Monday, May 16, 2022
When I was invited over to Rockstar to take a first look at Max Payne 3 in October 2011, it was immediately apparent that it was going to be a pretty major departure for the series, grounded as it once was in a pulpy, noirish style, that has since become developer Remedy Entertainment's signature dish. As a first outing for Max without Remedy at the helm, and with Rockstar choosing to go it alone with a darker, grittier take, Max Payne 3 could really have gone either way. Where Max Payne 1 and 2 delivered their harrowing, nasty imagery with an almost wry, knowing wink, Max Payne 3 played things down the line, eschewing pulp for something more savagely realistic. And by god, it worked.
It wasn't guaranteed to work, of course. Rockstar striking out on its own, having never really created a pure shooter, beyond Red Dead Revolver in 2004 - until then, versed almost entirely in the slightly wonky shooting of Grand Theft Auto - was always going to be a risk. Playing Max Payne 3 ten years on, it seems to me an action game that feels way ahead of its time, preceding the surgical gunplay and brutality of the John Wick movies and their ilk with moments of raw, unflinching violence - rendering bullet holes and bodily damage in forensic detail. By comparison, Payne 1 and 2 took a slightly more comic book approach – quite literally, in the case of its storytelling, much of it told through wonderfully grimy photographic panels, stylised as if they were lifted from the pages of a hardboiled crime novel.
Where the first Max Payne was set exclusively on the snowy streets of New York and conjured instances of troubling and surreal weirdness (tightrope-like lines of blood, wailing babies), and Max Payne 2 leaned more heavily into noir, Max Payne 3 seemed more anchored in the real world. When one of the members of the Branco family is restrained within a stack of car tyres and set alight, it's at once a shockingly sudden, brutal reminder that consequences in Max Payne 3 are very real. And while Max remains something of a force of nature, able to shrug off bullets by necking painkillers, he's far more vulnerable, especially during his time lost in the Brazilian favelas. Not unlike the aforementioned Wick, Max is hounded and hunted throughout MP3, his new job as a bodyguard becoming an increasingly distant memory.
What really stands the test of time about Max Payne 3 is its impactful and consistently thrilling shooter mechanics. It's one of few games that improves at a higher difficulty, Max's signature shootdodge becoming a far more essential tool in your arsenal, slowing time as he leaps with an exhausted grunt, before gravity kicks in and Max hits the ground. Rockstar wants you to revel in the action, as bullets split the air on the way to their intended targets. Every shootout and set-piece feels every bit as visceral as the best Hollywood has to offer, channeling John Woo and Michael Mann for bullet-riddled thrills. A decade has done nothing to dull the game's intrinsic appeal, and it feels as fresh now as it ever did, despite releasing towards the tail end of the Xbox 360 and PS3 era.
It’s perhaps odd, then, that nowadays we seldom see shooters like Max Payne - where you can use cover, but the primary aim hinges upon unfettered aggression and balletic style. Weirdly, the closest touchstone is 2016’s DOOM and its sequel, DOOM Eternal - first-person shooters that reward constantly pushing forward, butchering enemies to gain health and ammunition. While Max Payne 3 doesn’t, strictly speaking, feature mechanics akin to DOOM, it does share a similar sense of pace and urgency, where staying still for just a few mere seconds can prove to be a death sentence. MP3 is about maintaining constant motion, moving ever-forward like Keanu Reeves’ Wick stalking a nightclub, pistol primed and ready to clinically execute whoever gets in his way. Max was doing gun-fu before it was cool.
Which leads us into considering the enduring quality of Max Payne 3’s finest set-piece moments, whether it’s swinging from a chain in a warehouse amid a hail of incoming gunfire and picking off enemies during a slow-motion window, or, like Wick, creating a scene of frantic panic in a loud and garish nightclub. Panic at the disco, if you will. Few games muster such uniquely filmic action - complemented by Health’s wonderfully evocative score - and fewer still manage to remain so vital after ten years. Revisiting Max Payne 3, it’s surprising how easy it is to pick up and play without having to reacquaint yourself with the controls or any of its other intricacies. Immediately, it hit home for me that there simply aren’t enough games like Max Payne 3, and one need only imagine what sort of cinematic delights Rockstar and/or Remedy could conjure on current platforms. For now, we’ll steel ourselves for Remedy’s Max Payne 1 and 2 remakes - it’s high time we achieved maximum Payne once more.
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