcement of dialog via supertitles makes the whole affair feel like a Tony Scott movie on speed. The dialog in said scenes is generally well-done for a genre piece like this, and the voice-work by actor James McCaffrey is top-notch. The constant dour tone and endless, meandering moral ruminations, however, aren't enough to give gravitas to what the game is ultimately about—straight killing.
All of the production aimed at creating a compelling whole ultimately undermines what Rockstar sets out do, which is to have a game and its package go hand-in-hand. See, in their constant rush to produce cinematic slickness, they're helping to illustrate a new distance between video games and the approaching shore of Cinematic Relevance. It seems that the more electronic entertainment strives to get to this place, the more apparent it becomes that there's a new narrative Uncanny Valley we have yet to overcome—call it the Preposterous Valley.
In this case, it comes down to the fact that Max's actions are far more gamey than the developers would care to admit. Max shoots and murders many with a round or two of gunfire, yet he constantly survives encounters after being shot dozens of times in a single outing. These leaps in logic are part of the defining characteristics of gaming, no doubt, yet in games like Max Payne 3, intense and "realistic" cinemas would ask us to put those aside each time the action resumes. No current moviegoer would accept this type of dichotomy outside of some serious science fiction, so why attempt it in a non-sci-fi game? These are real issues that a lot of said triple-A titles are happy to ignore. Yes, Max Payne 3 may be a thrilling game, but the most shocking, slickly-produced, well-written cut-scenes in the world can't get a player to fully humanize a character who can magically heal from the same bullet wounds that explode his enemies into red mist.
Before closing, it should be noted that there is an effective multiplayer component in the game that doesn't exactly deal with the same dichotomy. Essentially, it does what most multiplayer games do nowadays—experience points, leveling, perks, special abilities and playlists. Games played in this mode work well and are exciting. There's also a new Rockstar "Crew" system that will carry multiplayer team bonuses all the way to Grand Theft Auto V, which seems like an interesting, if not needlessly addictive gimmick.
Finally, for those who would balk at any of this review's "get real" sentiment, and who might say "it's just a game," it's clear that Rockstar's treatment of this project in no way reflects that it's "just" anything. See the work that was put into the product, the millions of man-hours and accompanying twenty-five-minute credit sequence! Hear the excellent original soundtrack by the popular band Health. Finally, note the game's nearly three hours of cut-scenes that do everything they can do endear us to the failing, flailing Max.
We are meant to see all of these dressings and have our experience enhanced. We're meant to see a beautiful production that impacts us just as a gritty film or novel would. When we look again, however, when the excitement has worn off, we can't help but see that the beautiful centerfold is the same as she was before. The body is just a bit more tan and the breasts surgically enhanced, but she's still a reanimated corpse underneath it all.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 9 hours of play were devoted to single-player modes (completed one time) and 3 hours in multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains: blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol. It's rated M for Mature, and it earns it in spades. The game is about a hard-drinking pill addict, who shoots into bullets in hundreds of people. It's also full of gratuitous and bloody "kill-cams" that show hundreds of slow-motion deaths. This is not for children.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: The game is fully subtitled, so no story elements should be missed that way. Shouting by enemies are ways to clue-in players about remaining enemies in each area, but hard of hearing players will learn that a kill-cam is triggered during the death of the last enemy in every area, so unless they see that, they know some still remain.