The game went down with practiced bravado. Yellow backgrounds crawled across the sky, laden with foreboding.
Well, it's finally happened. Shooters have been evolving for something like two decades, through thick and thin, through brown and gray, through showers of flailing ragdolls against a background of excessive bloom, but it was all worth it because shooters have reached the peak! Yes! With Max Payne 3, shooters have finally figured out how to have the main character holding the same guns in cutscenes that he was using in the preceding gameplay. Close up the shop and shine all those crazy diamonds - it's not getting any better than this.
Max Payne should certainly still remember the awkward developmental years from around the Quake engine phase when he had a face like a cardboard mask of a bloke attempting to pass a kidney stone with dignity, although some would argue that not even current-generation graphics have improved his appearance any, especially at the "Insert Disc 2" moment when he decides to spend the rest of the game looking like Father Grigori on a package holiday to Somalia.
But then, it was never the hair and the leather jacket that made Max Payne iconic, it was adopting a comfortable beachside pose while in midair and half-in and half-out of a shattering window. Yes, the one thing everyone knows about Max Payne is that the main character has some kind of ventilation hole in his skull, meaning he can concentrate really, really well when he's hurtling through the air. It was the game that introduced the concept of bullet time to video games, which in the long run turned out to be like introducing seawater to New Orleans. So the onus was on Max Payne 3 to remind us all of how it's supposed to be done, but I'll be buggered if it doesn't kind of do that. Running in slow motion, popping at baddies and then diving off a balcony to shoot a few other lads on the floor below like some terrible avenging Icarus casting bolts of rage at the sun itself before landing in a pile of furniture and getting your head caught in a desk drawer does make you feel like a cirrhosis-addled god among men.
But bullet time is a double-edged sword, and there's also nothing quite like it for making you look like an absolute tit. You see, a slow-mo divey shooty stunt only really works if all the baddies are dead at the end of it, and in slow motion it's hard to tell if an enemy you've shot has started going down for the count and it's safe to move on to his mates or if he's gonna pop right back up again because nothing short of a burst pituitary gland can persuade these motherfuckers to drop their grievances. You will never feel stupider than when you're lying on a heap on the floor wondering if it's worth asking the surviving armed thugs if they wouldn't maybe mind maybe amusing themselves for a few minutes while you get up, reload, and relocate your shoulders. Other great moments in my hall of fame include attempting to dive through a window that wasn't actually a dive throughable window, which to nothing to help the comparisons between Max Payne's face and that of a pug in a front-loading tumble dryer, and a couple of occasions when I attempted to burst out into a corridor of hostiles guns blazing but crucially misjudged the position of the door frame.
But it's testament to the nicely organic nature of the slow-mo stunts that you can fuck them up royally. A lot of games will maybe give you one button prompt that cracks off the same unplayable, pre-animated super move you've seen nineteen times already, and no one's gonna record that and stick it on YouTube when on the next channel over a slow-motion dive abruptly cuts back to normal speed because Max Payne collided with a filing cabinet, dislodging a janitor's bucket that lands on his dazed bonce like a jaunty fez.
But Max Payne 3 has a linear storytelling focus, so the plot deserves close examination. Eponymous miseryguts Maxipilian Q. Paynington has finally realized that America wasn't working out and embarks upon a private security career in São Paulo, Brazil to start again with a nice, clean slate that swiftly gets dirtied up again when the rich family under his protection gets targeted by paramilitary gangs which sparks off an investigation that leads him to dark intrigues and shit.
I'm gonna have to venture into spoiler territory now, so if you don't want to hear them, stick a drawstring bag over your head and pull on the cords until you see the face of God. The plot hole one could drive a glacier through is the twist that one of Max's employers is behind the dirty crimes and Max was specifically hired to be the quote "fall guy."
Point 1: Fall guy for what? He spends the whole game disrupting the dirty crimes and killing hundreds of the main baddie's allies in the dirty crimes while openly being in the employ of the main baddie. How exactly did the main baddie pitch this clever scheme?
Point 2: Was there not a single grizzled drunk within convenient walking distance that could not have also been a serviceable fall guy that they had to go all the way to New York to pick one up?
So the plot is an incoherent mess of contrivance, a case of "shoot first and ask questions later" with the questions being "Why am I shooting these people," "Am I supposed to care," and "What am I having for dinner tonight?" But perhaps it would have helped if Max Payne had been more likeable as a character. His grizzled private eye narration does have its moments, especially when it's trying too hard. The line that I ended up committing to memory was "this was like Baghdad with G-strings," which to my mind sounds more like how one would describe Amateur Hour at a burlesque club. But the essence of a likeable protagonist is that their reactions and emotions in some way reflect our own, and after I've launched myself like a whiskey-powered ballistic missile through a window and shot six armed thugs while sliding along a conveniently placed bowling lane, I'm on an adrenaline kick and what I don't want to hear is a miserable old fart moaning about how he got a 7-10 split and how he just fucks everything up and who is he to think that fucking awesome gunfight in any way adds meaning to his cold and dreary blah blah blah.
He's completely lacking in self-awareness, complaining about how he fucked up and is going to fuck up and is currently in the process of fucking up but never quite carrying the thought far enough to change his mode of behavior, because he's clearly preemptively determined to be miserable, and I found myself wearying of him. I appreciate that it's part of the whole "tortured ex-cop" schtick and that, like Batman, the moment he gets over his problems he basically ceases to exist, but you need to juxtapose all the painkiller-addled despair with some moments of triumph or the impression that things used to be not fucked up, and even before the paramilitaries show up Squad Commander Sourpuss is grumblingly knocking back whiskeys at the mere thought of having to spend any more time in these luxuriant apartments surrounded by beautiful people and free drinks. If he could maybe concede just for a fraction of a second that things could be worse, then maybe it'd carry some impact when ski-masked terrorists burst in. As it stands, it almost seems like an inevitability. You could justifiably think Max actively attracts death squads with that attitude.
So while I can recommend Max Complain 3 for the shooting, the story aspect's just confused and depressing, like watching a homeless busker die mid-performance and then his three-legged dog tries to keep things going by whining mournfully into the discarded trumpet.
Grouchy, bearded and on lots of pills: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
There are a lot of surnames parents should think very carefully about before they name their child "Max"
Like "Damage" for example
Extra: Escapist Expo
So me and a bunch of my Escapist chums are attending a bit of a get-together this year we're calling "the first Escapist Expo". September 14 to 16 in Durham, North Carolina, Check the website for more details. Hope to see you there! Yes, you! No, not you, the pretty one.