Max Payne advances out of the hangar. Amidst the smouldering wreckage, his charred and disfigured quarry desperately – pitifully – scrapes itself across the blistering tarmac with its remaining, peeled arm.
“So I guess I’d become what they wanted me to be: a killer, some rent-a-clown with a gun who puts holes in other bad guys,” concludes Max.
“Well, that’s what they had paid for, so in the end, that’s what they got. Say what you want about Americans, but we understand capitalism.”
And say what you want about Rockstar, but the company understands benchmark production. The scene, one that serves as both the ambiguous introduction and the gratifying near-culmination of Max Payne 3, demonstrates as much.
Revisiting the scene after ten to fifteen hours of fretful and compelling cinematography leads to one conclusion: no developer really respects or honestly believes in the higher interpretive faculties of those who play videogames quite like Rockstar does. In a medium so synonymous with hollow spectacle, so bereft of innuendo and subtlety, Max Payne 3 asks to be deconstructed, to be considered, and reconsidered. It begs to be read.
That shouldn’t suggest the game cannot be easily followed, or is wholly understated – Max Payne 3 has more than its share of gratuitous explosions, and the twisting plot is never unclear – instead, the all cues for further interpretation are carefully and deliberately present.
A degenerate former NYPD cop, Max Payne has spent years honouring the memories of his murdered wife and daughter by disregarding the alcohol consumption safety warnings on prescription medicine bottles. When Max runs afoul of a local mob boss, he must make a hasty exit from New York. Fleeing with academy co-graduate Raul Passos, Max then undertakes private security work in the emergent city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and finds himself in the employ of real-estate magnate Rodrigo Branco. When Rodrigo’s trophy wife Fabiana is kidnapped, Max is charged with recovering her, and so begins a tale of deceit, despair, failure, and vengeance.
Given that he has always been a neo-noir caricature, placing Max Payne amidst the overwhelming optimism of Brazil’s wealthy elite, and later amongst the humid squalor of its impoverished, slum-dwelling masses, all the prerequisites for a fish-out-of-water comedy are met, intentional or otherwise. But Max’s withering and self-deferential acknowledgement of the improbability of his circumstances means the game has an acute self-awareness, and helps it to tap into a universality that transcends its setting.
In gaming’s continued pursuit of the perfect union between presentation and interactivity, Max Payne 3 undoubtedly stands head and shoulders above the rest. It can fairly be called the industry’s best effort to date, but it does remain somewhat shackled by third-person shooter genre conventions. When Max is low on health, short on painkillers, and faced with a room of adversaries, there’s little recourse but to take shelter and play whack-a-mole – dispatching enemies as they pop their heads out of cover. When it happens, the beautiful conceit dissipates and we briefly see clearly the obstacle course of waist-high objects and generously careless enemies. But it's possible these moments stand out all the more due to their infrequency and their stark contrast to the game’s greater successes in presentation.
Whatever the case, the actual practice of moving and shooting is sublime. The character animations demonstrate genuinely authentic physicality. Max moves with substance and heft, he turns and twists to maintain a plausible pose relative to the targeting reticule. When diving or rolling, he responds to objects – throwing a hand down to vault a desk, or raising a shoulder to soften his collision with a wall.
Rockstar’s accomplishments in this area are particularly evident when Max enters his signature bullet-time and shoot-dodge modes. Borrowed from Hong Kong action cinema, these time-bending mechanics allow for the most improbable ballistic abilities such as three consecutive headshots executed in the space of a single dive. Max’s opponents respond to his shots with equal realism, violently contorting as his rounds shred arteries and punch into intestines.
If perhaps they’re used and reused just a little too frequently, the visual effects unify the game. There are no loading screens or incongruous cuts, each chapter and sequence transitions seamlessly into the next by paring one shot with another, replacing outfits and backdrops. Throughout, the developer employs dilated lens effects and flares primary colours. The result is a game like a vicious hangover: we’re constantly reminded that Max’s senses are dimmed, off-kilter, unreliable.
It’s surreal. Altogether, the impression is of a work that feels like an addled and hazy reflection of the truth. It’s far removed from what we know, but unlike so many games there’s a real sense that our world and our lives are just beyond the horizon.
In 2012, the industry is increasingly concerned with the effect of second-hand sales on publisher margins. Rightly, consumers retort that publishers should focus on creating games worth keeping, games to come back to again and again, games to display on their shelves. In Max Payne 3, they have a title that can demonstrate their position.