Max Payne 3's dive on to PC was in such slow motion that it took a few weeks longer to land than it did in augmented-televisionland. But it's here now, and the critical shell-casings are beginning to chime on the concrete floor. Here's how I heard them ring out.
Max Payne 2's subtitle was - perhaps unnecessarily - "The Fall of Max Payne". It's a description that seems entirely appropriate in retrospect, and most definitely fits the Mr Payne of the third game, who has truly fallen. He is now a sinewy, self-pitying middle-aged drunk whose damaged consciousness filters the entire game with a poisoned, hallucinogenic migraine of blurring, double-vision, and post-processing glitchery. Such a constant bombardment of pseudo-hungover, detuned distortion was a brave move, and it came so very close to not working. The comic book noir of the original has been rerolled as postmodern cinema. It's dripping with film-school trickery and action-movie reference. The satirical, even surreal silliness of the first two games has been replaced with a more acerbic line in self-loathing wisecracks. That could have failed to be interesting, could have lost the thread entirely.
But it works. Just about. And that's symptomatic of the entire game. It could so easily have missed its mark, fluffed the headshot. But it's okay. They've done it. The third Max Payne game is a potent cocktail of thumping videogame violence and Rockstarian sleaziness, with a heady shot of technology and character mixed in. James McCaffrey does his best Max so far. A couple of lines made me laugh out loud.
Max Payne 3 is different enough to stand far apart from the previous games, and strong enough in its delivery of slow-motion embittered ex-cop to convince me that it's an okay sequel. That alone should be as far as many of you need to read, I suppose. But I'm not going to leave this joint without unloading some of my reservations. Despite my upfront positivity, I'm not entirely smitten with Rockstar's hype-logged takeover of the Max Payne series – the rave response it received on the consoles seems a little much for a game that, despite Max's long absence, sits firmly within the kind of problem area outlined in this article from last week's Sunday Papers. There's too much game here, and it's too vigorously delivered, for me not to recommend it, but it left me feeling slightly unfulfilled. Yes, you probably should play Max Payne 3. It's spectacular shooter. But there's a hollowness, too.
I can't quite identify what's missing. And I am not sure it'll matter, because the production is so lavish. The gilded hand of Rockstar is visible in almost everything. The barrelling back and forth between corrupt, glitzy high society and grimy, glittery low-life criminality. The cutscenes that ache to be true cinema, the humour in the media-baiting ultraviolence. Of course it lacks the trademark open-worldiness of their original games. There's the occasional open area to run around in, but this is a firmly story-driven conveyor belt of gun-action. But we shouldn't expect anything else from this gangster gun-ballet sequel. Everything in the single-player part of the game is Payne through the filter of Rockstar: Gritty, funny, horrible.
As important as it is to the overall experience, it seems pointless to say too much about the story, though I do want to make a couple of points. Firstly, I think the relocation to Sao Paulo (there are still New York scenes, too) works well. This is down to Rockstar's virtuoso environmental design, and flare for place and detail, as well as their execution of the cutscenes. There's a diversity of locations that make a lot of sense. Sure, it's not exactly the same flavour of tenement noir, but it works just well enough for it to have been a good decision. Secondly, I think Rockstar spoilered some of what could be been the best surprises in the game with what the showed of it before release. That's a shame and, well, I think you'll see what I mean when you play it.
So let's turn to the mechanical stuff: the shooting and diving around. Max might be a 40-something strip of pickled scar tissue in Max Payne 3, but he isn't afraid to leap blindly down some stairs. The consequences of this are consistently compelling, mostly because Rockstar's character movement systems are astonishingly believable. Leap backwards into a pillar and Max will collide with it realistically, sending you spinning if you caught it right. He crunches into walls, rolls down stairs. His dives now always end you with you in a prone firing position, twisting to where you aim, so you can finish off your engagement from the ground, before getting up, still firing. And it's all so slick and integrated, one move flowing into the next. It can be amazing to watch.
It's all hung on exactly the same systems that powered the first two games, of course: hitting a key to put it into (limited) bullet time, and diving to dodge (and slowing time there, too.) As ever, that's a brilliant mechanic that works best in really interesting situations, where you diving into the unknown, and taking down multiple assailants, each with a perfect headshot.
It takes a while for the awesome cool of the bullet-time promise to wear off, but it eventually does. Max Payne 3 is a fairly long fourteen chapters, and although I played it through in a couple of (lengthy) sittings, I felt like I'd seen enough before it ended. Partly, I suspect, this is down to the sheer repetition of dive-shoooooot-shoot-shoot-dive-shoooooot-shoot. That feeling of gun-grind is emphasized by a few bottleneck difficulty spikes, too. They're peculiar, and leave you feeling frustrated. They seem poorly choreographed, or improperly structured. They're not the only chafe, either. I was particularly irked by arbitrary failure conditions – failure for taking cover on some stairs and leaving a dude you were escorting, failure for diving off a pier into the water. Thanks to checkpointed saves, these are occasionally numbing failures, forcing you to replay a long old section. There's not even quite enough ammo. Hmm, I feel like I shouldn't be complaining about these things, but it's the fatigue talking.
Anyway, those are the key gripes, so let's fish out the key point again: I cannot emphasize how beautifully refined movement is in Max Payne 3. It's an exquisite, fluid thing the likes of which videogames keep excelling with. I'm sure someone – Rockstar perhaps – will make this even better again, and it must, must find its way, at least in some form, into GTA5, because it feels like a TPS done right.
There's multiplayer, too. Bullet-time, in multiplayer, takes place for you and for you and for the people in your line of sight, creating bubbles of slow-motion gun battle across the maps. It's a peculiar effect, but it works rather well. At least up to a point. There were times when it was just confusing, but I suspect that will iron out with some extended play. That said, I found it difficult to imagine playing this for extended periods – despite the wealth of multiplayer modes – including team-driven, objective-based multiplayer scenarios that offer quite a lot of meat for your shooting. Perhaps I'm just at a point in my life where I'm past deathmatch, but I did long for first-person, too. That's almost certainly the psychological sticking point for my enjoyment of this, which isn't necessarily a fault with the game.
As for the PC conversion, well, I have everything cranked up on my i5 2500k and a single 560 Ti, and runs smoothly and looks incredible. It should look incredible, too. There's almost no excuse for that, now. It certainly less of a horrible hog than GTA4 was at the time, but it's still demanding. Lesser PCs – you know the ones - will probably struggle in a serious way. The DRM is the Social Club login, which must be done each time you play the game. I've heard this is causing really serious issues for some people, but I can't report any problems first-hand. The matchmaking for multiplayer games works okay, too, but I can't imagine this is really going to sustain a community for long. There's just too much else out there on PC. So much else with mature multiplayer offerings. This seems like a sweetener necessary to make the game sell on the consoles, rather than something we'll be signing up for on its own merits. Maybe I'm wrong. (I'm probably not.)
So that's Max Payne 3. An accomplished, expertly produced shooting gallery (with a few faltering steps) the likes of which we always have an appetite for. There are some extraneous bits, but the heart is strong. And that's all there is to say.
Well, I can't quite articulate this residual thought.
Let's try this: There's a bit in Max Payne 3, about half way through the game, where there isn't any shooting, and you just wander through a bit of the favela. You get a chance to marvel at the crumbling scenery, to notice incidental detail. I always like moments like that in games. But here it was also the moment where that vaguely hollow feeling came into focus for a second. It's not much, but it perhaps serves to emphasize how even subtle changes within shooters now stand out, so slow has their progress been in the past few years.
Hell, we've not even had a Max Payne game since 2003, and consequently the return of bullet time – with its wonderful new character movement, and a few little nuances like that walking sequence and the glitchy after-effects – feels remarkably refreshing.
Perhaps anything that has been absent for long enough feels refreshing.