Max Payne 3 PC Review
There was a time when we thought a third Max Payne game was never going to happen. The original developers, Remedy Entertainment, had sold off the franchise rights, and the new owners, Take Two, didn't seem to be interested in making a sequel. And while the first two games saw console releases, they weren't great ports on PS2 and Xbox, so Max Payne was only ever really a beloved series for PC gamers out there. But with some serious work put in and more than a few lengthy delays, Rockstar has finally finished Max Payne 3. Now that the sequel that many thought wasn't ever going to happen is now in our hands, was it worth it? For me, the result is bittersweet: the attitude is here, but the gameplay awkwardly straddles the line of today's action games and those of a decade ago, sometimes showing us the worst of both worlds rather than the best.
For this review, I received an Xbox 360 copy of Max Payne 3 from Rockstar a couple of weeks before the PC version was released. I waited. I didn't play it. I didn't want to, because dammit, this is a PC franchise and I wanted to play it with a crosshair I could properly aim with a mouse, not fling about the screen with an analog stick like I'm as drunk as Max is throughout most of this game. After having played the game on and off during and after this year's big E3 show, I'm not really sure what to think, because even when I put aside the gameplay and technical pros and cons, Rockstar didn't keep up the same dark themes of the originals. I won't sit here and complain that Max Payne absolutely must have non-animated cutscenes illustrated with graphic novel-style art, but there was still a kind of charm to that low-fi style, even back a decade ago, and Rockstar instead went with their more modern style. Everything here is done in the Rockstar signature way, with few interruptions in the action - in-engine cutscenes replace old graphic novel frames - and top-notch production values have been thrown all over. It may seem silly to be complaining about how a game looks too good for its own good, but Max Payne 3 might have benefited from something just a little more... retro.
The change of scenery is the biggest stylistic overhaul that Max Payne 3 receives. Instead of the mean streets of New York, Max is off the force and still on the sauce. He takes a private security gig and winds up spending most of the game's runtime in São Paulo, Brazil, trying to protect a wealthy family from thugs, paramilitaries, and organized gangs. Sure, there are a few flashbacks, including a couple of lengthy ones back to good old New York City, but these don't really provide a lot of insight as to the current story, so they mostly just serve as backstory and a small change of pacing. (It'd have been nice if they could have helped to provide more in the way of twists for the main Brazil storyline.) Throughout his story with the Branco family, he'll see multiple failures and successes in trying to keep them safe, and he gets caught up in something much bigger than a few ransoms and flashes of street violence. Through all of this, Rockstar mostly successfully merges great visuals and architecture with excellent third-person shooting action, all with the traditional Max Payne dark humor and bleak style. It does trip and fall once in a while, but it's still successful much more often than not.
There are some gameplay changes over the predecessors that will annoy some gamers - especially those that want just a more awesome, otherwise-completely-unchanged version of the first game. The biggest difference is that Max moves slower than he did in the old days, although it should be pointed out that protagonist running speed has been slowly decreasing over the years in order to fit in line with reality. But still, Max is quite a bit older now and he's usually drunk and hopped up on prescription painkillers, too, so do expect some sluggishness now and then. At the very least, the Euphoria character and physics engine has still managed to give our old guy a surprising range of motion as well as some interesting challenges. For example, doing a shootdodge dive sideways into a wall is a bad idea, as your slo-mo bullet time ends if Max crashes directly into a hard surface during his flight. He'll also slam to the ground unceremoniously when he's done, and you'll have to have him stand back up before he can pull off any more acrobatics. (This is far more annoying than it seems, as Max's only movement choice from the lying-down position is to fully stand back up. He can't roll, move directly into a crouch, or seamlessly move into cover, and this will result in a lot of deaths that should be totally avoidable.)
There are other issues, too, like the invention of cover sometimes being more of a hindrance than a help. I do like the idea that you can play this game almost completely as a dedicated cover shooter, but you'll actually have a tough time in some fights being so immobile; instead, your best best is often a combination of calm, careful shooting from afar against those who will just stand out in the open, and then getting crazy and sailing through the air to take out the more stubborn guys who won't poke their heads out. Unfortunately, that leads me to the next issue, which is that sometimes, the scripted cutscenes that progress the action have Max aggressively moving into a very risky or exposed position where he's only a few seconds from getting flanked on both sides. And this is not really just a case of Max being taken by surprise; many times, he sees enemies ahead, then carelessly moves into a bad spot while alerting those enemies. It's only after that that control is given to the player. And no, there are no quicksaves, and yes, sometimes the checkpoint system gives you dozens of guys to kill between triggering the checkpoints.
Because of things like this, Max Payne 3 can be a difficult and sometimes frustrating game, but even when replaying the same section a dozen or more times, I was still having a blast. The animation system's complexities made every firefight pretty unique, and the cinematic slow-motion bullet trajectories make many kills very satisfying, even if it might be just a bit too much gore for some. To explain: the game shows accurate entrance and exit wounds, with extra sprays and splatters for shots above the neck. On top of this, the game is full of drugs, drinking, debauchery, slurs, foul language and violence, and I am bothered by the fact that this game has the same ESRB-given M rating that the Halo games do, but that's the reality we live in. With that said, Max Payne 3 is no more violent or vulgar than several other Rockstar games, so from that perspective, this game was a pretty good fit for this developer, but some will still take issue with this game's unrepenting glorification of violence. As a fan of the series myself, I don't have a problem with any of the content in this game, but you should still keep it in mind if you're a concerned parent.
There are some technical issues, too, most of which simply cannot be ignored. At launch, there were many crashes and problems people are experiencing, from the game refusing to start to the Rockstar Social Club software not working properly, and while the Rockstar support site has solutions to some of these problems, many of them involve doing things like uninstalling unsupported antivirus software, editing the Windows registry, playing around with disabling Windows services, and reinstalling the game - which comes in at a hefty 30ish gigabytes due to all the 1080p cinematics and high-quality textures. The plus side is that the PC version of Max Payne 3 is by far the best looking version of the game you can get, but because Rockstar didn't sort out some fundamental compatibility issues, it's also very tricky to get running. The first patch to the game solved a lot of these issues, but it even interfered with my review, forcing me to wait until after the craziness of E3 was complete since I couldn't even get the game running before flying out to Los Angeles for the big show.
The game includes what could have been some interesting multiplayer action, but on PC, the game has so far been riddled with cheats and hacks, almost to the point of ruining the game entirely - several games I joined had people running around that were completely invincible. If Rockstar want to get serious about their PC gaming, they're going to need to protect their online play better. I'm sure that they'll make at least one attempt at patching in some kind of cheat protection, but of course we know that a developer needs to have a constant, ever-evolving commitment to keep multiplayer hacks at a minimum. The thing is, this is the least-played portion of the least-bought port of what is shaping up to be a pretty weak-selling game (at least, if NPD reports are to be believed), so I just don't have a lot of confidence in hacks being shut down for very long. For the first day or so that I could play, it was kind of fun, but now it's not worth the trouble. Beyond the story and online modes, there is an arcade and New York Minute mode, but they didn't really appeal to me, because even if I just want to get into action, I'd still rather do a standard Chapter Select and get the full narrative.
Max Payne 3 contains a lot of wonderful, pretty moments and there is often a good chunk of substance there, but a few relatively small mistakes and technical issues have dragged it down a bit. There are times when I wished my crosshair wasn't a miniscule white dot, cutscenes that have Max shouting out and running openly towards enemies he originally had the drop on before giving the player control, and scenarios where Max is maddeningly immobile - which seems silly considering how at many times, this game's fluid animations are unmatched. There are moments when all of that frustration becomes worth it, especially when you nail eight slow-motion headshots in a row, and the PC version of the game is by far the best-looking version that allows the best pinpoint precision with solid mouse controls. And hey, after the first patch, it even works on most people's PCs. I give this one a hearty recommendation as long as you're not dead-set on seeing Max Payne stay stuck in the last decade. Annoyances aside, Rockstar still did a pretty damn good job, and I really hope that despite the game's lackluster sales, they can figure out a way to keep this franchise alive.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail PC copy provided by Valve Software through Steam.