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Post-Mortem Review

  Now that the semester is drawing to its conclusion, I have a little time to go back and relax with some good ol’ fashioned video gaming. At the end of November, Steam had a sale and, as is my tradition, I proceeded to buy several games which proved to be varying on the scale of quality. Age of Empires III looked promising and was the first on the list of things to try. The sad reality is that I tried going through the campaign before getting bored three missions in. But I’m not here to complain about real time strategy or how I’ve never really been all that partial to that genre so why the hell did I think spending money on it in the first place was a good idea. Instead, I’m going to be doing a post-mortem review of Max Payne 3.

Max Payne 3

  The story of Max Payne, if you are not familiar with such things, is a modern day noir crime story. Max’s wife and child are murdered by crazy people hopped up on a new drug. Years later, in an effort to avenge their deaths, he is deep under cover in the mob and working to find the source of the narcotic. After rationally speaking with (by which I mean “shooting”) the head of the company responsible for the death of his family, Max goes on to live a somewhat normal life.

  Ha ha ha. No. That would indeed be the case if this weren’t a noir thriller. Instead, we got Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne: A Film Noir Love Story, winner of the “Most Unnecessary Subtitle: The Award” award. This time around, more people are trying to kill Max, he kinda sorta falls in love with the femme fatale from the first game, and the main villain is one of the dudes who helped our dour protagonist out in his first go around.

  The action in both games is a pretty standard affair by ye olden measures. You point your gun at a guy, you click, and there’s a reasonable chance that they will end up dead. The more head-shotty you are, the more likely you get your way and the opponent in question is in a body bag. You take damage like a wet paper bag, but you also lug around bottles of pain killers (oh, shit, I see what you did there) to keep Maxwell Wayland Payne going. The game’s chief claim to fame is popularizing a time-dilation mechanic which is trademarked because it sounds neat. Since I don’t want to get sued, I will be using various knock-off brands, such as Mexico’s own Tiempo de las Balas, when it is necessary to talk about it.

  When using Wal-Mart’s Ammo-Slo-Mo during the game, you retain the same aiming speed and move slightly faster than the baddies (I think), allowing you to punch more holes in them. The player replenishes this by getting all shooty on various goons, so there technically is a finite supply of Max’s special ability.

  One of the more unique and memorable parts of the prequels was how the story was rolled out. Since the plot is similar to pulp fiction and graphic novels, Rockstar eschewed cinematics in favor of a story told through the frames of a comic book. It suited the world of Max Payne, allowing for the rambling introspection and dry wit which makes noir so delightful to experience. And, yes, the plot and dialogue are a little hokey at times, but everything plays to the narrative’s strengths.

  So that’s all well and good. What about Max Payne 3? Does it live up to my expectations? Yes, I suppose.

  You see, I had no expectations to begin with. Although I’m sure there was the promise of another Max Payne after the second one, I didn’t see where the story could go. Therefore, I came to the conclusion that there wouldn’t be a continuation. I mean the guy had avenged his family and tied up the mob-tastic loose ends in his life. For fuck’s sake, he shot and killed his partner and I’m pretty sure “Well, a mob boss I also just killed said she was sleeping with him,” is not enough evidence to get him off the hook for that particular murder. In any case, it appeared that Max’s career was over. What more could I ask for?

  But because Rockstar evidently wants to kick the shit out of Max forever, they dragged him out of a bar and made him star in another game. This time around, he’s the private bodyguard of a Brazilian businessman named Rodrigo Branco. This detail includes being chummy with fellow body guard Raul Passos, protecting trophy wife Fabiana and her sister Giovanna, and also making sure perpetual fuckup Marcello Branco doesn’t get air conditioning installed in his face. This goes poorly because this is Max Payne 3, not Bored Bodyguard: Actionlessness Edition. Long story short, Fabiana is kidnapped, people die, and Max shaves his head and grows a beard before killing enough people to make everything okay. It’s all very dramatic.

  Aesthetically speaking, the biggest change is the beautiful graphical overhaul. And you can tell that they are very proud of this fact, as they eliminated the original graphic-novel story telling device in favor of in-game engine plot segments. In all honesty, I’m a little torn. It’s clear that one of the main benefits for using the comic-style plot segments was not having to eat up space rendering cinematics or force people to be subjected to the downright hideous Max of the first game. Seriously, here’s how the old 2002 model looks updated in the Max Payne 3 engine:

Ladies
Ladies.

Be grateful you didn’t have to stare at that mug any longer than you had to.

  Given the freedom to have character models that don’t look like they’re the offspring of a two-by-four and a foot, I’m not surprised that Rockstar took the new graphics and ran with them. Although I did understand the desire to show off an admittedly gorgeous game, I preferred the original style. This wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the fact that this superficial nitpick actually has some pretty egregious gameplay ramifications.

  After every cutscene (and there are a lot of fucking cutscenes), the game chooses which weapon you use because apparently Max is a prima donna and will always prefer an underpowered pistol or hilariously inaccurate submachine gun to whatever the player is most comfortable with. This is incredibly annoying when you prefer a rifle or a weapon which isn’t your default option as, invariably, every action sequence involves you remembering to switch to the weapon you want. That is, if you even remember to do so and you don’t accidently fire a few shots and announce your location to everyone who wants you dead. There are even times where you entire weapon selection will be outright changed, and you lose whichever weapon you had been using in favor of something else.

  Now that we’re talking about guns, let’s point out the fact that – in a departure from the perfectly acceptable system of the past two games – Max can now only hold two pistol-sized weapons and a larger gun. Yes, he can dual-wield his dinkier weapons, but this discards the rifle/shotgun/weapon-slot-worth-using. I’m sure this was done because “realism” and all that, but we’re dealing with a dude who has Japan’s Hyper-Shooty-Go! as his signature move. The man pulls assault rifle magazines out of his ass when he needs to and shrugs off getting shot in the heart. Of all the things, I’m sure that “fewer guns” ranked pretty low on everyone’s wish list.

  But we do get cover-based shooting! I personally don’t have too much of a problem with this, except it’s a game where the character charging around the battlefield, emptying entire armories worth of ammunition into corrupt baddies is the central allure. Crouching along a railing to use as a shield is also fairly awkward, considering that this is Max Payne and not, say, Metal Gear Solid, where stealth is a central game mechanic. This whole cover issue is just unnecessary, especially when – for reasons possibly related to ghosts or demonic possession – Max will stand bolt upright, arms out.

NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR EXERCISE
Max randomly performs a jumping jack as an enemy ignores the dangerous Hawaiian shirt sporting ex-cop in favor of an alley.

It’s a good thing that bad guys who are staring right at him when he’s doing this will respectfully pretend not to see him. Since running-and-gunning is the central tenant of Max Payne, this addition to the game is just so out of place. Remember that whole kugel regen thing? It’s a lot less fun when your ass is plastered to a wall.

  And plastered it will be! An oh-so-fun glitch in the game is where Max will take cover behind a wall and you’ll blast a few goons before deciding to roll out, only to discover that Max remembers this particular slab of concrete took his virginity all those years ago and he doesn’t want to leave it. So great is this cling that he will refuse to budge, regardless of present danger. Alternately, you can manage to clean out a room of villains only to discover Max’s long lost pillar love. Max will proceed to complain about needing to move on and then not do it, as he is shellacked to the goddamn wall.

  Which brings up another gripe – why is Max in such a hurry? There’s no time limit, except from a narrative perspective. Why is he so damn insistent that I stop exploring and help kill people? It’s annoying when a lot of detail has been put into environments and someone would rather have you blow through the experience. It’s especially galling when the path is so linear that you can’t return to previous sections because doors either lock behind you or Max is just unable to figure out any door that isn’t a push-to-open.

  While we’re on the topic of what the hell is wrong with Max’s head, I’m pretty sure all the alcohol and pills have given the poor guy adult-onset brain deflation. My favorite level is based on the plot point that an inebriated Max passes out and, when he comes to, pirates have taken the ship. He fends them off and finds his partner and employer loading shady cargo on a truck. As this is a flashback, the player is supposed to be all “Of course! Max was set up!” or something. Instead, all I could think of was how stupid Max had to be to not ask questions. Pirates attack the boat and Raul and Marcello are calmly on the shore, not giving a fuck that people – and Max, for all they know – are being kidnaped. They also ignored the sounds of violent gunfire from the boat for the past ten minutes. And it’s only in retrospect that Max is questioning this?

  In fact, the story itself, while good and really well told for the most part, also suffers a bit because of, surprisingly, Max Payne himself. I was never quite sure why a guy who brought down multiple mob bosses (and a good portion of their thugs... and a major corporation... and professional assassins) would be the chosen fall-guy for some nogoodniks. It seems to me that you’d want a corrupt asshole rather than the world’s most unstoppable boy scout and his Temporal Fuckery. Max just brings so much baggage, and I kept waiting for the big reveal; something that coherently tied him to the goings on in Brazil was desperately needed. Instead, it boiled down to “Here’s a dipshit honkey. Let’s hire him.” It’s suggested that Raul went to the police academy with Max and that’s the rationale for choosing him, but that’s questionable because of certain other plot points.

  So if that was the case, why him as our protagonist? Why not use some other guy in the same universe? Hell, Raul Passos was a pretty awesome character. He could have carried the story himself. Or had him be the main character and have Max be in a supporting role. It’s just that Max should have let his demons die years ago – I mean, seriously, he murdered most of them. Why ventilate this poor guy yet again? Outside of his Guns-of-Quick-Firing-Time-Slowity, why did Rockstar drag Max out of retirement?

Was it because he's missing an arm?
Was it because he's missing an arm?

  The other major gameplay idea that needed to be rethought was the Last Man Standing mechanic. If you have any painkillers left and someone lands a shot that would kill you, you automatically enter China’s Time of the Gunning-Man, twisting to see your attacker. If you kill him before you hit the ground (or a set amount of time), you get to live! Wee!

  The big problem with this additional mechanic is that there are some angles that you can not feasibly return fire in. For instance, you may get shot and end up falling behind a bar, unable to actually kill the asshole that got you. So now you get to watch Max sloooooooooooooooowly fall and sloooooooooooowly die. You can’t restart the checkpoint in this mode, so you’re forced to watch it from beginning to end. It’s infuriating. And if you do survive, all your Matryx-Brand Clock Stretcher is now gone. So now all the goon’s friends will score tons of free hits as you slowly get up and end up entering Last fucking Man shitting Standing! Goddamn it!

  Now, it sounds like there’s a lot of negatives here, but there’s not. There’s a lot of really good action in Max Payne 3, and when there’s a lot of time between cutscenes, its very easy to lose yourself in the fun of it all. A couple of times, Max even remembers that he basically has super powers and shoots the crap out of people in increasingly awesome ways. The dialogue is all high quality and perfectly delivered. Although the story is not as well-thought-out as it could have been, it touches on issues of class that few games actually bother with. I’m playing Infamous 2 at the moment, and I doubt it will bother with any real discussion of the disparity in wealth in its version of New Orleans. Max Payne 3, for all its filth and decadence, still broaches these issues in a visceral way – at times horrifying, at times sympathetic. Sure, it could have done more, but I didn’t write the thing, so I’m happy with what I have. May Payne 3 fulfills its role as a quality action game.

  But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Rockstar makes a good game, there’s no denying it. They are responsible for the best video game adaptation of a movie with The Warriors. The Max Payne trilogy are well-crafted, for the most part well-told action-fest bullet operas. And even though I’m not personally a fan of the Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead series because there is such a thing as too big, they’re still great sandbox games for loading up and causing some havoc. And, let’s be honest, of all the game developers I know of, if a major studio wanted access to Project Northwoods, I would unhesitatingly sign the line if it was Rockstar. Sadly, though, it’s the little missteps which are going to be judged more severely because, by this point, I’ve learned to expect so much.

  Silly things like a narrative faux pas or graphical glitches or getting stuck to a goddamn wall for the fifth time in ten minutes doesn’t make or break a game. But because everything else in the game is so well done, these little things are far more frustrating. Having to wait for Last Man Standing to just kill you is so infuriating because you want to get back to the part that’s so good. Honestly, the worst part about the game was having to sign up for some silly social club when I installed the game. Seriously? I hate other people. Why would I want to have anything to do with them?

  Not cool, guys. Not. Cool.

Purchase Project Northwoods at Amazon.com.   Purchase Washed Hands at Amazon.com   Purchase Improbables at Amazon.com.

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