Hype can be a two-edged sword. It builds anticipation, but also heightens expectations. So you could not have blamed us for feeling a tad wary when we inserted the Max Payne 3 disk into our PS3. After all, this was one of the most eagerly awaited titles of the year, and part of a series that had inspired two best-selling games, a film, yards of fan fiction, and pretty much enjoyed cult status in gaming.
In case you live on a planet where gaming is forbidden, the Max Payne series is all about a policeman (Max Payne) who declares a personal war on crime after his family is butchered by drug addicts. The first edition of the game appeared in 2001 and won rave reviews for its presentation, graphics and “bullet-time” special effects in which Payne dodges bullets in slow motion, like Neo in the Matrix. The sequel (released in 2003) did well too, and when we heard that Payne was back for a third tilt at the baddies, we were thrilled. And just a bit worried. Eight years is, after all, a long time in tech. The world had changed and gone high-def with a vengeance. Would Payne get the adrenaline coursing through our veins again?
We need not have worried. Max Payne 3 sizzles with energy. The locales have moved from the dark and gritty areas of New York to sunny Sao Paulo in Brazil, and Max has left the NYPD to join a security firm. He has also picked up an addiction for alcohol and drugs, but remains as quick on the draw as ever. Predictably, he has no time to soak in the sun, as the family he is protecting gets into trouble, with people getting kidnapped. Of course, Payne has to set it right. Of course, he has to wade through waves of villains to do so. And of course, he gets betrayed in a complex plot.
In the hands of many developers, Max Payne 3 would have been nothing more than a mindless shoot-’em-up. However, thanks to some skilful narration and plot twists, not to mention some very lively conversations (courtesy Dan Houser, the man who wrote Red Dead Redemption), the game moves up to the level of what we could call almost operatic violence. Max shoots lots of people, but also struggles with his doubts and inner demons. Presentation remains brilliant — bullet time is still there and looks as spectacular as ever, you can interact with the environment (switch on a TV in a room, open cupboards, and so on) and there’s no shortage of weapons (some special hidden ones too, although Payne can only carry a limited number) and villains. The graphics are gorgeous, and the gameplay remains relatively simple with the accent on firing and dodging.
But the most compelling reason to play the game, however, is its hero. Even when he is not toting guns, Payne remains a fascinating character, battling depression and doubt, and occasionally getting mad enough to beat the crap out of everybody. And yes, he does shave his head (but we will not tell you why). Max Payne 3 is a bit like what Dirty Harry would have been if filmed by Quentin Tarantino and scripted by Ray Chandler. Resist it if you can. We are on our way to Sao Paulo. To inflict Payne. Max Payne.
He may be one heck of a trigger- happy character, but Max Payne also has a penchant for dropping quotes that seem right out of a Gumshoe detective mystery — blending wry humour with philosophy. This is one habit he has not lost in this third coming. Sample the following:
>> “Sao Paulo is like Baghdad with G-strings”
>> “It was Monday afternoon and I’d already been thrown out of a party, been to a strip club and got into a bar fight. This latest mid-life crisis was certainly ticking all the boxes.”
>> “Do you think a pile of s**t feels popular because it’s surrounded by flies?”
>> “There’s two types of people, those who spend their lives trying to build a future and those who spend their lives trying to rebuild the past. For too long I’d be stuck in between, hidden in the dark. What was I really doing walking in there with my bad haircut and ridiculous shirt?”