My eyes burned, sockets buzzing like two wasps in a duel to the death. I released my fingers from the buttons. It was over. Just a couple of days earlier I’d been fine, snug inside a blanket of arrogance and insipid optimism. Now I was a broken man, a million tiny pieces scattered on the floor of my own personal mind-castle. The screams of a thousand enemies bounced around my skull like some sadistic pinball game run by Satan himself. I was victorious, but calling me a winner might have been a stretch.
There are many reasons to make a game difficult: to challenge the players and provide a sense of accomplishment, to add replay value, or even to better represent the situation in-game. I’m pretty sure Max Payne 3 is difficult to prove how huge the ballsack of trouble is that Max finds himself in. The Max Payne games were never particularly easy, but the third installment is almost sinister in its refusal to give you a goddamn inch. There were moments, after dying repeatedly on the same section, that I was genuinely afraid there was no way forward. Thankfully, even in situations where I was surrounded by dozens of murderous Brazilian gang members or heavily armed private security forces, armed only with a pistol and a bottle of prescription painkillers, Max prevailed.
But he does that. It’s kind of his thing. Max Payne scrapes through and survives, no matter the odds and no matter how suicidal he feels that day. He’s like a slightly overweight, drunk, Terminator robot.
In previous Max Payne adventures, we’ve seen him lose his wife and child to junkies, find out those junkies were sent by an evil pharmaceutical company, get together with a sexy lady in the process of killing everyone, lose the lady, find out she is still alive, find out his only friend actually set him up in the first place, then kill everyone again. The man who redefines “rock bottom” comes to Brazil for Max Payne 3, now working private security for the Branco family. Without spoiling any of the juicy details, security is not maintained. Gangs get involved, people are kidnapped, different people are assassinated and Max is the one who has to clean everything up.
With Rockstar taking over from previous lead developers Remedy, the story isn’t as surreal as the previous games. Max’s journey through the poverty-soaked favelas and around luxury yachts seem noticeably grounded after previous games took us through a dilapidated amusement park (based on a fictional TV series), underground government testing laboratories and along a trail of baby blood into a drug-induced memory void. Nonetheless, the story is an intriguing beast, with a few unexpected turns. My only problem was occasionally forgetting exactly what I was doing amongst the criss-crossing flashback sequences that spanned time and space.
Max might be a little fatter, a little more gravelly and a lot more drunk, but he’s still got those old familiar moves. Like the previous games, this is a third-person shooter, with the usual suspects packed into your shorts. Pistols, rifles, machine guns and even the odd rocket launcher will be up for grabs, but this time around you can only carry two or three weapons at once — one heavy weapon and two smaller ones — instead of an entire arsenal magically appearing in your hands at will. It does lead to some appropriately frustrating moments where you find yourself out of ammunition and forced to do something incredibly ridiculous like diving across a room full of commandos to grab 10 bullets from a nearby corpse. On par with the rest of the excellent animation in the game, Max can always be seen visibly carting his spare weapon around in his other hand; a visual reminder of your current situation.
But you’re not just a washed-up ex-cop who likes whiskey and failing to rescue women. You have magic powers. Bullet time — the ability to slow the world to a crawl and pick your shots like some sort of gun wizard — was practically pioneered as a gameplay element by the first game, and its still kicking around. Max can either activate bullet time and take actions at his leisure or dramatically dive to one side or the other. Doing the latter activates bullet time for as long as Max remains airborne, meaning if you launch yourself from a balcony you’ll have ample time to pop off multiple headshots before you float to the ground. The game also revels in its slow-motion stylings when it comes to death, pushing in for a cinematic view when you take out the final goon in an area.
I mentioned the difficulty earlier, and that was a genuine warning; more than a few bullets will kill you in most situations, and you’re almost always being shot by more than half a dozen bad dudes at once. This means careful route planning is needed, as well as utilisation of the cover system. Cover won’t protect you forever, but a second or two ducked behind a rapidly vanishing wooden fence might stop you visiting the retry screen for the hundredth time. Much of the game could technically be played simply as a standard cover shooter, or by just shoot-dodging like a madman; but the successful player will probably mix things up as much as possible.
To combat this horrific and unending hail of bullets, Rockstar has included Last Man Standing. If Max has at least one painkiller left when he gets a lethal wound — excluding instant-kill headshots — you’re given a final chance to take out your attacker. In doing so you gain a bit of health back and live to fight on, possibly only for another five seconds. Good luck finding painkillers, though. The little bottles were plentiful in previous games but are like gold in Brazil’s mean streets.
Hard as they are, gunfights in Max Payne 3 are never short of exhilarating. Diving into a room full of heavily armed psychopaths and walking out the other side with a few scratches, their bodies strewn all over the environment, always brings a smile to my face. The generally ridiculous quality of the game deserves a lot of the credit here. The Euphoria engine is out in full force, ensuring each body is realistically modelled and reacts to bullets and pieces of the environment. The dead flop realistically down flights of stairs, slump over desks and tumble out of open windows. Every bullet fired is an actual object, something beautifully demonstrated if one should pause the game and spin the camera around the frozen scene.
And beyond the gore, beyond the shotgun pellets ripping open people’s faces and the blood pooling on the floor, this is a genuinely pretty game. Brazil is a rich setting and is used to the fullest, with environments ranging from stadiums, to slums, to neon-soaked night clubs. Every level is meticulously detailed and looks framed even after a vicious exchange. Everything sounds great too, the soundtrack mixing classic Max Payne gloom with bouncy South American rhythms. And getting James McCaffrey back for the leading role was a narrow escape from a potential disaster, as it would be hard to imagine Max Payne without Max Payne.
Once the reasonably lengthy campaign is done with, there is an extensive multiplayer mode to mess around with. Standard deathmatch mode is there, along with Payne Killer which makes two players Max and Passos, the others trying to eliminate and replace them. Gang Wars is an objective-based team contest that drags you in for just one more round. As is par for the course these days, players can gain XP to buy new bits and pieces to customise their multiplayer loadout, meaning that those so inclined can definitely sink a lot of time in here. There’s also the addition of crews, which allows you to pledge allegiance to your team of friends and do battle with rival groups.
There were a few small issues, such as Max inexplicably changing weapons between scenes, and a stubborn refusal to change targets at times, but they are definitely small. Max Payne 3 is a bit like Max’s life: ball-bustingly hard, frustrating, exciting and full of bullets. It doesn’t sound good in theory, piloting a fat, bald, sweaty man through Brazil as he refuses to shut his mouth, but in practice it’s one of the best action experiences in video games.