'Max Payne 3' review: Don't speak, Max

In Max Payne 1, Max was a renegade cop with a constipated scowl and a Matrix trench coat. Looking back, he screams early ’00s as sure as Sonic the Hedgehog screams early ’90s. But the new Max is an action hero in decline. He’s fat. He wears dad khakis. He doesn’t shave. The first time we see him, he’s in a lonely apartment, drinking fifths of whiskey, chain smoking, and passing out on a bed without sheets. He’s a wreck.

The animators and motion-capture actors have given him a cautious gait, like he’s worried about throwing his back out. (We’re miles away from Nathan Drake’s jaunty Errol Flynn strut.) James McCaffrey once again voices Max, but this time around he also plays Max via motion performance. I recently saw McCaffrey as a shady lawyer on Revenge who was amused by his own world weariness, and that peculiar blend comes through in his performance here. And McCaffrey’s voice is still just right: gruff but powerless, like an old drunk who has to beg the kids to get off his lawn.

But Max never stops talking. The bullet-time gameplay is a thrilling rebuke to the modern vogue for duck-and-cover shooter strategy, and the soundtrack by HEALTH is invigorating and idiosyncratic, yet the dialogue drags it all down.

Max Payne 3 features some of the worst dialogue of any videogame I’ve played in years. Most videogames have bad dialogue, because most videogame dialogue is purely functional, and (I assume) because good writers are expensive. But Max Payne 3 focuses on the script. That means Max narrates everything. Whenever you clear a room of bad guys, Max offers his thoughts on the situation. Here are some of Max’s chestnuts:

“He was smoother than an oil slick on an iceberg…and twice as toxic.”
“This place is like Baghdad…with G-strings.”
“These bastards make the NYPD…look like the Hare Krishnas.”
“While I’d been dead to the world, some of my shipmates…were just plain dead.”

The intention is Sam Spade. The result is much closer to Tracer Bullet, the tough-talking detective from Calvin’s daydreams in Calvin & Hobbes. Except that Tracer Bullet was funny on purpose. There’s a moment in the middle of the game when a mobster holding Max hostage screams, “You killed my son!!!” Max’s response is so businesslike that we could be watching an SNL skit: “Listen… I’m sorry.”

You might argue it’s unfair to focus on dialogue in a game. But dialogue is all over this game. It’s a central part of the Max Payne 3 single-player experience. And it doesn’t have to be. Max Payne 3 has an incredible sense of atmosphere. There are rooftop battles above neon cities at midnight, and a ramshackle favela that feels like a shanty town metropolis. There’s a Collateral-esque nightclub shootout, and Max occasionally wears the same gray suit that every Michael Mann hero wears. (Between this, Drive, and the last couple of Christopher Nolan spectaculars, we’re living through a boomlet for Michael Mann-influenced product.) The difference is that Mann is a visual storyteller, always willing to let cool colors and a killer soundtrack tell a story. For whatever reason, the makers of Max Payne 3 feel the need to over-explain. Or worse, they think the dialogue is good.

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