Max Payne is far from being the quintessential role model. With his addiction to painkillers, an abusive relationship to alcohol, and his on-again, off-again affair with Lady Luck, he's the type of guy you'd never want to meet in real life…unless your life is filled with drugs and murder.
Eight years have passed since we last saw the grizzled cop waging war across the streets of New York City, and a slightly chubbier, non-grinning Max Payne has since taken his place. But don't count him out: All it takes are two pistols and a generous helping of slow-motion shooting — the franchise's famous Bullet Time mechanic — for Max to clear a room full of armed thugs.
What hasn't aged, however, are the controls. Everything feels immediately responsive, and that's absolutely critical to a game that emphasizes fast reflexes over fast trigger fingers, especially when it comes to taking cover. Though it's not strictly a cover shooter, the cover system in Max Payne 3 appropriately feels more natural than magnetic (a la Gears of War), and is a necessity during the more harrowing fights in the game.
But it's not violence for violence's sake: Like the previous games, Max Payne 3 attempts to weave a cinematic tale, and in true Rockstar Games fashion, it's a story told in style. The game uses a distinctively different film noir trope than the one found in Max Payne 2, trading in the hardboiled detective drama for a modern look inspired by the likes of Tony Scott's Man on Fire.
This fetishistic obsession with filmic elements extends to the titular character as well. At times, Max spiritually embodies John Woo, John McClane and John Creasy as he shoots his way through the war-torn favelas of Brazil. An internal monologue serves as his whisky-soaked confessional booth, where his dry and honest delivery presents a cynical, if at times comedic, view of his world.
The seedy criminal underworld of São Paulo will throw everything it can at Max Payne to wear him down — it's almost laughable how bad things get from chapter to chapter – so as a man with nothing left to lose, he's a perfect fit for the job.
But that job won't come easy. Max Payne 3 is a tough game, even on its Medium difficulty setting. There were multiple sections that I had to play through again and again — enemies are relentless and will do everything they can to flank you (which is otherwise a testament to the impressive artificial intelligence at play). Checkpoints can be unforgiving, too: I can't count the number of times I've died right after killing a small army of gang members, only to be picked off by a lone thug and forced to start the level from the beginning. It can definitely be punishing, so don't feel bad if you have to take the difficulty down a notch to push through the story.
Even the multiplayer takes some time getting used to. While standard third-person shooting tactics apply here, the addition of Bullet Time (which is accrued though completing match objectives) can quickly turn the odds in your favor. This pervasive risk and reward strategy is actually a lot of fun, and I was surprised at how much time I started sinking into it. It is by far Rockstar Game's best multiplayer effort to date, so it's unfortunate to see that, at least in my time with the PlayStation 3 version, the amount of active players is embarassingly low, numbering less than a 1000.
And sometimes, it's hard for the wrong reasons, especially when it comes to the Euphoria animation engine. While it makes shooting enemies look more realistic, it can unexpectedly lead to unfair deaths: There's a “last stand” system in place where, if your health is reduced to nil, and have at least one case of pills in your inventory, the action immediately slows down to a crawl; you're given just a few seconds to locate the enemy who shot you and deliver the killing blow. But if your body falls awkwardly against something (where limbs might even glitch through the floor) your viewing angle can become blocked by an object in the environment, making it impossible to find your killer. The camera is fixed during this sequence, so there's no way around it except to die and start over.
Taking cover also presents its own troubles. When Max is up against a wall, usually he can peek over to shoot from cover; but if for any reason this is out of reach (something that is not easily telegraphed to the player), or if his line of sight is blocked, Max remains stuck in place. Instead of making the effort to move to an open spot, he ends up shooting his gun toward the ceiling, which gives the enemy time to find and kill you. It's never a good time when you have to struggle with a game's mechanics over its gun-toting gang members
Yet, in spite of these problems, the game is still a joy to play. Seamless transitions from cutscenes to gameplay keeps the pacing tight and focused. A superb original soundtrack composed by HEALTH, a noise rock band based out of L.A., complements Max's progression with a unique blend of downtempo beats and crushing rock anthems.
It all adds up to an experience that pulls you in with its blood-stained hands even before you start playing the first chapter, and it refuses to let you go until its blockbuster conclusion.