Platform: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
UK Price (as reviewed): £34.77 Incl. VAT
US Price (as reviewed): $59.96 Excl. Tax
The first two Max Payne games saw the painkiller-popping antihero shoot his way through the back alleys and high rises of New York City. His wife and newborn daughter murdered by a gang of junkies, Payne was searching for revenge but only found more pain and misery as he delved deeper into the city's underworld. Aping comic book aesthetics and hard-boiled fiction, both games were depressingly fatalistic, with their bleak outlooks reflected in the rain-sodden streets of The City That Never Sleeps.
Max Payne 3 relocates Payne and his ongoing grief to Sao Paulo, Brazil, swapping apartment blocks for favelas and smoky basement member's clubs for cocaine-fuelled super clubs. Still unable to come to terms with the loss of his kin, we find Payne working a private security job for one of Brazil's richest families. The change of setting, along with Payne's new bearded, bald-headed look, had some fans of the series worried that Max Payne 3 would be some kind of reboot, not in keeping with the tone set by the first two games. Fortunately there was no need to worry. Rockstar's games recreate society's seedy underbellies and criminal elements with an authenticity that's unchallenged in today's games industry, and Max Payne 3 is no exception.
Of course, the criminal authenticity that Rockstar are so good at conjuring up in their game worlds is actually a cinematic authenticity, so it's crime classics such as City Of God, Elite Squad, Carlito's Way, Dobermann and Scarface that you'll recognise in the game's people and places.
For example, one section starts with Payne arriving at a nightclub by helicopter, taking a lift down to the dance floor and emerging into a club that genuinely feels heaving and pumping in a way that no other games have come close to before. The clothes people are wearing, the music playing and even the style of dancing on show all look far more real than the hands in the air, awkward wiggling on show in any other videogame nightclub. This is followed by a crazy strobe-lit gunfight sequence in which Payne uses a crony as human shield, then human mattress. It’s an intense, stunning sequence that holds its own against any set pieces from the films mentioned above.
Unlike Grand Theft Auto and LA Noire, the cinematic style of Max Payne 3 goes beyond just being homage to iconic movies. This is largely down to the Sao Paulo location and the narrative's engagement with this sleazy setting to tell its story. Sao Paulo's super-rich residents exist alongside the crippling poverty that affects most of the city, creating a violent tension that inevitably erupts, engulfing Payne along with it.
It's hard not to feel sorry for Payne as he gets drawn into yet another lengthy series of gunfights mostly as a victim of circumstance, but any feelings of pity dissipate as soon as the slow motion bullets - and Payne himself - start to fly. Like the two previous games, Max Payne 3's gameplay is solely about shooting people as stylishly as possible, and it's this purist approach that makes it so satisfying.
Max Payne 3 plays like its predecessors, though this time you can choose between two levels of auto aim and free aim, and pressing X now puts Payne into cover.
Don't worry though, this is no cover-based shooter. The gunfights in Max Payne 3 are still all about Bullet Time and Shoot Dodge, with cover solely used for temporary respite and surveying the situation. Another addition is a last stand type move where you have to kill your attacker before hitting the ground. If successful, a bullet-cam accompanies the final shot, but with multiple enemies and objects, targets can sometimes be blocked, meaning you have to watch on helplessly as Payne dies in agonising slow motion.
He dives, he dies...
Thankfully, this occasional problem is the only problematic aspect of Max Payne 3's finely-tuned gameplay, making us grateful that Rockstar didn't feel the need to add anything else to Payne's move set. There are no new skills to learn and you end the game with the exact same abilities as you started with.
But it's so satisfying diving head first into a room and killing every enemy with precision headshots, that you really don't need anything else. It's the type of game that provokes better players [or those using heavy auto-aim] to set personal mini-challenges such as clearing a whole room in one dive or only getting groin shots, for example. Seemingly aware of this, Rockstar have included Arcade modes that allow you to chase high scores on already completed levels or race against the clock, with each kill adding to the depleting timer.