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Max Payne 3: the True Fall of Max Payne

How low you've fallen, Max...

There’s a certain state between fear and hope, a no-man’s land where you are afraid that you don’t like something because you don’t understand it, but also feel as if it is indeed something not worth your affection. It pushes you to desperately search for clues, hints and reasons. And in the end, the easiest way to let it go is to just accept you’re right and everyone else is wrong. Quench all doubts and move on.

I’m not sure how many times I actually asked myself “Why?” as I played Max Payne 3. “Why is he doing this?” “Why did they make this design decision?” “Why am I supposed to care?” It would go from the typical reflexive inquiries, to the borderline obsessive ones. I would continue after every stumble, extending a hand to the game, picking it up and giving it another chance to attempt walking. Eventually, I just decided to drag it until we reached the end of the road and left it there.

There is not much that makes Max Payne 3 a bad game, but rather, there is plenty that makes it a bad sequel. I’ve seen and participated in various discussions on the subject, seeing many dodgy arguments as to why people liked or hated the game. There’s a clear discontent among a certain number of people, as though something was missing in the title. Possibly the most common claim being “it’s not noir”.

Sunny São Paulo serves as a stark contrast to the gritty “Noir York” of the previous two games.

And that is a claim that is as hard to support as it is to debunk. Men smarter and more qualified than either you or I have spent decades tackling this subject alone. Whether noir is an aesthetic or genre, or whether it even exists to begin with. Even among people who agree that noir exists, the criteria varies, and any “List of film noir titles” on Wikipedia or in any book wouldn’t be accurate. However, the golden age of noir died when the genre became self-aware, so now it would be more accurate to call anything written in a noir “style” neo-noir.

Claiming that either the setting or the daylight denies Max Payne 3’s right to carry the banner is dodgy at best. Many noteworthy noir titles, like White Heat, were set during the day without it being detrimental to the atmosphere. There are many other reasons to say the game lost its noir charm, but such a discussion would last for an eternity with no side being able to win. Something that can be agreed upon, though, is that if Max Payne 3 is indeed neo-noir, it is of a different ilk compared to the previous two games. Quite reasonable if you consider that movies like Sin City and American Beauty both count as neo-noir while being vastly different.

The first two games were a fusion of extreme noir melodrama and John Woo-style gunplay. It reached absurd levels story-wise, often mocking itself, but also placed a character who had rational reactions to the grimdark world around him. It’s why when you completely immerse yourself in the game, you never question Max’s actions. It never tears you away from the screen. But when you walk away and think about it, you realize just how unreasonable and silly the entire plot is.

The third game makes the mistake of toning down the setting into a more realistic one. Nothing is over the top, and there’s more emphasis on realism (as far as a third person shooter can allow). All of a sudden, we are asking questions we otherwise wouldn’t have. Our immersion breaks with every conflict between what the cutscenes imply and what the gameplay implies. Not only that, but all of a sudden, Max Payne stops being about Max and focuses on the events around him. This distinction is clear when you take into account that neither the first, nor the second game offers any sort of epilogue. It starts and ends with Max. On the other hand, Max Payne 3 offers a proper “this is what happened after Max put the gun down” scene.

This difference in atmosphere doesn’t stem only from the narrative, but also from the gameplay. Whether it was due to technical limitations, or just a savvy decision, Remedy used a minimal amount of in-game cutscenes. If Max sees an object he wants to comment on, the player needs to actually approach it by moving Max. Rockstar’s approach was to force the player’s movement, whether by cutscene or just slowing Max down due to injuries or the environment. The latter isn’t even much of an issue and is a better alternative to cutscenes, but coupled with them, it sets a much slower pace. Even trivial design decisions, like taking away the player’s control when watching TV, damages the experience.

Another shift in design. The cover art for Max Payne 3 is much closer to the likes of L.A. Noire, rather than previous Max Payne games.

The combat also follows this change of pace. Max Payne 3’s combat does revolve around cover, which is true to the predecessors save for the addition of a “stick to the wall” button. But it quickly becomes binary. You either have bullet-time, or you don’t. You are either at full health, or nearly dead. With infinite bullet-time jumps and only putting a cap on regular slow-mo movement, the pace changes drastically. Before, Max could jump into the action guns blazing. Now? Every single enemy is a threat, putting more emphasis on the previously mentioned increase in realism.

And then, of course, there is the actual character of Max Payne, probably the biggest problem with the latest game. Someone once told me that Max is very good at lying to himself. That’s quite an accurate statement. After all, at the end of the first game, he thought blood revenge would give him peace of mind, but as the second game showed us, it didn’t quite work out that way. However, at the end of Max Payne 2, regardless of which ending you got, Max was at peace with himself. It wasn’t something questionable like “this person is dead, everything is fine now”, but merely the culmination of all events just pushing him to a realization.

And obviously, he lied to himself again, according to Max Payne 3. This leaves a branching path, where one says that Rockstar wasn’t true to the character, while the other says they were. With the latter, one has to wonder why we should even care for the character now. There is a difference between falling on tough times and picking yourself up, and actually having two opportunities to take your life back and get at least a bittersweet ending. Payne stops being a powerful determinator and turns into this Guy With the Gun bum. A person one would find hard to care for. It would be easier for those who entered the series with this newest installment, as the predecessors become one big blur called “the dark past”, but as someone who played through both events, I find it quite difficult to ignore this kind of character development.

This is not the only issue when speaking of Max, though. His mannerisms are also drastically different. Despite the tone and rating of all games, Max rarely, if ever, swore in the first two games. I was halfway through the second game recently and I’m not quite sure if I even heard a “damn” from him. He had a sort of cold composure, dealing with his issues within himself, rather than swearing, raging and generally being openly upset about the situation. The trademark noir metaphors are also close to nonexistent now. Most of Max’s statements have become plain observations, rather than actually processing the information as he did before. No melodramatic thoughts on life beyond the occasional pearl in an ocean of dry writing.


The events in Max Payne 2 are barely referenced, with the only mention of Mona being writing her off as a temporary fancy.

As Payne himself says in the second game: “If you had done something differently, it wouldn’t be you, it would be someone else looking back, asking a different set of questions.” And that is what the core issue with Max Payne 3 is, in the end. It’s not about Max Payne. It’s about someone else with the same problems, dealing with them in their own way. There are many other issues we haven’t mentioned, like the highly out of place shock about the organ black market, or the redundant “Do you kill him or let him live?” prompt at the end of the game. Max Payne 3 suffers from Fallout 3 syndrome. Just how Fallout 3 was a good game, but awful Fallout, so is Max Payne 3 a good game on its own, but an abysmal addition to the series.

One only has to wonder where Remedy would have taken Max Payne 3 had they been the developers. “Max Payne’s journey through the night will continue,” say the credits of the second game. Sadly, most of the levels of Max Payne 3 were in broad daylight.

Miodrag hails from the land of Serbia. He is currently a college student trying to learn Japanese and speaks English, German and Serbian (as well as all the jabber similar enough to Serbian). He is primarily a PC gamer, but knows his way around various consoles, old and new.

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