Rockstar has succeded again. They have managed to make a sequel of an almost ten year old game, that both stays true to its predecessors, while still delivering a modern and polished experience that should satisfy gamers who may not even have been able to use a mouse and keyboard effectively when the first game came out.
But it hasn't been a smooth ride to reach this point. The reactions to the first screens released from the game, with a bald, overweight Max Payne wearing a colourful shirt in a sunny tropical paradise were not very positive and the game saw numerous delays. But that's all in the past as Max Payne 3 delivers everything I could have hoped for.
We're in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Max has been lured to a town called Passos by an old acquaintance from the academy, who makes his living as head of security for the three Branco brothers - one a loaded contractor, the other an influential politician and the third a lavish playboy. The trophywife of the oldest brother has been kidnapped by some gangsters from the slums, and soon Max finds himself racing against time to save a damsel in distress. As paramilitary mercenaries and police special forces enter the fray, it soon dawns on Max that there is more to the story than what he's been told.
The graphic novel style of the predecessor have been replaced with fully animated cutscenes like the ones we're used to from other Rockstar productions such as Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. It's a welcome change, as these scenes are cleverly directed and well written, and while they sometimes are a bit drawn out, they never feel imposing. Quite the opposite, as they present a welcome break from the intense action.
James McCaffrey returns as Max Payne, and delivers the voice with more bravado than ever before. He hits the perfect balance between a worn out, deprived old man and a witty action hero (on a 9:1 ratio). And the script manages to avoid the almost comical gloom of the predecessor, and you will break a smile every now and then courtesy of Max Payne's dry remarks.
As far as the gameplay goes, Max Payne 3 is closely related to its predecessors. High octane action and intense firefights, spiced up with the trademark of the series - bullet time. There is something unbeliveably satisfying in throwing yourself sideways out of cover and place bullets in the heads of your enemies in slow motion, their bodies hitting the floor well before you do.
Your enemies fall backwards and to the ground as the bullets hit them, with the kind of exaggerated realism we've come to love. A bullet that hits the shoulder triggers completely different animations than say, a bullet in the leg, and all of it looks wonderful. The brilliant animation work also extends to Max Payne, who moves with a realistic sense of weight as he takes off or switches direction. And the animation when you're dropping a two-handed weapon and pulling out your two handguns out of their shoulder holsters is simply "pure sex".
Rockstar have added a couple of new features to the formula, and the most notable one is the cover system, but all of them feel natural and they add more options for the player. Max Payne has not gone Gears of War, just because you can hunch down under a window.
And if we compare this game to the king of the shooter genre, Call of Duty, this is a game with remarkably few set pieces or scripted events. Enemies pour out of doorways, windows, or show up around corners as you cross invisible lines, but it's up to you how to handle the task ahead of you. Very seldom does anyone die or get blown with you pulling the trigger yourself, and you stay in control of Max almost throughout the entire experience.
There are moments, when the cinematic effects are turned up a couple of notches, and Max throws himself into wreckless stunts in full bullet time. Examples of this are; a sequence where you're sliding down a roof while you have to hit the hostage takers, or shooting from the door of a bus at your pursuers in an attempt to get away. They often serve as introductions to more traditional firefights, and while these sequences are the most scripted and non-dynamic elements of the game, you will never feel as though you're not in control of the action.
Purists will no doubt enjoy the fact that there is no regenerating health, and you can decide yourself how much assistance you want as far as aiming goes as you pull the left trigger - and you can turn the assist off completely if that's your preference. The challenge is there even on normal difficulty, and it took me somewhere between 8-10 hours to complete the game, with several deaths along the way. And if you happen to die, the loading is minimal and you're back in action in no time.
Unlike previous games, Max Payne is now limited to carrying three weapons at any one time - two pistols and one rifle, and he drops the latter if you need to use both pistols at the same time. The selection of guns is enormous, and you quickly find favourites, but naturally it feels a bit limiting to only be able to carry a few guns at any one time.
The one exception is when you're getting a weapon with a laser sight. For some reason you can no longer see the regular reticule, and you're left with the red laser dot to aid your aiming. It doesn't work out particularly well when put in practise, and I wound up avoiding these weapons to the best of my ability. Unfortunately there are situations where this cannot be avoided.
The decision to set the main part of the game in Brazil is a brilliant one. Sao Paulo is the kind of city that can offer a variety of environments and scenarios. Along the way we fight our way through night clubs, stadiums, favelas, and rivers in the middle of jungles, and thanks to a couple of flashbacks we also get to reexperience New Jersey complete with classic Max Payne winter and Italian gangsters. It's a new take on the concept, and one that works out really well.
A brand new addition is the multiplayer, and it plays out surprisingly well. There is even bullet time. If you can see a player that enters Bullet Time you will also enter the slow motion mode, and the same is true for him - so there is no risk of being left a hanging target mid air while others are shooting at you in "real time". There is also a wealth of upgrades, weapons and equipment to unlock, and you can tailor your loadouts much like in Call of Duty.
Bullet Time is just one of several "Bursts" you can equip yourself with. You can activate these, once you've gained enough adrenaline (by shooting people), and if you save your adrenaline you can unleash bursts with even greater effects. One burst gives you access to heavier weapons, and at level two you gain access to an incredibly powerful assault rifle, and at level three you get a grenade launcher. Other bursts may help out the whole team, and one such bonus is the ability to see all opponents on the mini-map.
Max Payne 3 offers up a range of innovative game modes, and the flagship mode is called Gang Wars - where you play five rounds that come together like a mini-campaign of sorts. The objectives switch from round to round depending on who won the previous round, but the last round is a pure team deathmatch with a spawn advantage given to the team that held the lead up until then. True for all game modes is that you can choose whether or not to allow auto-aim.
The multiplayer component won't conquer the online scene, but it's still an entertaining and solid experience, that adds some longevity to the title.
Max Payne 3 is an accomplishment any way you look at it. The story may perhaps get a bit murky towards the end, but other than that it fires on all cylinders from beginning to end. The action will make your nose bleed, it's well directed, and refreshingly free of the conventions that often plague this genre. This is, simply put, the best shooter I've played in a long time. Don't let Payne's beer belly fool you, he's in the best shape of his career.