Culture Clash: Max Payne 3

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For

Somewhere between finishing my exams and watching countless episodes of Game of Thrones whilst tucked up in bed, Max Payne 3 found its way to my doorstep. The game is gratuitously violent, frustratingly difficult and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish.

I’ve always been a fan of the Max Payne series, going way back from its early, square-faced, low-res origins to the later iteration that claimed to be a film noir love story (it wasn’t). When I heard a third game was in the works, I was nervous; early screens hinted at a bald-headed, bearded Max who looked like the shell-shocked lovechild of Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Half-Life’s Gordon Freeman.

Regardless of my trepidations I was excited to tuck into Rockstar Games’s latest offering. I popped in the disc and sat back as masterfully motion-captured cutscenes showed our tired, metaphor-spewing protagonist struggling with guilt though his long-standing addictions to painkillers and alcohol. The game then skips towards the end for a fleeting moment, taunting the player with promises of a brutal finale. These cutscenes then slip seamlessly into gameplay (fulfilling a neat dual function by propelling the narrative and hiding the loading screens). Everything in the game works in this way, and it works well. The combat is slick and sophisticated, with a new cover system adding to the almost flawless bullet-time features that encourage you to dive over every coffee-table in sight in superb slow motion.

The bulk of the game is set in sunny Brazil, a welcome change to the ice and snow of the game’s New York heritage. The Big Apple does make a short return though, in a series of flashbacks that involve gunning down a collection of Jersey Shore lookalikes in dingy bar; it’s satisfying to say the least.

Countless gunfights in dozens of rich and detailed environments eventually culminate in a dark conspiracy that clearly can only be resolved by shooting two-hundred more people in the face. If you take your time and poke around you can find obscure clues along with gaudy golden weapons that hint at said conspiracy early in a fashion reminiscent of L.A. Noire. The game’s only shortcomings tend to revolve around uneven difficult spots in the game quickly flip-flopping between walk in the park to “OH GOD WHY DO THEY ALWAYS MANAGE TO SHOOT ME IN THE FACE?!?” sequences. In spite of this the only other issues I recall were the game freezing a couple of times after dying.

So if you’re a fan of the previous games, or just clever-ish shooters in general, you should enjoy this. On the other hand, if your gaming fare generally consists of FIFA and wrestling games then this might not be your cup of tea, and you should instead arrange a trip to Dignitas.

 Jon Scott

Against

Max Payne would probably hate playing Max Payne 3. Mr. Payne, after all, is a pretty smart guy, judging by the standards of the metaphor-riddled, fourth-wall breaking originals. But Max Payne 3 is not smart at all. At the start of the new game Payne bemoans the vapid lives of the Brazillian rich kids he’s now a bodyguard for, but the sad truth is that Max Payne has turned into a series that’s every bit as superficial as the entitled brats he’s looking after.

There are two extremely important problems here; problems that not only severely hamstring Max Payne 3, but problems that afflict all contemporary game design. Firstly, there’s a chasm the size of the Pacific Ocean between what we learn from the gameplay and what we learn from the narrative. For example, the cut scenes show us a Max who has serious substance addictions that leave him incapable of making a cup of tea, the game shows us a Max who can shoot a man in the head from fifty paces even though he’s had more Vicodin in the last five minutes than House managed to neck in eight seasons. The cut scenes show us a Max who struggles with the previous murderous rampages he’s been on, but the game shows us a Max who’ll kill 1200 Brazilians without batting an eyelid. The levels of cognitive dissonance here are incredible, and it’s something that seriously hampers both narrative and gameplay as a result.

Secondly, and crucially, there’s the way Rockstar have gone out of their way to say ‘LOOK! WE’RE GROWN UP! WE’RE GRITTY!’, something they’ve tried to achieve by ratcheting up the violence a good few levels. But gratuitous violence does not a mature game make! The last two Payne games worked because the gun play was presented in a winking, ironic manner, as if they’d had been directed by Quentin Tarantino. But here the gameplay is just voyeuristic gun porn, and it’s going to be appreciated by no one but bloodthirsty fourteen year olds, exactly the opposite of what the designers were trying to achieve. It’s something that afflicts most games these days, and it can only be combated if writers and designers think more consciously about what their game design decisions actually mean before just shoehorning them into the game. Maturity comes from quality writing and thematic depth, not intestines and brain stems.

I guess in the usual respects Max Payne 3 is not a bad game. The voice acting is snappy and natural and the soundtrack is exhilarating. The slow motion shooting and the cover mechanics are well implemented. But in other, more important respects, it just comes across as immature and ill-thought out, a game where flashy production is valued over real substance, and it’s this that makes Max Payne 3 something it should never, ever have been – quite profoundly boring.

Joe Henthorn, Culture Editor

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