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Max Payne 3: Gorgeous, Gritty, And Dumb
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Date: Jun 13, 2012
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Joel Hruska
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Bring the Payne
Let's cut right to the chase. The first and most important thing you need to know about Max Payne 3 is this:  It's not a happy game. In the first Max Payne, you assumed the role of a deep undercover DEA agent tasked with breaking a massive drug ring. On the night of the worst snowstorm in New York's history, Payne finally breaks the case and avenges the murder of his wife and daughter three years earlier. Max Payne 2 was more morally ambiguous, but there was still a sense of being one of the good guys.

Bringing the Payne -
In Max Payne 3, you play a bitter, middle-aged drunk. Max remains unnaturally eagle-eyed and spry enough in combat, but there's nothing like vomiting into the sink after a night of binge drinking to kill your sense of accomplishment. The first two games appealed to the idea of a greater good to justify Max's actions; MP3 doesn't even try. The over-the-top descriptions and film noir atmosphere are both gone, along with any chance Payne ever had at a happy ending.


The sun went down with practiced bravado.

When most game developers want you to hate a character, they load him up with the foulest mouth this side of Jersey, and have him beat a few women and children. Rockstar deserves enormous credit for taking an entirely different approach; the reason it's so hard to like Max Payne in MP3 is that Max hates himself. 12 years after the events of MP2, he's working in Sao Paulo as a security guard for an incredibly wealthy family. He despises them. He despises himself. Then he gets drunk, passes out, wakes up intoxicated, and heads off to work the next morning.  Living the dream, as they say.


Our Hero - Doing the Michael Jackson

A vague sense of duty and an unwillingness to tolerate violence toward women are the two threads of character that tie the Payne of 2012 to his 2003 self, and the former has been badly eroded by an endless supply of cheap liquor and self-loathing.

So no. It's not a happy game. If you're looking for that sense of righteousness brought on by being the rogue cop who delivers the sort of rough justice "the system" can't, you won't find it here.
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The Gorgeous
Max Payne 3 is a beautiful game. A lot of titles strive to minimize the difference between cutscenes and in-game footage; MP3 nails this by using exactly the same engine for both modes. The HUD is unobtrusive enough that you'll find yourself trying to control the movie bits, or not realizing for a second that you're back in command.

The Stunning Gloom -
This is easily the best-looking DX11 game we've ever seen, and the DX9 graphics are very nearly as good. The performance hit for activating DX11, at least on higher-end hardware, is minimal. The visual difference between the two is subtle but consistent; DX11 uses more HDR (High Dynamic Range) lighting and shadows are more realistic. In the images below, DX9 is on the left, DX11 on the right.


DX9 Rendering (Left) and DX11 Rendering (Right) - Images captured on NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580

Here's a good example of the difference. The plants in the background are dark almost to the point of being muddy in DX9. The DX11 version is softly lit and much more realistic.


DX9 Rendering (Left) and DX11 Rendering (Right) - Images captured on NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580

Check the shadows on the planter, on the suits of the two gentlemen, and around the door to see the difference between the APIs. DX9 uses hard shadows and strict light/dark regions; DX11 blends and blurs the light to create more natural patterns.

Bullet Time Returns (Hurrah!) -
The major thematic element of Max Payne that does return in MP3 is "bullet time."  Players can slow the movement of the external world to a crawl by pressing a button, giving Max time to pull otherwise impossible feats of accuracy or movement. The original Max Payne was the first game to implement this feature after The Matrix showed it on the silver screen, and it's still a lot of fun. As in the original game, it can be critical to survival.

Early on, it looks as though Max Payne 3 is set to evolve into a Mafia-style 3rd-person shooter with a far better back story. Unfortunately, that's where design elements start colliding...

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Unskippable Cutscenes, Heroic Suspension of Disbelief
CUT!  Someone hold the cutscenes please -
The cutscenes in MP3 are animated, but display in a manner reminiscent of the original game's comic-panel presentation. It works well in and of itself, though we don't understand why Rockstar shot horizontal bars through everything or why the panels randomly print phrases of dialog. This last goes on randomly throughout the entire game, as if the subtitling was handled by an eight year-old with a horrific case of ADD.



All of the above is simply a bit annoying. What's a tad more frustrating is the fact that most cutscenes can't be skipped. This is extremely annoying if you're playing in Arcade Mode, hunting for collectables, or trying to improve your mission times. No matter how often you've played, you're stuck watching the same movie.

Most of the time, attempting to hit Enter to skip a cutscene will be met with a "Still Loading" response. Pressing Escape at such moments doesn't return you to the game menu, it just pauses the scene. Some scenes can be skipped after a reasonable (5-15 second) period, others will continue to return "Still Loading..." for several minutes.

Whether this is a bug or an artifact of the game's Xbox 360 heritage is unclear. In most cases, it's literally faster to alt-tab, force-close the game, restart, and choose the next Checkpoint manually rather than sitting through the movie for a second time. Choosing to start from the first checkpoint in a chapter invariably means watching the entire intro movie again as well.

A Heroic Suspension of Disbelief -


Something tells me we ain't in Kansas anymore.

The other problem is the CoD-style enemy encounters. There aren't many boss fights; most encounters involve overwhelming numbers of badly-programmed enemies. This, in and of itself, isn't a problem -- but given the setting, the number of enemies Max encounters strains suspension of disbelief past the breaking point.

At one point, Max stumbles across a street gang's hideout and alerts them to his presence. This kicks off a major firefight across an abandoned factory with at least 30 enemies. Now, it's possible that that in Brazil, "street gang" is code for "Three dozen young men with bullet-resistant T-shirts, sniper rifles, AK-47s, Uzis, and Special Forces training." If so, I'd like to formally recommend that no one, ever, under any circumstances, invade Brazil.

In addition, the developers of this game were serious about keeping you on the straight-and-narrow during the inner city missions -- there are several points where leaping over railings into what look like accessible areas results in immediate death.

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Hitting Every Branch On The Ugly Tree
Rockstar's unwavering look at alcoholism and its decidedly un-glamorous portrayal of poverty in Sao Paolo are directly at odds with the way it handles injuries and damage modeling.


That's gonna leave a mark...

At one point fairly early in the game, Max is ambushed by a sniper who puts a bullet in his arm. You spend the next several minutes teetering towards safety, barely conscious, while your buddy cop / partner, Passos, hunts for a first aid kit.

There are so many problems with this, it's hard to know where to start. If you've played Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (CoD 4), you may recall a one-armed Russian as the primary villain. The reason he's down to just one arm is that the other was shot off by a sniper.


The M2A81 fires .50 caliber bullets, like those on the far left.

The rifle in Max Payne 3 is apparently an M2A81, which fires 0.50 caliber munition (pictured above). When a bullet hits flesh in real life, it creates a shockwave in the tissues surrounding the impact point. It's this shockwave that's responsible for most of the damage associated with being shot, assuming that the bullet doesn't fragment. Therein lies the actual problem -- even a monolithic sniper bullet to the center of the bicep will shatter bone and pulverize muscle. The actual impact may not take your arm off, but the doctor almost certainly will -- if the blood loss doesn't kill you.

Max, in contrast, is up and about after some bandages and painkillers.

In a game like Max Payne, getting shot and shrugging it off is just part of the action. Rockstar goes beyond that; they call out the sniper round as a MAJOR GAME EVENT. For comparison, here's what Max looks like after barely surviving an explosion:


Little known fact: Max Payne actually owns an interior decoration firm.

Same idea, done infinitely better. Ironically, it a cutscene a few hours after the events shown above, Max pulls off the bandage for his arm wound, revealing a faded puckered scar.

Other problems include an absurdly short range on gunfire, and a two-gun firing mode that automatically drops your two-handed weapon without prompting. Worse, two-handed mode is assigned to "3" by default, while your 2H gun is "4." Make a mistake when you swap weapons, and you'll run off, leaving your AK-47 behind in favor of a pair of snubnose 38s. This can at least be changed, but you'd think Max Payne's boss could've invested in a shoulder strap. MP3 is the only game I know of where choosing to use two guns already in your possession means throwing away the third.

In some areas, the molotov cocktails literally fly out of thin air. There's no enemy -- they just appear as if chucked by an angry God. At other points, Max is tasked with shooting RPGs out of the air. With a pistol.

The campy, over-the-top, ridiculous approach worked when Max Payne was a campy, over-the-top game with a love interest/femme fatale named Mona Sax. It doesn't work at all with a hero who's buried in the bottle and consumed by self-loathing.
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Conclusion
Rockstar apparently built Max Payne 3 out of two teams -- one that wanted to make a gritty, hyper-realistic game with an amoral central character and one that wanted to make a serious Sam meets John Woo action flick. The resulting mess is a visually amazing sack of not-fun.


Gorgeous graphics don't make up for no reason to keep playing.


The over-the-top gameplay makes it hard to take Max seriously, while the story demands you take Max Payne seriously. Even on the lowest difficulty setting, you'll rarely have the health or firepower to walk away from an engagement having pulled off amazing feats of derring-do. That's fine, in and of itself -- until you have to shoot down an RPG with a pistol.

The one thing that a game needs to give you, no matter what the genre or style, is a reason to keep playing. Max Payne 3 completely lacks one. As a $19.99 sale item, or as part of a bundle with the first two at a steep discount, maybe. But for $59.95? No way.

  • Gorgeous graphics
  • Excellent characterization
  • Bullet time still lots of fun

  • Unskippable cut scenes
  • Ridiculous over-the-top gameplay clashes with serious elements
  • No sense of accomplishment.


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