The videogame industry looked a lot different the last time a Max Payne game hit stores. In 2003, the Playstation 2 was in the midst of a golden era, and Sony’s defining aesthetic — hard-edged, high-powered, cinematic, M-for-Mature — seemed especially potent compared to the kid-baiting cartoonism of Nintendo’s under-selling, grape-flavored GameCube. The general consensus was that the future of the industry would be big, swaggery, Hi-Def adventures appealing to gamer obsessives. Cue the release of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne — A Film Noir Love Story. The double-subtitle screams ambition. Film noir? A love story? Even the notion of a “fall” felt off-key, since the most basic videogame narrative was always about a rise: Earning more points, beating bosses and absorbing their powers, saving the princess, rescuing all your precious bananas. Max Payne 2 was critically praised, but the game sold poorly. The franchise went quiet, disappearing into the abyss of PS2 nostalgia and miserable videogame adaptations.
On May 15, however, Max Payne 3 will arrive. In the intervening eight years, the videogame industry has changed radically. That’s especially true of the shooter genre, which has undergone whole generations of evolution since Max growled his last depressive voiceover. The success of Gears of War made the “cover” system de rigueur, so practically every shooting game now mimics the rhythm of old-school Time Crisis: Lurk, lurk, lurk, shoot!, lurk. The critical acclaim for BioShock popularized the notion of the “super-powered shooter,” which basically just means that one button on your controller is reserved for telekinesis. And the relentless Faustian success of the Call of Duty franchise has helped to shift the entire genre’s priorities from the single-player story-based campaign to the online-deathmatch multiplayer. (In Black Ops, you can play an entire level without firing a gun.)
Max Payne 3 wants to be a different kind of shooter. That became clear a couple weeks ago, when Keith Staskiewicz and I went down to Rockstar HQ to play through a level of the game. As indicated in the game’s trailer, MP3 finds our hero years after his last adventure, in a state of general corrosion: He’s addicted to pills, he’s an alcoholic, but worst of all, he’s living in New Jersey. Max takes a job working security for Rodrigo Branco, a wealthy Brazilian industrialist. This is a Rockstar game, which means all wealthy people are fundamentally wrapped up in shady operations. Branco’s wife gets kidnapped and held for ransom. Max recommends that Branco pay the ransom. The kidnappers tell Max and his partner Raul to meet them in a local Sao Paolo soccer stadium. Let’s just say things go poorly, and Max has to shoot his way through the stadium.
The first thing you notice about MP3 is that the game’s presentation is relatively straightforward. Max’s “health bar” still works the same as the old days: a white silhouette that slowly fills up with blood. There’s a Red Dead Redemption-esque weapon wheel. And that’s pretty much it:- no heads-up-display, no running kill-count, no refilling shield meter. (This was a particular treat for Staskiewicz, who was in the midst of reviewing Heads-Up Display: The Videogame.)
The game does come with a cover system, but we were encouraged to run and gun as much as possible — which is where the bullet time comes in. I freely admit to being skeptical. The aesthetic of action movies (and videogames) has shifted decisively from Matrix-esque balleticism to Bourne-ish kineticism, and even the phrase “bullet time” is starting to sound a little retro. But as incorporated here, bullet time both encourages you to jump right into the fray, and allows you to strategically plan your shots — it feels both visceral and slightly omniscient. Also, at one point I bullet-time jumped off a row of bleaches and took down five guys before I hit the ground. I felt like a big man. Big man!
Max himself makes for an interesting protagonist. In the first two games, he was a perpetually frowning action hero. Now he’s a bit of a wreck, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and clearly out of shape. James McCaffrey is returning as the voice of Max Payne, but this is the first time the actor also did the motion performance for the character, and I have to give credit to McCaffrey and the animators for giving Max a distinctive everyman slouch. He doesn’t really move like a badass anymore. There’s a touch of John McClane there, although the overall effect is more like seeing your retired bachelor uncle hold a pair of Uzis. Which, frankly, I’ll take over faceless space marines any day.
The level looked great and the music was nifty. The dialogue was occasionally overheated — at one point, Max notes that he’s become the victim of a plot that has “more smoke and mirrors than a strip-club locker room,” which sounds as bit like a rejected Guy Noir punchline. But the only obvious wrong note in our playthrough of Max Payne 3 came with the redefined cutscenes. The original PS2 Max games unfolded the story in inter-level comic strips. The new Max essentially just as normal video cutscenes… with one curious twist. The words that characters say will occasionally pop up onscreen as they’re speaking. It roughly approximates the effect of having your annoying little cousin constantly tap the “subtitle” button on your DVD remote.
The look and feel of MP3 is interesting. And the game’s multiplayer system sounds like a legitimately interesting attempt to combine together the narrative elements of the campaign with the potentially infinite replay value of the online deathmatch. (You take control of a member of one of Sao Paolo’s many gangs; the matches run alongside of the main narrative.) Max Payne 3 is an ambitious game from an ambitious company. Whereas Rockstar merely published the first two games for original developer Remedy, they’ve developed MP3 from the ground up: The game was written by GTA/Red Dead/Bully creative force Dan Houser. It’ll be intriguing to see if the return of Max Payne can live up to those ambitions. If not…well, someday there’ll be a new Call of Duty released every month.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich