Max Payne 3 review: Nature of the beast

Max Payne can't even find peace in a graveyard. A quiet moment of remembrance, dour and dusted in snow, is soon buried beneath the sound of gunfire. This man exists to kill, and the tombstone that names his murdered wife and daughter is there to provide cover.

The transition from emotionally tinged burial ground to functional battleground is at once touching and tasteless, presented in that kind of awkward, bittersweet combination that video games have gotten down to an art form. Can you really argue with the outcome? The cemetery perfectly recalls the birth of Max, the cynical, disheveled vigilante – and what better playground for Max, the cover-based shooter, than a plot of land filled with upright granite slabs? Rockstar can't outrun the nature of the game, no more than its wrecked anti-hero can escape his nature as problem solver via midair shooting.
%Gallery-155342% The shooting is a revelation. It's so good it evokes a worrisome existential crisis: Yes, it's another eight-to-ten hours of killing everyone in the world, but what if this is, and will always be, what games are best at? Max Payne 3 nearly makes you roll over in defeat, knowing that Rockstar has harnessed impeccable technology to make people die real good.

It's a simple process served up with peerless presentation. You enter one side of the room and the henchmen, who rarely differentiate in their plan of attack, dutifully show up to be blown away. As a grizzled grump who reeks of alcohol and sweat, your movements are rugged but reliable – and you can forget about the frantic momentum of Vanquish, or the nimbleness of Drake in Uncharted. Max is an expert at falling down with style.

Few games better document the journey of a bullet. As Max hurls himself through the air and into dangerous exposure, the game slows down long enough to reveal its subtle tricks. Every fight is a repeatable build-up of tension – you stick out your head, open fire and adjust your aim as soon the reticle appears – and then relief, marked by a faint on-screen blip that says you can stop pumping bullets into that particular guy. This is also illustrated, in a slightly more overt way, by gruesome explosions of blood and a discovery of true purpose for the physics-driven Euphoria animation system, which expertly conveys the horrible fate of body parts struck by metallic projectiles. Sometimes you're not sure whether to shake your head in disgust, or laugh at how damn cool it all looks.

Activating bullet time gives you a massive advantage, but there's excitement in learning to restrain yourself (Max's life is, after all, mired in substance abuse). Perhaps it's more representative of firearms being loosed in fragile rooms – sometimes you'll take a breath and line up the perfect shot, and other times you'll panic and disintegrate half an office before scoring a lucky victory. Bits of paper, wood and glass fly through the air; Max's shirt creases as he runs for stronger cover; and sudden corpses slump over in a way best described as ... well, lifelike. The old Max Payne, the one who first grimaced his way through New York, now looks like someone draped a leather trench coat over an inanimate log and launched it from a slingshot.

Rockstar's Max Payne, a contemplative, defeated man who lashes out at opulence and the rich family he's hired to protect in São Paulo, thrives on second chances. Take an unexpected shot to the back, for instance, and Max will slowly twist his body around as he falls and take one last shot. Nail your attacker and you'll make a stylish return journey from the brink of defeat, provided you've got some painkillers in pocket. You can add exclamation to your comeback by keeping the trigger held down and making that bastard rattle all the way to the floor.

It's a gratuitous gimmick, but it preserves the relentless pacing in Max Payne 3. The level design always pushes you forward in a hurried pace, giving you an urgent target or an excessively perilous reason to escape. The unobtrusive heartbeat of a fantastic soundtrack keeps the whole campaign alive, from beginning to end.

Much of Max Payne 3's elegant shooting is pushed over into an elaborate multiplayer mode, which is designed to ensnare you with a steady feed of unlockable, upgradeable weapons and abilities. Tinkering with loadouts can afford quicker recovery times for your stamina (lighter loads mean quicker cooldown periods for special powers and bullet time), and forms the basis of an engaging progression system. More importantly, it's worth sticking around simply for the joy of competitive play, not just to barge through level after level of unlocks.

Some player-activated talents, called "bursts," modify the game in unexpected ways. A burst of paranoia relabels friend as foe within the game interface, while other talents can provide team-wide buffs or disable the other side's gadgets. These tweaks happen on top of the multiplayer's core challenge, which is to use bullet time (best visualized as bubbles of dilated time that can suck someone in if they're in your line of sight) and shoot-dodging with finesse. The guy who blindly leaps out of cover usually ends up floating to the ground like a piece of blood-curdling swiss cheese.

There's an earnest push for "narrative" in the game's multiplayer too, seen in the "Gang Wars" mode. The dramatic feud plays out across a single map, but it really just feels like game mode madlibs. The [reviled crime family] lost some [turf], so they struck back with a [VIP assassination attempt]. When that failed, things degenerated into a heated, elegaic [deathmatch]. The variety in modes is appreciated, but the story-based wrapper is suspect.

Surprisingly, that's also the campaign's deepest flaw. The neo-noir styling – more Tony Scott than Ridley Scott – is slick and grown up, but cutscenes can feel disruptive, self-indulgent and rambling. Max's caustic quips are buried in a muddle of nested flashbacks and endless dialogue that aims to convey complexity and dark intrigue, but eventually sounds like the repetitive clatter of name tags rolling about in a tumble dryer. It goes with Rockstar's vision of Brazil: home to exotic accents, more so than memorable characters.

At least the plot is light on embarrassment, never coming close to the amateurish lows (or over-the-top highs?) that invoke utter dread whenever a significant other enters the room. No, it's a functional component of Max Payne 3, a game built out of remarkably implemented, masterfully presented parts. Video games live or die by the mechanisms that lie underneath. That's why the graveyards are always full.

This review is based on review code of the Xbox 360 version of Max Payne 3, provided by Rockstar.

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