Max Payne is not doing well. A barely-functioning alcoholic and painkiller addict, Max is a man on the brink of self-destruction.
At every turn, Max needs a pill. He needs a drink. He can’t cope without a glass bottle in his hand, or a plastic one in his pocket.
He’s killed hundreds, survived countless shootouts, and now he’s drifted from bad to worse, working security detail for the wealthy Rodrigo Branco in sunny São Paulo, Brazil.
A singular experience, Max Payne 3 is a fantastic look at a man whose grief fuels his addiction, who is so far removed from the reality of his situation that he just doesn’t see any of the numerous inciting incidents coming.
Although the game is a solid third-person shooter, and part of a series with deft cover and aim mechanics that have fueled much of Rockstar’s later work in Grand Theft Auto V, Max Payne 3 works best when looked at as an interactive character study, a foreign man trapped in a foreign land.
It’s been nine years since we last checked in on Max Payne, and this self-contained tale of his romps through São Paulo admittedly has little to do with its two predecessors. Eschewing the traditional noir-ish nightmares of the first two titles by developers Remedy, Max Payne 3 focuses exclusively on Max’s reactions (or lack thereof) to the world around him; a run-in with an armed gang on the streets of São Paulo does wonders here to highlight Max’s ignorance, both to the social stratification swirling around him and his own obliviousness to how to solve problems.
Max is the hero, yes, but he’s a clueless one. He relentlessly pursues his own sense of right and wrong, wracked by guilt at his continual failures: first as a father, husband, and police officer, and now as a bodyguard for the rich and famous.
When you first start playing, Max Payne 3 may look familiar to fans of third-person shooters. You play as a masculine, gun-toting ex-cop getting into fights out with a variety of bad guys in a plethora of settings, from graveyards in New York City to the most decrepit slum neighborhoods in Brazil. But everything from the deep narrative to the stunning visual effects of the game are informed by Payne’s addictions to painkillers and alcohol – both in the playstyle of the game, and in Max’s own character.
From a narrative standpoint, addiction is central to the game experience – the story depends on it and the entire flow of the game is built around that aspect of Max’s character. The visual effects also give the impression of a blurred, somewhat hazy look, that informs the player this is a character continually stoned on painkillers and drunk on alcohol.
In the medium of video games, where we like to confine ourselves so relentlessly to genre tropes in order to better understand what we’re playing, Max Payne 3 is most definitely a third-person shooter; but in the hands of Rockstar’s deft artists the game can be best described as an interactive character study, an antidote to the consequence-free non-reality of most video games. The shooting mechanics, while refined and of consistent quality, are very much by-the-numbers. You duck, you aim, you shoot, you kill, you duck again. These days, these mechanics may seem cut-and-dry, but Max Payne 3 sets a new standard for both future Rockstar games and in the third-person-shooter genre more broadly.
As far as the character is concerned, Max Payne is a byproduct of all the lives he has taken in the previous titles, and we see his descent into hell through well-timed interactive flashbacks that establish his reasons for leaving New York and serve to inform the character’s addictions and insecurities. These are expertly woven into the main narrative in Brazil, and contrast well with Max’s current predicament, both in visual style and in terms of gameplay.
Further building on this narrative thrust, signs of Max’s clear addiction to alcohol and painkillers are threaded throughout the game. Cutscenes often involve Payne with a bottle in his hand. We see him passing out. We see him waking up. He hallucinates moments from previous games, remembering himself as a younger and better man.
Even the Bullet Time mechanic, that the Max Payne series is so famous for, is interwoven directly into the narrative. Bullet Time is when Max Payne feels at his best, as though he is almost superhuman. The adrenaline rush, the high that Max feels, is somewhat of an addiction to him as well, making him better at what he does best; blasting holes into his enemies.
Through the gameplay, the world seems to be constantly in motion, as if its twitching around him, a living, breathing man. When Max pops a painkiller, an action he needs to do on a regular basis to heal all bullet wounds, a fog seems to fall around Max and the world around him. For just a moment, everything seems to bend itself to his dulled will.
In layering a character study about a man warped by the violence he has both witnessed and inflicted, onto a violent video game, Rockstar has created something immensely complex, a modern commentary on a world increasingly wracked by selfishness.
The end result is a game that weighs in on the violence of video games and doles out real world repercussions to its titular hero in a way that is both satisfying and true to the medium. Anyone who chooses to skip this in favor of Rockstar’s most recent titles would be missing out, as the eight-hour-long Max Payne 3 both has all the makings of a modern game, and follows through on these lofty ambitions.