A street lamp refracts through the slats of a Venetian blind and splashes garish stripes across the haggard face of Max Payne. He’s slumped in a stiff chair that in another life might have been the property of an underfunded New Jersey Department of Education. Now it features in the middle of a clammy and forlorn apartment that pays testament to an occupant whose existence is without purpose. In his hand, Max absently swirls the dregs of another bourbon in another filthy glass.
It’s been several foggy, throbbing years since Mona Sax died in his arms, and the former detective is within one stale breath of finally being washed up. Here on the precipice of obsolescence Max is desperately seeking salvation in the sacraments of our new prophet, the pharmaceutical industry.
Max Payne is back and within a matter of frames Rockstar has compellingly reasserted its credentials as a developer with the creative nous to harmonise over a genre with practised ease. Rockstar’s mastery of the noir was firmly established only some months ago with the eponymously direct L.A. Noire, a hardboiled detective thriller set in post-war Los Angeles.
And even if the Max Payne series has always had more in common with the neo-noir graphic novels of Frank Miller than it has with the cinematography of John Alton, it ultimately matters little. This opening passage is an eloquent homage to Max Payne’s past – one somewhat conceptually removed from his developmentally promising future. Like a soak stumbling out of a gloomy Hoboken dive bar on a bright Tuesday morning, the disaffected Max Payne is to be transposed into the glaring, blaring slums of São Paulo in Brazil.
Before he can do this however, he must evade the vengeful machinations of Anthony DeMarco, a New York mob boss whose son was taken from him by Max. Here, veterans of the series will discover its gameplay tenets are not simply intact, but appear to be polished to a fine sheen that stands in stark contrast to the condemned squalor of Max’s apartment building.
Max Payne’s bullet-time mode returns, a feature first inspired by the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix movies – themselves informed by the choreographic “gun fu” of John Woo’s Hong Kong shoot ‘em ups. Max dives, slides and pitches with convincing, contextually aware heft. His body twists and rolls 360 degrees to maintain at all times a plausible pose relative to the player’s reticule. Rockstar’s furrowed pursuit of authentic physicality – the kind firmly grounded in the limitations of human anatomy and reflexes – is demonstrative of the developer’s ambition to create what it hopes will be considered the definitive cinematic shooter.
Also reprised is the series’ hyper surrealism and black humour. As a DeMarco Family hood closes on Max in the apartment building’s corridor, he’s blind-sided with buckshot by a gaunt, dishevelled and half naked Vietnam veteran. Students of the series will recall a similar scene in Max Payne 2, which cast a frail old woman in the same role performing another 12-gauge intervention. Soon restrained by mobsters and with a barrel pressed into his matted hair, the wailing vet detonates bombs strapped to his chest.
It’s here among the smouldering embers and scattered giblets splayed across the gutted husk of his building (or life) that Max’s tenancy in New York draws to an end, and here that the vague notion of redemption and a new beginning in South America beckons.
São Paulo is a tale of two cities, of the rich and the wretched. It’s dizzyingly addictive and woefully addicted; a human cocktail of excessive affluence and abject poverty muddled together in the oppressive humidity of south-eastern Brazil. The offensively wealthy and the offensively poor are not divided by suburbs or even streets, but by fences. It’s a dangerously approximate mix that frequently threatens to – and frequently does – curdle violently.
Platitudes aside, much of the city’s destitute are reduced to dealing in drugs, kidnappings and murder, and with an ineffectual police force, they can do so largely unchecked. In order to protect themselves from these opportunistic trades the moneyed elite hires private security agents. One such family is the Brancos, and one such agent is a shaven Max Payne. But when members of the Comando Sombra gang kidnap his charge, Fabiana Branco, Max’s newly rediscovered purpose is to be tested.
We rejoin Max as he’s escorting Giovanna, the girlfriend of his former NYPD partner Raul Passos, through downtown São Paulo. The Crachá Preto, a shadow paramilitary faction with uncertain motivations, is pursuing the pair.
As the two traverse the bleached concrete the game transitions from one staged piece to another. These are punctuated by the series’ expositional vignettes contained within graphic novel panelling, and by Max’s unremitting internal monologue. In many ways it’s a highly directed experience, and very deliberately so: the developer’s clear intention is to bring to bear its capable storytelling abilities, and to distil them, ensuring careful narrative delivery. For all its manifest benefits, pacing is too often the first casualty of the tangential gameplay offered up by the open world settings so synonymous with Rockstar.
In an abandoned office building Max crouches as bullets thwump into a sheltering cubicle divider and snap overhead. Papers on the desk are energised, arching and flapping as high velocity rounds rip past. Torn chunks of plaster are momentarily suspended in the air as Max uncoils into a sidelong dive and unloads both clips into the assailing Crachá Preto. His own bullets punch into shoulders, splinter ribcages and shatter cheekbones – the tremendous impact of each one violently contorting its unwilling new host.
It’s joyously immediate and visceral. Here is Max Payne, sporting a new look in a new location perhaps, but still every bit the cynical vessel to our gymnastic gunfire fantasies.