"Max Payne 3"
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Rockstar Games
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, intense
violence, partial nudity, strong language,
strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol)
By Billy O'Keefe
If there's a story-driven third-person shooter checklist for "Max Payne 3," rest assured every box is filled. In terms of gunplay and presentation, it's bloody, beautiful, cinematic and all kinds of refined.
But for those who loved the first two "Max Payne" games because they dared to be weird and were proudly unrefined in exactly the right ways, the polished but mostly disposable "MP3" may ultimately amount to little more than a bloody, beautiful, cinematic and refined bucket of cold water.
As cover-based shooters go, what's presented here — set mostly in Brazil, with some flashback missions in Max's old New Jersey haunts — is mostly terrific. Enemies are numerous and relentless. The levels (favelas, two crumbling skyscrapers and seemingly every square inch of an airport, among other places) are magnificently detailed and built to accommodate shootouts that develop vertically as well as horizontally. The guns are diverse and powerful. And while the firefights are stiffly difficult even on normal difficulty, any failings on your part cannot be blamed on the aiming controls, which are precise regardless of whether you elect to use aiming assists or not.
The problem, of course, is that "Max Payne" isn't supposed to be a cover shooter at all.
To the complete contrary, it was the original "Max Payne" that popularized the virtues of the "Matrix"-esque Bullet Time, which let you briefly slow time, dive right in front of a quintet of enemies and blast every one of them with prodigious precision before hitting the floor and resuming normal speed.
For all we know, Bullet Time was simply an easy fix for a genre that, back in 2001, was still finding its footing with regard to control, perspective and difficulty balance (and was still years away from embracing cover as the cure-all). But who cares? Bullet Time looked awesome and was extremely fun to use, and the first two "Payne" games designed its levels and enemy arrangements expressly to inspire players to run, gun and go absolutely nuts with the mechanic.
"MP3" brings Bullet Time back, and it's as glorious as ever to harness. But its levels are designed to accommodate cover instead of blazing guns. Enemies stream out at a much higher rate, and the penalty for taking damage from their guns is significantly higher. Tally it up, and diving into the middle of it all becomes a recipe for disaster. You'll still get your chances to go crazy, but they're rare, and you'll either have to accept that or repeatedly die in denial.
Additional signs of lost identity lie elsewhere. Though "MP3's" story is thoroughly entertaining, it's a mostly humorless action movie that only fleetingly evokes the wonderful thematic insanity that defined its predecessors. Full cutscenes replace the graphic novel motif, and while (again) they look and sound terrific, they (again) do so at the expense of the series' cherished identity.
(Max, to his credit, still mutters film noir-isms to himself between shootouts, so all is not lost. While his world has become less interesting, he's still the best tragic hero in the business.)
Interestingly, the place "MP3" most closely plays like traditional "Max Payne" is in the one frontier — multiplayer (online, 16 players) — that's wholly new to the series.
Multiplayer offers plenty to like in terms of match types (solo/team deathmatch, a story-driven Gang Wars mode, a 2-on-14 co-op/competitive survival mode) and amenities (upgradable characters/loadouts, mini-achievements, the ability to form crews with friends).
But while the multiplayer maps are built for cover as well, having teammates and fewer enemies creates boundless opportunity to run and gun with abandon.
You can even activate Bullet Time (albeit sparingly, and only after accruing it through kills and assists). Doing so doesn't necessarily affect other players' ability to continue playing at normal speed, but anyone whose line of sight crosses with a slowed-down player will slow down as well. The clever implementation allows Bullet Time to be as effective and fun as ever without disrupting other players who are fighting their own battles elsewhere on the map.
(c) 2012, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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