Back in 2013 I posted a particularly harsh review of Max Payne 3 on GameFAQs. I lambasted its lack of cool gunplay and its unfair design, and I urged my readers to go buy Max Payne 2 instead. Looking back, however, I can’t help but feel that I treated Max Payne 3 unfairly. I only played through about 1/3 of the game before writing my review, and I played it on an old computer that could barely run the game at 20 frames-per-second. With my new computer fired up and ready to go, I reinstalled Max Payne 3 last week and decided to give it a proper full playthrough. And my opinions… are basically the same.
Max Payne 3 was released in 2012 and developed by Rockstar Games. This is important to note, because the previous two Max Payne games were developed by Remedy Entertainment, and the shift in developers is quite noticeable. I fell head-over-heels in love with Max Payne 2 in high school; that game essentially defined my existence from 2010-2011 and sucked up almost 200 hours of my time. The action-packed bullet-time gunplay, the crime noir themes, the hilarious ragdoll physics… it all came together in a captivating way that kept me replaying the game over and over. As such when, against all odds, Max Payne 3 rumors began gaining momentum in 2010-2011 (Max Payne 2 was released in 2003!), I was understandably invested in a possible sequel to one of my favorite games of all time.
Max Payne 2. The definition of my high school years.
As details surfaced and initial screenshots trickled through the internet, however, I found my hype twisting into confusion and disappointment. Rockstar seemed to be doing everything they could to circumvent classic Max Payne themes: dark, rainy New York was replaced by bright, sunny São Paulo. Slick, jacket-clad Max was replaced by some bald bearded dude in a tropical t-shirt. I was frustrated. This didn’t look like Max Payne at all! Did they forget what game they were developing?
Max? Is that you??
This tonal shift extends far beyond the aesthetic aspects of the game, mind. Max Payne 3 not only looks different, but feels very different as well. I could get past the non-noir aesthetics and new Max model if the gunplay was still just as fun as the old games, but Max Payne 3‘s attempts to rebalance the gameplay resulted in harsh losses in the “fun” and “excitement” departments. Max Payne 1 and 2 encouraged bold, in-your-face approaches to gunfights, and gave you the tools necessary to dive fearlessly into combat, spraying bullets and jumping around as time slowed to a crawl and your enemies toppled over in defeat.
This old-school Max Payne gameplay is timelessly fun and engaging, but to be fair, Max’s bullet-time powers did make the games a little easy, especially in Max Payne 2. Max could perform slow-motion dives as many times as he pleased in 2, and the games refilled your bullet-time meter quite quickly and generously. For Max Payne 3, Rockstar didn’t want to just give you powerful machine guns and let you bullet-time your way through every gunfight like an unstoppable badass – they wanted you to work for those moments, those dives, those slow-motion headshots. Max can’t just slow down time to escape all of his predicaments anymore – he has to demonstrate some real-time shooting skills in order to earn his bullet-time fun.
Cool dives are no longer a dime a dozen – you have to earn them and use them strategically.
On paper, these changes sound great. I am totally on board with making Max a little less overpowered. These changes would make those mid-air slow motion headshots more special and satisfying, and make the gunfights more strategic. Sadly, this mindset would be the downfall of Max Payne 3. (For me personally, anyway.) Efforts to rebalance the gameplay and amp up the challenge went too far, and Max Payne 3‘s design no longer feels conducive to aggressive play or exciting gun battles. Instead of charging into a room and unloading a clip into the first goons you see, the new Max hides behind filing cabinets and waits for distant enemies to poke their heads out of cover. I read a Steam review that summed it up perfectly in two words: “baby steps.” Max has to take baby steps in every gunfight in this game, lest he be gunned down by a random goon he happened to miss.
I swear, enemies have more health than Max does in this game. It’s insane: you can pump ten rounds into some guy and he’ll groan, roll around a bit, and then get back up to shoot at you some more. Meanwhile, Max takes two bullets to the arm and his health is almost drained. Max can also get headshotted in this game, meaning if a random nobody on the other side of the room happens to get a lucky shot and hit you in the dome, it’s an instant game over. Okay, let’s get something straight here: Max Payne is a badass dude. He’s a dual-wielding loose cannon cop with slow motion powers and a poetic noir monologue. So when I play a Max Payne game, I expect to play as a badass dude doing badass things. You know what makes me not feel like a badass? Getting killed by one bullet fired by a random thug with a handgun. That’s not challenge, that’s a roll of the dice. Will this next guy land a headshot on me? I sure hope not, because if he does I have to start back at the last checkpoint!
This picture is Max Payne 3 in a nutshell. Max, hiding behind cover, waits for a group of distant enemies to stop shooting at him for two seconds so he can sheepishly poke his head out and try to get a kill.
I began to refer to this game as “Shooting Gallery Payne” because that’s what every action sequence started to feel like. A firefight would start by automatically placing Max behind cover, and various enemies would take turns popping out from behind distant objects, giving you a second or two to headshot them before they dropped back down. Attempts to buck the system and run out of cover would usually result in my instantaneous death, so I was quickly conditioned to play the shooting gallery game and patiently sit behind my box playing peek-a-boo. The critical voice in the back of my head kept saying, “What am I doing? Max wouldn’t play whack-a-mole with a bunch of cronies! He’d get right up in their business and shoot them with shotguns and stuff at close range!” Ah, but in addition to Max’s health debuff and scarce bullet-time juice, enemies in general have received significant buffs since the first two Payne games.
I’ve already established that enemies have a lot of health, but they also have excellent accuracy and awareness. Faraway enemies that you can barely see can land shots on you all day long, and will do so the instant you dare to pop out of cover and show your face. (Couple this with the headshot chance and you’ve got yourself one hell of a good time.) Enemies will also strategize at times, pinning you with covering fire while point men circle around and flank you. Enemies also have access to grenades and will use them to force you out into the open where they can use their pinpoint accuracy to ruin your day. Oh, and by the way, Max doesn’t get to throw grenades. He got grenades in Max Payne 1 and 2, but I guess they figured grenades would be too fun or something. Are you telling me that enemies get to force me out of cover with molotovs and grenades, but I don’t get to do the same to them? Why is this game so determined to make Max lame? I want to send people flying through windows with grenades! In one or two levels the game actually gives Max a grenade launcher for a short period, and, consequently, the game gets pretty fun once you can circumvent the peek-a-boo nonsense and blow enemies out of cover with reckless abandon.
Woah, a grenade launcher! Finally, something cool and exciting!
Enemies also have Spidey Senses that allow them to know where you are even before seeing you. You can stay hidden behind cover as someone wanders into a room, and they instantly start shouting and spraying bullets at whatever you were hiding behind. Enemies in Max Payne 1 and 2 had no such luck – you could actually hide from them if you knew they were coming. If some enemies walked into a room and found a bunch of bodies but no Max, they would spread out and start slowly scanning the area, muttering things like, “Come out, I can smell ya…” You could sneak up behind them and deliver a ninja-esque shotgun blast like a badass. I understand that they were trying to make MP3 more challenging, but with lots of health, pinpoint accuracy, and access to weapons that Max doesn’t even get, did they need hyper awareness, too?
It’s hard to make use of your bullet-time and diving abilities when enemies are constantly pinning you behind cover with gunfire. Dives feel completely worthless in a lot of areas anyway, as the new dive physics make areas just too small for Max to really jump around in. I lost count of how many times my dives were cut short because I bumped into a sign or something and fell over like a dumbass. If the arena is too cramped, Max will just throw himself into walls and fall over. If the arena is too large and open, Max will get capped by a distant enemy as he stands up from his dive. I tried so hard throughout the course of this game to do cool things, but I felt like I was being chaperoned or something. “Diving headfirst at a guy? Are you crazy? What, are you going to shoot him in mid-air or something? Look, there’s plenty of perfectly good chest-high walls around here for you to hide behind. Stop acting so recklessly!” Any time I did something cool in this game I had to inorganically force it to happen, and I usually lost a good chunk of health because of it. I just wanted to feel like I was playing Max Payne.
My frustration was alleviated somewhat by this cool mod I installed that made Max look like he did in Max Payne 2. Here, Max is breaking the 4th wall and asking me why the heck I’m not just playing Max Payne 2 instead.
Wow, this review ended up being a lot more negative than I had planned. In spite of all my ranting and raving, Max Payne 3 must not have been that bad because I actually played through the whole thing. Rockstar’s physics engines are still superb, and the way enemies’ reactions seamlessly blend animation and ragdoll physics still impresses me. The plot was engaging enough to keep me invested in the cutscenes, and the final climax was so exciting that I involuntarily yelled, “OHHHHHHHHH!!!” I also really enjoyed the idea of the “clues” mechanic: if you explore your environment, you can find clues that Max will comment on and make note of, and each level has its own list of clues for you to find. I liked this idea a lot, because the game rewarded you for examining your environment like a detective. I wish they would have done more with it, though, because it seems that finding all the clues is only good for getting the achievement. I would have loved if the game included multiple endings based on how many pieces of the puzzle Max had managed to put together by the end. Maybe if you didn’t find many clues, you wouldn’t see a betrayal coming and be killed. Maybe if you found all the clues you’d discover the real culprit and get treated to a completely different final fight. I’m just spitballing here, but you get my point: clues were a cool idea that I wish they did more with.
Maybe my problem is that I keep comparing this game to the old Max Payne games. Rockstar was obviously trying its hardest to dissociate this game from the previous entries, what with the complete change in setting, themes, and look of Max overall. Heck, Max looks like a completely different person and has to behave completely differently in gunfights. That “Classic Max” mod I downloaded was probably part of the problem. I saw the old Max Payne, so I wanted to be the old Max Payne. Maybe I was supposed to lose myself in all the changes and become, as Max put it, “detached.” If I uninstalled the mod and just played bald beard guy shooting gallery for 12 hours maybe I’d forget I was even playing a Max Payne game and wouldn’t judge it so harshly.
I guess what it all boils down to is that I wanted a Max Payne game and I got a standard AAA cover-based shooter. And it cut me particularly deeply because I loved Max Payne 2 so much. I suppose, like Max himself, I cling desperately to the past and have trouble letting things go. I fought myself and Max Payne 3 for 17 hours and for what? Redemption? No, it was more like desperation, or some kind of fruitless denial. I knew I didn’t like Max Payne 3; I had known that for four years now. Nothing has changed now that I’ve finished the game, and nothing will change now that I’ve written my feelings about it. In the end I’m back where I started, only now I’ve lost time torturing myself and hoping that others will care. “Care” is a precious commodity these days, and I don’t see strangers or my friends sparing much for a fool’s lengthy ramblings about some computer game he holds a grudge against. And by continuing to write, I continue to spin my wheels in desperate hope that I’ll start making progress soon. Only the car has no engine and I’m ten feet from my home. I think it’s time to come back inside. I think it’s time to move on.