More Modern Noir: Max Payne 3

Published on May 23rd, 2012 in: Current Faves, Game Reviews, Gaming, Reviews |

By Paul Casey

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Noir has been having a good time in video games, over the last few years. Quantic Dream’s high profile Heavy Rain, and last year’s L.A. Noire (which we reviewed here) both used noir as their foundation. Max Payne 3 arrives as the third in a trio of story-driven, highly stylized games indebted to the classics—Raymond Chandler, John Huston, anything starring Humphrey Bogart—as well as modern creators who have ensured that noir and hardboiled fiction stay vital—James Ellroy, Frank Miller, Michael Mann.

Max Payne 3 is not, however, a reworking of the adventure genre. It is in many ways an old-style, straight-ahead, viciously hard shooter. However, its difficulty disguises a core gameplay experience that insists on an aggressive and adaptive play style that has become mostly alien in the last decade. It recalls Shinji Mikami’s Vanquish. This is not a cover shooter. Treating it as such will lead to severe frustration. If you are able to adapt to its increasingly fierce and violent demands, you will find that Rockstar has delivered an expertly constructed neonoir story, as well as a gameplay experience that manages to transform seemingly outdated modes of play into something modern.

Stylistically, Max Payne is most indebted to Tony Scott’s film Man On Fire, using the same out of focus look, blurring lines, and use of on screen text. Rockstar runs with it to great effect. As a means to unsettle the player, it is successful. As a stylistic flourish, it is an essential part of Max Payne. If such overt style and panache offends you, you are unlikely to admire the hardboiled narration, which stops just before Frank Miller’s Sin City and sits quite comfortably between James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard. It is less goofy than the previous Max Paynes developed by Remedy Entertainment, but has more than enough time for some delicious knowing hardboiled lines.

As a character, Max Payne is unreasonably appealing. He never gets too excited about anything, unless it really matters. His penchant for drink and violence is commendable. On that note: Max Payne 3 is incredibly, brilliantly violent. The return of Mortal Kombat last year saw a return to outstanding gore for video games. The kind of body-shaping chaos of the splatter horror crowd—Stuart Gordon, Brian Yuzna, Peter Jackson—needs no ticket other than this: Gore Is Good. As each new bod falls along with the others, catharsis comes with righteous vengeance. Here, with back against the wall, you’re Gary Cooper, maybe. If you’re going to fight, you will make the sons of bitches pay. You do: again and again and again. Heads turn to mush, eyes fall out, and brains spray on back walls.

Max’s story is from the noir well, and carries on his history of failing as a protector of women. The setting is one which will be familiar to all who have admired the neonoir heads who have pilfered from each other and kept the wheel turning. Setting the majority of the game in Brazil gives an opportunity for the sun to step in where shadows had previously. Think After Dark, My Sweet. Even in light, things are daaaaaaaaaaaark, brother. Max Payne, from stature to dress, recalls Ellroy’s Pete Bondurant. (That Ellroy was mentioned continuously during the press for L.A. Noire and not at all for this, leads one to conclude that the many reviewers have not read past L.A. Confidential.) There is nothing here to rival the depth of experience that was offered in Red Dead Redemption—Rockstar’s last game—but as with every Rockstar game, the details are perfect. The animation is stunning throughout, and grounds every scene in a weird kind of reality, even as time is being altered to aid you.

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As an experience that is decidedly linear, far away from the open landscapes of their Western and carjacking titles, there is more room for forcing the hand. In this way, there is a decent measure of Naughty Dog’s meticulous eye for hands-on story progression. When you take a bullet in an early chapter, Max takes a rest against a wall, even though you are ostensibly in control. Later, a walk through a Sao Paulo slum gives insists on you taking a breath and having a look around. Much of the game, though, is taken up with shooting. Lots of shooting. Enemies have near perfect aim, and although this feels perhaps a bit unfair at first, once you realize that it is to push the player to master the use of bullet time, Max Payne becomes unusually thrilling. A hard won mastery of Max and his jumping, rolling, and SLOWING DOWN TIME ITSELF FOR PITY’S SAKE satisfies in a way mostly unknown to this generation.

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