Not a recent game, I know. Max Payne 3 has been silently waiting for me for a long time. It was there, right in my backlog, secretly hoping I would select it as I was browsing other games to play until recently. And finally, unexpectedly, its turn came. And Boy, should I have tried it out much earlier!
Where it all started
Max Payne is a relic from a different age. The first episode was out around the same time as Deus Ex on PC. A sensation at the time of its release too: extraordinary graphics, a third-person view mode in a sea of FPS, and the introduction of the bullet-time mode, inspired by the Matrix (1999) movie where Neo dodges bullets fired by the agents like a superhero. This trick made Max Payne stand out from other shooters: you had an unfair advantage, not in the shape of a much larger health bar. Instead, you were given super fast reflexes that let you shoot enemies before they had time to react. A comic hero without the name. The influence of comics is felt throughout the games too: the story was told through comic panels with voice-over between each level. And a good story with clever writing at that.
Not familiar with the original Max Payne? Let me fix that for you. Max Payne, a cop in the NYPD, returns home one day to find his wife and baby daughter murdered at the hands of drug addicts, high on a designer drug called Valkyr. After 3 years of working on the case, Max and his pal Alex go undercover to bust a Valkyr deal. Things go wrong and Alex is suddenly killed, and Max is framed for his murder. Max Payne is then hunted by cops, and criminals behind the Valkyr drug. He goes on a quest to find out what really happened and why his family was murdered. I won’t give you any spoiler since you may want to play it one day.
Max Payne 2, released in 2003 was more of the same, albeit with better graphics, and the introduction of robust physics, that made enemies fall in more realistic ways after being shot. Another excellent story, too.
It took a long time for Max Payne to receive a third episode - it came out in 2013. About 10 years! The original first 2 games were written and developed by Remedy, who brought you Alan Wake and more recently the famous Control. Max Payne 2 was supposed to be the last game in the series. Remedy then sold the rights to Rockstar - and Rockstar went on to develop the third episode.
Should you play the first 2 episodes before this one? Honestly you don’t really have to… but at the same time it would be a shame if you did not. This third episode stands on its own story-wise, but to better understand Max Payne, the man, having the memories of what happened to him before makes a lot of sense. Now, I also recognize that Max Payne 1 has aged a little by now, but if you can go beyond the older graphics, you’ll find a very entertaining title to go through. Both games are not that long anyway and can be finished easily in 6-7 hours each.
When things go South
Max Payne 3 finds Max lost in South America (in San Paulo), getting drunk to forget about his tragic past, hired as a bodyguard to protect a super rich family, whom he could not care less about. As luck has it, Max will find himself again in dire straits as this family is being targeted by some kind of terrorist group(s) with unclear motives going beyond just making money. Time to investigate… not with a magnifier but through the scope of a sniper rifle (or any other firearm for that matter). Max is all about hitting them hard where it hurts. With a mouse and a keyboard, or a controller, whatever suits you best.
So, what’s so good about Max Payne 3? In many ways it’s what it tries very hard NOT to be. No Open World bullshit (I do love Open World games, but making just every game these days into an Open World title is getting seriously tiring and cliche). No micro-transactions. No multiplayer-first aspect. No RPG elements. No leveling up weapons or armor. No procedurally generated crap. No bullet sponge boss fights (except one maybe).
No, Max Payne 3 is just about solid, raw shooting with the bullet-time mode artifact. And it does that very, very well.
Since you have this bullet time superpower, the game challenges you by throwing lots of ennemies at you at the same time to overwhelm you, and you have to prioritize which ones represent a more dangerous threat and deal with them first. Your ability to shoot enemies in bullet-time is measured by a gauge and is replenished as you kill more and more bad buys. You can’t always rely on it if you keep using it, as it will run out. Stay in cover, wait for enemies to show up. There’s always going to the archteypical idiot running towards your position that you will riddle with bullets for coming too close. Smarter ennemies will remain safe behind obstacles and try to kill you from a distance, forcing you out of your hole.
What’s fun is that you can deal with them in various ways: you don’t have to aim for the head: a shoot at the groin will also incapacitate them nicely. Shooting legs will make them fall to the ground, turning them into easy preys. A fallen enemy remains dangerous as they can still shoot at you, but it’s less of an immediate threat.
You also need to watch out for your ammunition. Max Payne gives you the option to equip two handguns at the same time for additional brute force. It looks and feels cool. But you certainly don’t want to run out of bullets while ennemies are still firing at you: you never know how many bad guys are going to show up, so you have to fight your desire to deliver lead more often than you think. Max Payne uses graphic violence to encourage you to fire more bullets than needed: when the last guy in the area is shot, things go in slow motion and the camera focuses on their bleeding bodies as you fire. Keep firing and you will see your bullets piercing through in slow motion, hitting them in different parts - absolutely unnecessary, but enjoyable if you have a twisted mind, I guess. The same thing existed back in Max Payne 1, but now it’s just a whole different level of realism.
Once everyone is down, it’s looting time: you can grab ammo and/or new weapons. Only problem, you are limited by your inventory: maximum 3 different guns, and that’s 2 handguns plus one larger gun (usually a rifle, a shotgun, or more fun options later on…). Feels like plenty, but it’s not as much as you’d typically need.
It’s not just the shooting that’s good
Max Payne 3 is not just about the action – once again the plot is central to the whole experience and will clarify why you go from one place to the next. The narration uses flashbacks to explain how you ended up in the present situation in San Paulo too. While the game spends most of its time in South America, you will be back in New York (where the first 2 games take place) for one flashback for example. Max changes hairstyle over time, a helpful cue to understand in which timeframe you currently are. Rockstar also did a fantastic job on the sets used in the game. Since it’s a very linear game, there’s a great attention to details in every room and every building your enter. Artists at their best.
In the later part of the game Max has a shaved look which is probably inspired by Breaking Bad’s Walter White, as the game came out right when this was one of the most popular series on American TV. The similarities between the two characters are numerous after all: both start as good guys and end up justifying murder mostly because of circumstances… and their lack of willingness to change course.
Despite being almost invincible, Max is an anti-hero: considering himself a failure, making knowingly dumb decisions like rushing headlong to the main entrance instead of taking a more subtle approach to avoid direct confrontation. He’s the archetypical 80’s action flick hero a la Die-Hard, killing hundreds, thousands of bad guys on his path with hardly a scratch. It’s over the top from beginning to end, but just as fun as it is unbelievable.
Max’s ongoing voice-over commentary about what’s happening on screen are as sharp, dark and sarcastic as ever. It makes you feel like you are not playing alone, as if there was a good friend in the room commenting on your actions at the same time. Games should experiment with this more (like SuperGiant Games does).
Now that I am done with it, I am starving again for something with a distinctive formula. Not just another Metroidvania-like. Call of Duty-like. Doom-like. Not another fucking Mario game. Max Payne has always been in its own genre, and I’d say we need more games that are like no others.
In the meantime, who knows, I might go back to the first 2 episodes. It has been a while:
“The past is a gaping hole. You try to run from it, but the more you run, the deeper, more terrible it grows behind you, its edges yawning at your heels.”
You don’t get many shooters which memorable lines like that.
The Proton question
Since you will probably want to know, Max Payne 3 worked out of the box for me with Proton - I even tried it with FSR to showcase how you can increase the framerate in case you have modest hardware, or play on high resolution screens:
Only once issue I faced sometimes, when starting the game, would be to land on a black screen when reaching the menu. Restarting the game sometimes worked to fix the issue, but the best fix was to restart the whole Steam client for a 100% resolution. Not sure what is causing this kind of bug, and if it’s something related to my distro, my Nvidia drivers, or something else. Only a minor annoyance overall in about 20 hours of fun.