If you saw the post title and got excited for an angry and bitter “Rockstar totally ruined this franchise” rant, I am sorry to disappoint. I have not played the original Max Payne games so I don’t actually know if, or how Rockstar might have ruined them. In a way this is a good thing. It lets me review this game on it’s own merit, instead of immediately jumping to knee-jerk reactionary complaint mode. I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen if I was actually a fan of the series, because that’s the kind of thing I do here. I don’t aim to be objective – I aim to be entertaining. So this is a fresh unbiased look at the game from a perspective of someone who has never played, or even cared about the two original games.
How did I like the game? One word: Meh…
Let me put it this way – the only reason I finished it was because by the time I was about ready to quit, I realized I was about 2 minutes away from the finish line. So I suffered through the final act just to see how it ends.
As far as I’m concerned, there are four major problems with the game:
- Inconsistent Tone
- Poor Pacing
- Lack of Player Agency
- Weak Plot
Let’s tackle each of these problems in turn.
The story of Max Payne 3 is good. It is a tale of a broken man overcoming his inner daemons, and seeking redemption at the point of a gun, while in the middle of a political scandal in corrupt South America. The narration is at times very introspective, giving us an insight to the protagonist’s inner struggle. He is plagued by guilt and despair, he fights with depression, he struggles with his alcoholism and pain killer addiction. Throughout the game we see him grow, change and overcome a lot of his problems. This is all great. Top notch storytelling. Sadly the message gets muddled by the actual game-play.
You see, as soon as Max finishes delivering his somber, introspective and insightful narrative you are thrown into a room with about 80 dudes and proceed to shoot every single one of them in the face in slow motion. Then you go to the next room and kill another 80 dudes. There is one sequence in the game when during a boat chase you end up blowing up close to 27 speed boats, six helicopters, demolish 8 piers full of armed guards and end up killing what would amount to a battalion of heavily armed mercenaries all by yourself. By the time you finish the game, Max has probably killed more men than most third world dictators do in their entire lifetimes.
This extreme violence and high body count clashes with the introspective nature of the narrative. The game jumps back and forward between sober, somber and gritty realism and GTA style rampage mode in which sometimes the corpses of your victims pile so high they block the doorways.
The hyper-violence that causes the tonal dissonance I mentioned in the last section feeds directly into my next issue: poor pacing.
Here is my philosophy on shooter games: shooting dudes is fun in short burst. You have to space it out, otherwise it becomes boring. If you are in combat hour after hour you get tired of it. When that happens I just shut the game off and go do something else. I may or may not come back to it afterwards. Good game designers know how to break up their action to prevent combat fatigue from setting in. Rockstar hardly ever has to do so, because a lot of their games are open-word sandboxes where a players pace themselves. When they get bored of shooting, they go drive around the city or do activities. Max Payne is linear corridor shooter and you never, ever get a break. Max is under constant assault and the only break you get is the few seconds of peace after you clear a room and get to walk around picking up ammo and finding secrets.
The funny thing is that Rockstar had a good pacing mechanic built into the game already, but they wasted it. Some rooms contain “clues” you can click on get extra cut-scenes or narration bits. After all Max is an ex-cop and he tries to unravel a political scandal so it makes sense to have him do some detective work. Sadly this mechanic is completely optional. The clues function as secrets areas – kinda like the golden gun pieces you can find hidden in each level. You find all the clues, you get an achievement. Whooptiee fucking doo!
What they could have done, is to make clue hunting an integral part of the game-play – kinda like the detective work bits in the recent Batman games. Having max explore new areas searching for clues, without actually having to fight room after room of armed guards would go a long way to fix the pacing issue and prevent combat boredom from setting in. But they fucked it up.
After about 3 hours I was sick and tired of shooting dudes. As much fun as it is to do the bullet time stunts, there is only so much time you can spend doing them before you want a change of pace.
Lack of Agency
The entire game feels like a Kafka novel in which protagonist is constantly being pulled around and told to do by non-player characters. He is constantly fighting someone else’s fight, and the narrator has to lampshade it by talking how Max chose to go along do all of this.
Max Payne 3 is painfully linear. At times I felt like I was playing a rail shooter. The cut-scenes would guide me from room to room, and my job was to get behind cover, shoot guys and then watch another cut scene taking me to the next room. I really didn’t feel like I had any influence on the actions of the protagonist. This is a structural failure. Rockstar simply does not know how to tell good linear stories. They opted for the same style of storytelling they use in their open world games, but instead of letting the player roam in between missions, they instead stitched them together with per-rendered cut scenes. This just doesn’t work.
Half Life 2 for example is just as linear as Max Payne, but when I play it I feel like I am Gordon Freeman. Even though the game keeps me on tight rails entire time, Valve somehow manages to give the player enough freedom to convey sense of agency and choice. Max Payne made me feel like I was merely watching Max go through the motions, and every once in a while got to do some shooting gallery style activities. It’s kinda sad when everything cool happens in the cut scenes. Every time max has to leap from a roof, jump from a moving train, swing from a chandelier or do some other crazy stunt, he does it on his own, and if you are lucky you may get to shoot some dudes after he is done show-boating.
Maybe I’m in a minority here, but I hate that sort of thing. I want to be the one doing the crazy stunts. I want to use sneak to climb on top of a sleeping dragon and then drink a shitload of potions while crouching on his head, and one-hit him with a dagger. Skyrim lets me do all the cool stuff on my own. Max Payne lets me watch cool stuff being done, and only trusts me with the boring pop-up cover shooting.
As I mentioned before, the game has a good story. However the plot is rather weak. The exact details of the political intrigue you are unraveling are muddled and boring. What’s worse is that Max has no stake in any of it. He is just tangentially involved, and decides to stick out till the end because he wants to make things right, and prove to himself he is not a total fuck-up. At no point do things get really personal. Yes, Max is being framed by his employers and things turn ugly, but this really didn’t make me mad, or make me hate the antagonists.
What bothered me even more was a simple question of: why was Max picked to be the fall guy? Why did the South American crime lords decide to go all the way to new york to pick up a washed up cop to be their puppet? Especially since they knew that said cop was extremely dangerous and extremely efficient at dismantling organized crime cells in New York by essentially shooting his way all the way up their command chain. Why wouldn’t it make more sense to pick someone local, and someone less capable to be the fall guy?
I don’t know – maybe I’m nitpicking. Still, I must admit that I felt absolutely nothing during the final scenes of the game. No catharsis, no feeling of justice being served, no satisfaction. Noting. The game failed to engage me at a personal level. I kinda liked Max as a character, I found it intriguing to follow his inner struggles but the actual plot of the game bored me.
So there you have it. Max Payne in a nutshell. If I had to give the game a one word rating, I would call it average. It is terribly linear, it has pacing problems, it has tonal dissonance and the plot feels flat. This last point is especially damning since Rockstar put most of the focus on the story and the plot, up to the point of limiting player agency. What made the game palatable was the story, and the way it tackled issues that don’t get a lot of screen time in video games: addiction, alcoholism, the shit that happens when you intersect democracy with rampart corruption and etc. The game looks great, definitely has a distinct visual style but it is deeply flawed.