When mentioning Max Payne, the image that hits people is of a cold, snow-clad New York street with a heavy coat of melancholy and dread. Max Payne was a runaway success for Remedy Entertainment, and marked the arrival of the Finnish developers as a force to be reckoned with. Remedy quickly made their name as a creative powerhouse that married innovative gameplay mechanics to powerful storytelling.
Max Payne as well as its sequel, Fall of Max Payne, were incredibly well-made games with a thoroughly enjoyable story. While the sequel was solid, both in terms of gameplay and narrative, it did not live up to the financial expectations set by Rockstar Games.
While Remedy went on to work on games such as Alan Wake and then the ill-fated Quantum Break, Rockstar North took the lead on a sequel to Max Payne 2. When the first few images were released of a tropical shirt-clad bald Max, far away from New York, fans had a lot of strong opinions.
How has Max Payne 3 aged from 2012 to 2021?
Max Payne 3, written by the creative genius that is Dan Houser (writer and lead creative of the GTA series), was going to have a distinct identity of its own. Gone was the melancholic, comic-book strip style, neo-noir narration, the setting of New York, as well as any semblance of Max's competence.
In the sequel, Max Payne travels to Brazil after a violent encounter with a New Jersey gangster. In Brazil, he is tasked with protecting the Branco family, a job which he performs with the grace and competence.
Addicted to pain-killers and alcohol, Max can barely keep his head straight to get through the day. This is not the character that players met at the start of the series, but one that is dealing with the consequences of his actions over the last 2 games.
A lifetime of trauma and loss has reduced Max Payne to a shell of his former self, and that is where Dan Houser introduces us to his new journey. Instead of a high point from which he declines, players get to see Max start his journey at the lowest point in his life.
Fans still have reservations about whether Max Payne 3's new direction was positive or not, and few can debate its solid gameplay. The overall mechanics remain largely the same, with Bullet Time and Bullet Dodge as satisfying as they were in 2002.
The aim demands precision that perhaps consoles cannot guarantee. It is a challenging game to play with a controller without it becoming a chore. Max Payne 3, throughout its campaign, maintains a sense of consistency in terms of gameplay variety.
Rockstar's signature attention-to-detail and polish is on full display. Also, instead of an infinite pocket that stores large weapons, Max Payne will carry an Assault Rifle or Two-Handed weapon in one hand while he holds a one-handed weapon in the other while the former is not in use.
Details such as Max crashing into the wall or a surface and interrupting Bullet Time is the kind of thing that Rockstar is famous for. In 2021, Max Payne 3's gameplay might not seem revolutionary, but it is every bit as satisfying as it seemed back then.
Except for the odd vehicle section thrown in, in the name of variety, there isn't many interesting things happening in terms of variety. Max Payne 3's greatest strength comes from its ability to keep fairly routine gameplay interesting with the help of context and unparalleled presentation.
It is hard to talk about Max Payne 3 without mentioning the phenomenal original score. The score is provided by Health, an L.A. noise rock band that has made a name for themselves on the back of creatively ambitious sounds that defy genre conventions.
Their score for Max Payne 3 is one of the finest ever heard in gaming, as it combines several different kinds of instrumentation to give the game a unique identity. It is extremely hard for anyone to point to another game, movie, or TV show when trying to reference what Max Payne 3 "sounds like."
From standout tracks such as "Shells" and "Tears" to quieter moments of reflection in the beautifully melancholic "Pain," the soundtrack is an essential part of the game. Max Payne 3 never lets up, and the soundtrack compliments the gameplay in a way that is almost impossible to explain.
One only needs to play the final airport sequence in Max Payne 3 while "Tears" blasts in the background to understand exactly what it means.
Max Payne 3 decided to strip the game of comic-book-style storytelling, replacing it with a modern, disorienting, camera-glitch style. While games like Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days have also tried something similar, it is quite clear that Rockstar had a far grander vision than just disorienting its players.
The visual abberation that the player sees, as well as the time jumps, is a representation of Max Payne's declining mental health. His inability to stay in the moment and the detachment from the rest of the world is communicated to the player with more than just dialog.
This carries over to the gameplay as well, with visual abberations appearing during combat as well. This gives Max Payne 3 a unique identity of its own and helps it stand on its own two feet, without the context of other games in the series.
Story and Verdict
Perhaps the most divisive aspect of Max Payne 3, apart from its bold creative choices and deviation from the series formula - was the story. Rather than the melancholic, hard-boiled detective drama, Max Payne 3 is more "Taken" and "Bourne Ultimatum" than a Humphrey Bogart film.
The story sees Max in a place he doesn't quite understand. The game starts with him at his lowest point and continues to plummet further.
From one misfortune to the next, Max Payne hit depths that fans did not expect. Leading him to finally get rid of everything he knows about himself - from his hair to his alcohol addiction.
Yet, rather than it being a story of redemption or reclaiming his lost humanity, the game isn't looking to make a larger statement about the human condition. Instead, it is perfectly happy being an all-out, unfiltered, exploration of rage and the refusal to move past loss, and the damage it brings.
The game doesn't end with Max having found purpose, but rather, him finding just who he is at this point in his life. While some might feel it is a bit too nihilistic for their taste, the game's story is thankfully fun to experience.
Ultimately, the game is pretty solid, even nearly a decade since its release. Every aspect of Max Payne 3 holds up just about perfectly in 2021, whether it be James McCafferey's brilliant performance as Max or the endlessly enjoyable gameplay.