Max Payne is a worthless S.O.B., a boozy gunman who describes himself as a “dumb move kinda guy.” Hired to perform bodyguard duty for a wealthy Brazilian family, Max drinks his way through the gig and, to use very conservative terms, things go poorly. Yet however inept his approach to life may be, though, there is one thing that Max can do with aplomb: kill. Somehow this aging, faltering alcoholic wields firearms with such skill that he can out-shoot a room full of commandos, even as his veins boil with a level of alcohol that would reduce Charles Bukowski to soup.
Max Payne 3 follows two games created by Remedy Entertainment and a film in which Mark Wahlberg played the title character. Rockstar Games now has the reins of the series, and the studio’s movie-obsessed producer Dan Houser takes over as lead writer from series co-creator and previous writer Sam Lake. Houser’s slightly re-imagined version of Payne is kin to troubled tough guys like Warren Oates and Humphrey Bogart: a sallow-skinned, heavy-lidded malcontent who creates more problems than he solves. His story is like a clear-eyed version of Die Hard, where the Bruce Willis character is revealed to be not a hero but a psychopath with delusions of grandeur.
Rockstar’s approach to Payne is unflinchingly direct. There is no progression or development. Max begins with the ability to briefly slip into a state of heightened perception called “bullet time,” where his movements are slightly faster than those of everyone around him. He exits the story with that ability and no other, and the dozen or so hours from end to end are a single-minded exploration of Max’s capacity to perform on a physical level even as his mental state deteriorates. Relentlessly narrated and over-dramatized by Payne (whose voice and physical movements were provided by series regular James McCaffrey), the story is an exercise in acceptance and patience. We must accept that our “hero” is nothing of the sort, and that living out his dissolution is made bizarrely appealing thanks to his singular ability.
The gunplay is technically proficient, as the bullet time effects turn gunfights into geometric art, with intersecting projectile paths criss-crossing in air. Grotesque as it is, there is satisfaction in seeing a chorus line of opposing gang members fall like dominoes when Max exits the slow-time mode. A range of weapons are available, built with slightly exaggerated character and a satisfying wallop. Though that doesn’t pass for variety, it does indicate Rockstar’s thorough examination of this single idea. Houser’s tendency is to drive thematic points home with all the subtlety of a shotgun—sometimes to comic effect, but just as often to inanity—and the entire game nearly follows suit. There is an addictive thrill to seeing the pink mist that indicates a definitive kill, however, and a stiff challenge present in each successive area full of enemies.
An online suite of multiplayer options is tonally inconsistent with Houser’s insistently dark narrative, but it does offer a change of pace. Rockstar seems to be trying out options for the forthcoming Grand Theft Auto V, and the online modes of Max Payne 3 aren’t likely to be packed with players for years to come. One mode that includes a dynamically generated narrative line for each game does provide a refreshing relief from the relentlessly downbeat primary story, and it provides a good framework in which to grind online stats to new heights.
Despite the gutter-ballet tone of the story, Rockstar has built a beautiful model game set. It isn’t quite a world, and Max’s movements are just awkward and limited enough to forestall the sense that anything is really alive. But the depth and variety of detail is stunning, and digital background extras are animated in a way that captures nuance not present in the story’s primary script. While the suite of visual influences is obvious—the films of Sam Peckinpah and Tony Scott, the art of Barbara Kruger—Max’s blurry, awful life does feel whole.