Sunday, June 2, 2013

Let's Talk About Max Payne, Last Part: Max Payne 3

Honestly, even before I had played the first two games, I was a bit skeptical about Max Payne 3. I suppose I’d be lying if I said most of that skepticism had little to do with the fact that it was developed by Rockstar instead of Remedy Entertainment. I mean, come on, that’s like making a Star Wars sequel without George Lucas – okay, uh, bad example, baaaad example. It’s like…it’s like making a Sonic 4 without having the actual Sonic Team develop it.
My skepticism increased as I learned that, indeed, this game doesn’t bear much stylistic resemblance to the two games I had spent the better part of last month falling in love with, and brings some changes to the gameplay that…may or may not have worked out. Sirens went blaring in my head when I looked at the box, lacking any of the monochromatic, angst-ridden art I’d seen plastered on the front covers of the previous two outings, replaced by blandness and a complete lack of any sort of unique stylization.
Artistic representation of an angry dude with a gun.
Bears vague resemblance to the cover of a My Chemical Romance album.


And when I played it...yeah, well…yeah, no, honestly, I don’t…I don’t like this game nearly as much.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Max Payne 3 is not a bad a game. In fact, it’s pretty good, but you really get the impression that Rockstar hardly even tried to make a good follow-up. It barely plays like Max Payne, it barely looks like Max Payne, and, well…Max Payne hardly even acts like Max Payne! It’s obviously the product of a very different vision as to what Max Payne should be, and if the end result had been just as good in its own way, I’d have been off-put but nonetheless pleased. The thing is, though, it…it’s…really not.

Okay, well, let’s talk gameplay first. The first two games were exciting, adrenaline-pumped action fests that didn’t slow down for a solitary moment, except for when you were using your awesome Bullet Time moves, anyway. Payne 3 is…a cover-shooter. Yes, that utter tension and barrage of enemies that required you to constantly be reacting to everything around you is mostly gone, replaced with slowly, meticulously sidling along walls and railings, peeking out occasionally to kill an enemy before ducking back down to avoid getting shot yourself. Now, I can see the logic behind adding in cover and free aiming mechanics. A lot of time has passed since the second game and gamers are used to that stuff now. I, myself, mentioned in my review of the first game that the lack of these features was quite off-putting for me at first, but the more I played, the more I realized…it was kind of better off without it. Back on the subject of Max Payne 3, it’s one thing to give the player the option of using cover and free aim, but a completely different thing entirely to design the game around it to the point that playing it like the first two Paynes becomes nigh-on impossible. Yeah, I tried. It didn’t work out.

So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, as they say, and, well...I have to admit, Max Payne 3 is a really good cover-shooter, even kind of addictive. You’ve got a good variety of weapons at your disposal, while the fact that it only lets you carry so many at a time (as opposed to the way the first two games handled weapons) demands that you think more about what weapon you want. You can also use a combination of any two one-handed firearms that you pick up along the way. You have four different weapon setups: using your right-hand weapon, left-hand weapon, two-handed weapon, or using both the right and left hand weapons at the same time, causing you to drop any two-handed weapon you’re carrying. The fact that the game is a bit stingy with ammo forces you to switch often, and so the gameplay is pretty balanced. When it comes to the cover-shooting itself, the design of most areas in the game leads to a lot of open space between and around you and your enemies. Combine that with the fact that the game still retains the same health system as the first two games, and it still ends up demanding a greater awareness of your surroundings than most other cover-shooters I’ve played, at least. One thing I really liked, actually, was the “Last Man Standing” sequence. If you run out of health with at least one bottle of painkillers left, you still have a chance to kill the enemy who just shot you dead, giving you a second wind at the expense of your Bullet Time gauge.

Yes, Bullet Time, which is the only thing about the first two games that anyone at Rockstar actually cared about, apparently, makes its glorious return and, unlike most of what this game has to offer, it’s about as awesome as it ever was. I have to admit, there’s something inherently satisfying about bursting out from behind cover in slow-motion and spraying bullets into several enemies’ lined-up faces, and the game even gives you Bullet Cams for particularly good shots. It works really well with the new gameplay mechanics, and the more realistic physics in this installment also make you think more about exactly where you should use it. See, Max actually goes crashing into walls in this game rather than gracefully floating downwards while gently rubbing up against them. Unfortunately, despite the greater realism, this game still fails to explain how Max’s painkillers somehow save him from dying of blood loss or organ failure from the constant punishment he takes. Oh, well.

Now, while it's a lot of fun, Max Payne 3 does have a few problems that don't have much to do with its namesake, even if they're not really game breaking. See, part of what makes the first two Max Payne games fun and, indeed, the majority of this one, too, is the amount of freedom Bullet Time gives you in approaching a situation. There are a lot of ways to misuse it, yes, which will waste some of your gauge or perhaps even get you killed, but using it properly to do something cool makes you feel pretty awesome. But then, curiously enough, Payne 3 has these weird moments where it traps you in a narrow corridor of some sort, preventing you from taking any sort of cover, pretty much making you fair game. The only way to avoid getting killed is to use Bullet Time to slow things down. Not only is this cheap, but forcing the move on the player really undermines the awesomeness. And then, though few and far between, the game has these moments where things just get kind of…over stimulating. Enemies start pouring in from seemingly every crevice in the room, there’s basically nowhere to hide, shots are coming from literally everywhere, and if you get killed, it’s less because you were doing badly and more because you had no idea what the heck was going on. A combination of these two flaws turns Chapter III into an awful mess, which is another thing that created a very negative first impression of the game for me.

But probably the dumbest moments in the game are these glorified quick-time events it has peppered throughout its campaign. The game loves to “seamlessly” make the transition from cutscene to gameplay by suddenly forcing you to shoot something or someone within a limited amount of time, either to keep from getting killed or to keep someone else from being killed. When it doesn’t devolve into someone’s demented idea of trial and error gameplay, it just feels kind of insipid. This adds nothing to the game, it’s not fun, it’s not interesting, it’s not even empowering. It’s just brainless fluff that someone thought would be cool when it’s very clearly not.

But...honestly, the biggest problem I have with this game is its story. On one hand, a good story is less important than good gameplay, which this game does have. On the other, this is a pretty story-driven game. Besides that, this is a follow-up to a game with a great story that it fails in succeeding not only by dropping any of the noir atmosphere and awesome stylistic elements that defined the series, but also by just being poorly-written and...flat-out uninteresting. It has some good themes to it, but the problem is that deep, compelling themes are best delivered with deep, compelling characters. Eh, yeah, you won’t find any of those here. I will admit, I did get a bit more interested around Chapter 12 when the plot finally thickened, but the complete lack of any sort of real soul or character still left me feeling like something was missing. Literally the only character I had any sort of sympathy for got killed off within the game's first half, and probably the most offensive thing of all is that Max Payne's own portrayal in this game is just wrong.

Yes, it’s pretty obvious that Dan Houser, who wrote the game’s story, really didn't how to write for the character. The sad part is that they did have some good ideas here. I can see what they were going for, making him an alcoholic: they wanted to turn him into a darker, more tragic character.  I’d say he was already pretty tragic before, but a lot of time has passed and they wanted to show that he’s washed up and pathetic now. The character arc they gave him, focusing on his personal morality, also could have been something legitimately intriguing and could have led to some seriously awesome character development. Unfortunately, the execution is way off. I mean, never mind the fact that it completely disregards any of the major, significant development Sam Lake put the character through in the utterly brilliant second game. Max Payne just…doesn’t act like Max Payne. At all.
Also, he looks like this.
Dan Houser has completely disregarded the poetic monologues, twisted angst and hard-boiled attitude that defined him before, instead making him an unlikable, unsympathetic mish-mash of the most generic Hollywood archetypes possible. He’s the worldly, washed-up alcoholic who desperately needs to find himself. He’s the retired, “too old for this crap” former cop being thrown into an action-packed situation he wants nothing to do with. He’s the sarcastic antihero when interacting with other people, lacking any of his former witty snark, and perhaps most of all, he’s the seemingly pathetic, constantly down on his luck whiner, whose personal failures have him convinced that he’s a complete monster incapable of any sort of good. Yes, this game loves to remind you how much Max hates himself, and it's kinda hard for me to sympathize with a character when he’s constantly reminding me how much he sucks. Oho, and it loves loves loves to remind you that Max is just a slave to the bottle. The very first cutscene of the game is literally an extended sequence of him downing glass after glass of whiskey, a sequence that is repeated twice throughout the first half of the game. The concept of “subtlety” is completely lost on this game, which is the main reason why the writing is just bad. I jokingly compared Max Payne 2’s box art to the cover for an album by My Chemical Romance, but Payne’s monologues in this game sound more like lyrics from a different band I was quite fanatical for at age 12: Three Days Grace.
 Literally. Guh.

And on the subject of cutscenes for a moment, remember the really cool graphic novel cutscenes from the first two games? Weren’t those great? Well, instead of that, this game gives you normal cutscenes. Well…okay, fine, I guess I can live with that. That has its advantages, after all. Unfortunately...this game's "normal" cutscenes aren't quite "normal". No, Max Payne 3 still pursues its own messed up and pointless idea of “stylization”, which apparently consists of attempting to induce an epileptic fit in the player by having the screen filter every five seconds while at the same time having bits of spoken dialogue flash across the screen for no reason like an incredibly pretentious JonTron video. Out of all the problems I have with this game, this is the most baffling and, honestly, the most angering. Why would you do this? What reason did you have? It’s an assault on the eyes that serves no valid “stylistic” purpose. At. All. Now, you could say this is supposed to give the story sort of a drunken and disoriented feel, since Max has a drinking problem. Well, okay, I’d say there are better, much less eye-bleeding ways to go about that, but fine…except there’s a point not far into the story where Max officially gives up alcohol, and the game still does it. It’s dumb. I'm sorry, I...I know I'm making it sound like I hate this game right now - I really don't - but this just...confuses me. I guess it's not really a big deal. It's something you get used to, but you just have to wonder what they were thinking.

Much as I wonder what they were thinking when they advertise the multiplayer on the game disc and then make me pay for it separately. Yeah, no, Rockstar, sorry, I'll pass. I mean...honestly. Uncharted 3 kind of did that, but at least it gave you a code on the instruction manual if you bought it new. I mean, if you're buying it used, you're probably paying less for the game anyway, and I'd say it's worth it, personally, because Uncharted 3's multiplayer is fan-freaking tastic. Max Payne 3, though...yeah, no, not paying for that.
- Rockstar Games

It's a decent game, I suppose, but coming straight off of Max Payne 1 and 2, liking the former quite a bit and loving the latter, this was just...disappointing for me. For the most part, the gameplay isn't better or worse, I guess - just different, though its flaws do stand out a bit. I could see why someone would perhaps prefer the way this game plays, though I certainly think the game should have remained more true to its origins.  It's the storyline that's the biggest disappointment, and the more I played, the more I felt like Max doesn't even belong in this game's scenario. It has so little to do with the series outside of featuring a character by the name of "Max Payne" that you could basically write another character in his place and you really wouldn't have to change too much. Most of what I loved about the other two games is either different or outright gone, replaced with soulless vapidity and seizure-inducing visual effects. 

By its own right, it's pretty good, and if you're not a fan of the series, you'll probably enjoy it more than I did. It's a mostly self-contained storyline that doesn't require you to be too familiar with the previous entries. If you're looking for a proper sequel to Max Payne 2, this is not what you're looking for, but if you're just looking for a new third-person shooter to spend some time with, you can have some fun here. Wouldn't pay too much for it, but it's kind of worth playing.

So now that I've played through all three games, I think it would be appropriate to conclude by summarizing their quality both individually and as they relate to each other. Unlike in most of my reviews as of late, I'll be using a scoring system here, since I think that's the most effective and easiest way to compare games.

--The Breakdown--

Max Payne gets a 7/10. Still very fun to play. Story is cheesy, but endearing in its cheesiness and fairly interesting in its own right. Has a nice noir atmosphere and unique times hilariously awkward cutscenes. Though there are some moments where it throws something at you that you wouldn't have seen coming, the challenge is generally legitimate. Level design can at times be a bit too vague, controls are a bit unpolished by modern standards, and the nightmare sequences are downright horrendous.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne gets a 9/10. Polish, level variety, atmosphere, art direction, and general design have all improved tremendously and the game is a joy to play. Story is very involving, voice acting is fantastic, graphic novel cutscenes look prettier and more professional, and the writing, while slightly jarring at times, is for the most part very good. Nightmare sequences are no longer torturous, either. Easily the series' magnum opus. Only problem is that it's a bit short.

Max Payne 3 gets two scores: first as a game on its own and then as a sequel. First score is a 6/10. Gameplay is quite solid in spite of its imperfections and Bullet Time is mostly well-integrated into the cover-shooting gameplay. However, flaws such as the subpar storyline that could have been much better, the baffling cutscene direction, and the fact that multiplayer is sold separately are very hard to excuse. As a sequel, I'll have to drop this score down to a 4/10 for dropping all of the series' trademark stylistic elements, changing the gameplay into a cover-shooter rather than further refining what made the first two games so cool, and completely ruining the main character.

And that's that. that I've played all of the games, what can I say? Well, it was a fun, if at times bittersweet journey. I've certainly grown to respect Remedy Entertainment even more through my experiences with the first two games, and if Quantum Break turns out to be amazing, I may just be able to call them one of my all-time favorite developers. After one game that was great for its time, one that's still awesome even today, and a nigh-on perfect masterpiece, I'm more than eager to see what they have in store. At the same time...Max Payne 3, for as much fun as I had with it at times, left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth. I really hope that if they make a fourth game, they look a bit harder at what made the first two games so unique and cool, and hopefully, bring back the character I enjoyed so much before. In the meantime, I'd say the series is worth checking out. At the very least, you owe it to yourself to play the second game, which recaps the events of the first for new players. 

Anyway, I guess that's it. See you next time on this blog that almost no one could ever be bothered to read.

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