Max Payne has always embraced gunfighting within elastic time, and that’s what makes it such an attractive gimmick—even if it’s totally derivative. Its identity is clearly distinguishable to shooter fans, and, in the field of imitation, that’s a major accomplishment. The plots of these games are nothing to write home about, but what’s notable is their style. The Matrix-style gunfights are only the beginning of the franchise’s stylistic choices and inspirations. Beautiful gothic settings and color palettes straight out of Tim Burton’s creations show off a darker side of New England. Surrealism pops up—particularly in the original game—in the form of a fourth wall-shattering reaction to a weaponized chemical that would make Salvador Dali shed a tear.
The image of fighting corporate mercenaries through a decaying, abandoned Rust Belt factory during a 24-hour blizzard might sound foreign to the average Joe who’s seen sun-bathed Brazilian locales and a bald-headed, lone gun protagonist splashed across billboards on skyscraper walls (or maybe that’s just Los Angeles). It sounds foreign to gamers who’ve been long-time fans of the series, too. It’s like switching channels between Batman Begins and Burn Notice. Both feature self-employed, skillful agents with their own agendas for carrying out justice, but you’d never confuse the two. Max Payne 3 is Batman working Miami, a fusion of two styles. He’s had enough of the personal loss experienced doing detective work in America, so a vacation as a bodyguard for Brazil’s high class sounds like a good option.
It’s to the game’s benefit that Max has moved on with his life as a character, because there’s not much else going for it story, or style-wise, to retain the identity the franchise carved out. The slow motion style is old hat for fans who’ve already had two full releases worth of it. It’s still fun but I played it in short bursts, because I got bored after an hour or two. Good, solid gameplay can still be bland if it doesn’t add new elements to the mix. The mind-bending antics of the first game’s Valkyr drug and the sinister villain behind its deployment aren’t matched by the stereotypical “you crazy American!” insults screamed by disposable opponents or the predictable betrayal in the third act. This quality of writing and lack of innovation are inexcusable after eight years of development.
Multiplayer, massive set pieces in single-player, and gorgeous graphics all show up, but what game doesn’t have that these days? The slow motion fighting mode is integrated in an interesting way online (if you’ve unlocked slow motion, you and anyone who sees you experience bullet time . . . and anyone who sees anyone who sees you in slow motion is also slowed unless they look away, leading to amusing chain reactions during matches), but that’s about it. The dialogue has its moments, too, when Max sadly—and with a glimpse of his old wit—observers that the rich seem to enjoy holding rooftop parties within sight of the destitute favelas, relishing in their superiority. Many of the people you’re protecting throughout the game are assaulted by mysterious bandits and paramilitaries, receiving their just comeuppance as often as not, but the writers lean too hard on the class division throughout the game. It doesn’t feel that Max Payne is a hypocrite for pulling a paycheck from the very same jerks. That’d be an interesting course for the story to take. Instead, the rich vs. poor division is mentioned so often and without subtlety that it appears to be an edgy attempt at relevance.
Without anything besides Max trying to escape his painful, disastrous past, there’s nothing to pin interest on. The original game had him getting to the bottom of his wife’s murder. Fall of Max Payne had a new mystery but was mostly about a new flame who also happened to be an assassin. What’s happening in Max Payne 3? Lots of new elements, that’s what. But, it’s not coherent. And, if you’re going to be good at following the leader, you need to constantly maintain an identity all your own. 3 lets that slip away. If you want to see a true spiritual sequel to Max Payne, go watch Inception. It’s got it all—slow motion battles, mind-bending drugs, and a unique style. Change the name, give everybody leather trenchcoats, and I’d be fooled. I’ve missed the Max Payne series, but this release merits a rental, not sixty dollars plus another thirty for DLC.