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Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Payne Is Back: Max Payne 3 - Video Game Review

Max Payne 3:  4 ½ out of 5
Max Payne:  I now had a hole in my second favorite drinking arm.
I enjoy my fair share of video games.   I have also been incredibly busy for the last month.   Still, I did manage to find time to play and finish Max Payne 3, the latest entry in Rockstar’s hybrid Noir-John Woo infused shooter series.   It has been a long time since I was able to jump into the shoes of the rogue cop with a murdered family, grief to deal with, and unlimited ammo for his dual pistols, but I was happy that unlike the terrible 2008 film adaptation starring Mark Walhberg, this return to the Max Payne universe was well worth it.   As of late, many games I tend to play in installments, with lots of gaps in between me picking up the controller again.   Max Payne 3 fell into the category of games that I could not stop playing, which is a credit to its quality and reason enough for me to put in my two cents about it.



For those interested, but unfamiliar, the Max Payne game series is a third-person action shooter, which puts you in the role of Max Payne, a former NYPD Detective whose family was brutally murdered.   Max has amazing skills when it comes to gun battles and the games feature non-stop action-oriented situations where Max must utilize his talents for death to stop whatever enemies come his way.   The main addition to this game structure is that Max has “Bullet Time”, which allows the player to slow down time during gun battles.   Max can run, slide, or leap through the air in slow motion, giving him the edge on accurately taking out bad guys, while also avoiding getting shot himself.   These elements (among others) add a very stylish and cinematic feel to the games and serve as a staple of the series’ gameplay.   Additionally, Max is capable of carrying all sorts of weapons and can dual-wield the smaller varieties, allowing him multiple options for combat.   Lastly, when Max does get hit with gunfire, the player must use painkillers, found throughout the levels of the game, in order to keep him from dying.   Given the constant barrage of bullets flying everywhere, Max is going to need ‘em.

The end of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne found Max at a place where he was starting to be in a better place, despite the death of his family and the fallout that came from discovering the truth as to why.   Max Payne 3 picks up several years later, with Max know working bodyguard duty for the wealthy Branco family in Sao Paulo, Brazil.   Max is now bearded, a few pounds heavier, and has become a clear alcoholic, with an addiction to pills to boot.   Of course, this has not made him any worse when it comes to taking out the bad guys in an over-the-top ballet of bullets.   


Soon, Max becomes involved in a fight to rescue kidnapped members of the Branco family and discovers much more twisted criminal activities intertwined with his own objectives.   The story also flashes back to what lead up to Max heading to South America, which obviously also involved plenty of gunplay.   As always, with nothing to lose, Max goes on a one-man crusade to try to do what is right.   Hopefully he can stay off the sauce long enough and put his own personal demons aside, if he really wishes to succeed.

There was initially a lot of hubbub made over the early reveals of this new Max Payne game, which featured an older, heavier, balder, bearded Max Payne in a bright favela setting.   Aside from the gameplay, the dark and gritty New York setting, mixed with cut scenes styled as graphic novel panels were factors in making the game stand out.   With these elements gone and Max seeming to no longer be styled as a stereotypical film noir/crime fiction hero, people were concerned about the series’ direction.   I was not worried about this, as I trust Rockstar’s story direction more than ever, given their recent game releases (LA Noir and Red Dead Redemption) and how well designed the stories in those games were, but I can understand certain apprehensions.   Fortunately, even with a few changes, this is still very much a Max Payne game, and given the power of a whole new generation of consoles since the last time we had a new Max Payne game, it looks better than ever.   The noir-ish roots are still very much intact, but the series has definitely evolved in ways that make a lot of sense.   While still being a hard-boiled detective story, there is another clear influence adds additional layers to the game.

“Creasy’s art is death and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.”Rayburn
I bring up this quote because the constant reference I had in mind while playing this game was the Tony Scott-directed film, 2006’s Man on Fire, which seems to factor into the game in multiple ways.   Most obviously, the visual style of Max Payne 3 feels exactly as if Tony Scott was a consultant on the game.   The editing style of the game clearly evokes much of what we have seen in all of Scott’s recent films, with the way it plays with the look of the cutscenes, having subtitles appear in the middle of the screen, the use of splitscreens, etc.   The hardcore nature of the violence also factors in.   Then there is the story, which is similar to Man on Fire, as well as a host of other kidnapping stories, but with an added dose of a flawed hero who can really utilize his ammo well.   

Lead writer Dan Houser, who was involved in many of the Grand Theft Auto games and Red Dead Redemption (which was just as satisfying on an emotional level as it was a Western action/adventure one) continues to deliver on selling an engaging tale about a deeply wounded character.   While the overall story may not be as tidy as the other tales told in recent Rockstar games or even previous Max Payne games, the way Max is portrayed as a character is strong stuff.   Even if one were not tied into his story from the previous games, getting a feel for who this person is and why he is so depressed is incredibly well handled.   It may make the game feel a bit more serious than it needs to, but credit to the continued voice work from James McCaffrey (who also provided motion capture work), who really nails the role.   The story may suffer a bit from all the twists and turns it takes throughout, but it is the fantastic (and often dryly hilarious) narration and voice work overall that makes the story aspect very enjoyable overall.


Now for those who are not as concerned with the story and just want to shoot things, the gamplay is excellent from a playability standpoint.   Rockstar is known for not having the best handle on their shooting mechanics in a lot of their games, but the Max Payne series has always done it quite well.   This time around, Max feels more suited than ever to properly take down the waves of enemies that come his way.   Max Payne 3 allows fluid movement throughout and a great deal of accuracy in the shooting, especially when taking the “Auto-lock” function off.   Along with the standard movements Max is known for, a couple of additions are now present as well.   Max can now fire from the ground after jumping through the air, allowing him to cover himself from all angles.   He also reacts to the environment around him at all times.   The game also features a new “Last Man Standing” function, which allows Max a last chance-type window to take out the enemy that last shot him, in order to recover his health automatically and keep going.   This set of new features adds onto what is already a solid shooter experience.

As I mainly deal with writing about movies, I can only speak so much about the engine that this game runs on and other graphic-related factors, as opposed to my appreciation for presentation and story structure, but I will say that Max Payne 3 looks fantastic.   The use of motion capture and the blend of game physics and animation creates a world that always looks alive and somewhat more realistic than many other Rockstar games.   The violence is also plenty bloody as well, because you can now see the painstaking detail that goes into being able to witness how every bullet effects something.   Fire a shotgun blast and witness every bullet’s entry point, whether it is the destructible environments or the enemies in which they tear into.   It should also be noted that the game incorporates in-engine cutscenes throughout, which masks the loading screens, so the player is never taken out of the action, as far as watching a static screen of nothing happening, waiting for the game to start up again.


Wrapping up the single-player mode, Max Payne 3 lasts a solid 10-12 hours.   That is lengthy for a game of this type and I think an appropriate length, without having the game wear out its welcome.   A variety of difficulty levels exist, with two unlockable ones upon completing the game.   The single-player game also features a number of Arcade-style modes to make for a more creative gaming experience.   “Score Attack” and “New York Minute” are point and time-based modes, where one can try to complete various chapters of the game, gaining high scores and delivering as much destruction within the game as possible.

The area of the game that I have only dabbled in so far is the multiplayer.   A brand new addition to the series, Max Payne 3 features a complete multiplayer experience, which features maps and modes that dynamically change within a match, as well as reward, ranking and clan systems.   Along with standard “Deathmatch” and “Team Deathmatch” modes, Max Payne 3 features “Gang Wars”, which will let players form their own private crews with friends, or join public crews and participate in a variety of different objective-based modes.  Players can be a member of up to five at the same time, and completing tasks as a crew will gain XP points for the player, which leads to various upgrades.   This has been a lot of fun so far and feels like a cool way to stay in the Max Payne world without needing to revisit the single-player mode, if I did not want to (though I really hope I have time to play it again).   The assurance of lots downloadable content is also a promising way to keep the multiplayer Max Payne fun alive.


Max Payne 3 is not flawless.   The game does not really evolve in anyway, gameplay-wise, over the course of the single-player mode.   Max starts with all of the abilities he is capable of and proceeds down a linear path without gaining any new ones.   Additionally, this is not an open-world game and despite being able to take out enemies in wide-open spaces whichever way one sees fit, one can only explore so much in the area, before proceeding to the next location.   There is also the matter of the cutscenes.   As neat as it is to have the cutscenes integrated into the game, in order to avoid load times, there certainly are a lot of them.   Practically every door you open is its own little cutscene, which has a tendency to break the flow of the gameplay at times.   Minor bugs and Max feeling a bit sluggish at times factor in as well, but these are all just a lot of nitpicks, in what is an overall very well put together action experience.   Rockstar may not have been overly ambitious with a game like this as opposed to something like LA Noir, but they certainly went and tried hard to perfect a simpler game type, dusting off one of its iconic hero’s in the process.

Max Payne 3 was a blast to play.   After experiencing so much downtime in between this game and the previous entry, along with suffering through that horrendous film adaptation, it is nice to have been reacquainted with this character.   The gameplay is excellent.   The look of the game is great.   The story manages to deliver strong on the character front, while also making a standard plot feel quite engaging, given the talented story developers at Rockstar Games.   A game like this does not need to be an epic 25+ hour game experience.   Minor quibbles aside, it is a great entry into the third-person action genre that makes up for a limited abilities list by having stylish and cinematic action beats.   The fact that Max guides you through all this madness by supplying his smirk-inducing narration only continues to make the game a joy to play.   This is especially important given the thematic dourness of the series as a whole.   It may not raise the bar in ambitious gameplay, but it allows the play to have a ton of fun doing what Max Payne does best.

Max Payne:  So I guess I'd become what they wanted me to be, a killer.  Some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys.  Well that's what they had paid for, so in the end that's what they got.  Say what you want about American but we understand capitalism.  You buy yourself a product and you get what you pay for, and these chumps had paid for some angry gringo without the sensibilities to know right from wrong.  Here I was about to execute this poor bastard like some dime store angel of death and I realized they were correct, I wouldn't know right from wrong if one of the them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister...

And as a Bonus, here are my original thoughts on the 2008 Max Payne film:

Max Payne:  1 ½ out of 5
Max Payne: I don't believe in heaven.  I believe in pain.
Yep, here we have another crappy video game movie.   It is annoying because the Max Payne games are such a fun mix of noir-styled storytelling and John Woo styled action and this movie ditches almost all of the elements of the game with the exception of the names of some characters and a little slo-mo action.   Beyond being incompetent in many ways, the biggest complaint I have is a simple one, why was there no action in Max Payne, of all movies?

Mark Walhberg stars as Max Payne, a New York cop working pretty much in the basement following the murder of his wife and baby three years prior.  He has been following dead leads hoping to find the killer.   After some more deaths occur that appear to be related to both the death of his wife and a drug called Valkyr, Max begins to find out more and more answers to the questions he has been asking, but maybe should not have been, for the sake of his own life.

Ok, so as stated, this movie sucks.  There are so many things wrong with this movie, and I will start with the obvious: very few elements of the actual game are present here.  Payne's brooding narration filled with noir-ish dialog - gone.  Slo-mo gunfights - very few.  Blood - sorry, this is an M rated game turned PG-13 movie.   The story has been changed around as well, turning it into a mish mash of plot elements involving super serums, evil corporations, and revenge.  For some reason the hallucinations of Gothic-looking Valkyries is carried out way too much, as they are just constantly flying around, giving a straight forward game/film an unneeded emphasis on the supernatural.

Casting is strange as well.   Wahlberg does what he can, but he was already not the ideal choice for Payne and his execution of the role will not prove anyone wrong.  Mila Kunis is way out of place as the tough as nails assassin Mona Sax.  Ludacris is another strange choice for Detective Jim Bravura.  Beau Bridges and Chris O'Donnell are just kinda goofy here.  And then you have Olga Kurylenko (who was in last year's Hitman and will be promoted to Bond Girl in a month) playing a whore who is around to be naked, but covered for no reason other than the rating (the character is already gratuitous in itself, so complaining about the lack of nudity doesn't make a difference to me).
 
I would say, "At least the action was cool," but there was not too much of it and it was not very memorable.  The "bullet time" slo mo effect from the game has been replaced by extremely and painfully slow shots that are there but not really engaging.

This whole movie is not very engaging.  It is not fun (despite the horrible dialog and various ridiculous scenes that my friends and I could make fun of and not help but laugh at), the tone is very serious throughout, which doesn't help.  The whole thing is just bad.

Director John Moore does attempt to inject a sense of style into the film through the use of dark color pallets and instances of flash, but it mainly just serves as a way to emphasize how little of anything else is going on in this film that's enjoyable.

Very poor results.
[from the game] Max Payne: He was trying to buy more sand for his hour glass.  I wasn't selling any.

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