It’s been a little while since we’ve seen the release of a Max Payne game. The last one, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, was released in 2003 and developed by the series’ original creators, Remedy Entertainment. They’ve since sold the franchise, it’s now in the hands of Take Two Interactive and Rockstar. Remedy went on to create the Alan Wake series, while we’ve had to trust Rockstar to continue the excellent, though not extremely popular Max Payne franchise (sales for the second installment were disappointing). Rockstar is an excellent developer and they’ve managed to craft a number of engaging worlds in the last few years (Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption most recently), but they were never known for their subtlety. Admittedly, Rockstar and Remedy have a similar ‘trick': they drown their characters in parody, stereotype and pop culture reference to come up with interesting games, but Remedy seems to have better mastered the technique. Perhaps Remedy, being a Finnish developer, has an edge as the outside studio, looking in (on American culture). The first Max Payne expertly emulated classic film noir tropes and supported that with competent John Woo style gameplay (pure firearm pornography, really). Though it wasn’t until the second game, that Remedy would deliver their magnum opus: The Fall of Max Payne. As far as love stories go, it was pretty damn good. For a video game, where you shoot things primarily, that’s quite an achievement, and a tough act to follow for Rockstar.
As the title to this article suggests, Rockstar’s interpretation of Max Payne doesn’t quite match up. Or, depending on how you look at it, not at all. Though there is one thing that should be clarified up front. John Carmack once said that story in a video games is like story in pornography: redundant. In most cases, I agree with such a statement and any complaints I’d have regarding story elements in a third person shooter, would be of little consequence. However, when the writing gets to be of a certain quality, one makes an exception and sees the game in a different light. The first two Max Payne games were of such caliber. They were fun to play, but I remember them most for their vivid depiction of New York winter nights, inspired use of metaphor and layers upon layers of parody and self-consciousness. Like the game’s original writer, Sam Lake, these elements are lacking in Max Payne 3. Rockstar tries to sell the difference as ‘character development’. And while James McCaffrey returned to voice Max Payne, it’s clear as day this really isn’t the same man. The departure from New York doesn’t help either. Rockstar turned Max into an alcoholic and dragged his ass off to Brazil. Rockstar realized the setting beautifully, but coke-fueled fun in the sun is a terrible fit for a Max Payne game. Apparently Max is there to ‘start over’ with a private security job that has him protecting the local upper class. Perhaps if these characters had been at all well rounded, Max’s involvement there would have seemed a little less unlikely.
I want to say that all is not lost, because the part where you play Max Payne 3 and fire large quantities of munition at the local variety of bad guy, easily measures up to the old games and sets a new standard in third person shooters. It’s just a shame they won’t let you enjoy it for more than half a minute at a time. Rockstar apparently doesn’t realize that, at best, they’ve managed only a shallow imitation of what made the previous games great in terms of tone and story. So they’re constantly interrupting the player by shoving mediocre writing and story elements down your throat. You can’t play for 30 seconds straight without triggering another cutscene. Every time I could open a door without having to suffer through another poorly edited, poorly written movie scene, I breathed a sigh of relief. It’s incredibly bad design and it makes me wonder why no one had the courage to mention this during play testing. In this case, the game would have been much better off with Carmack’s (long gone) approach to video game development: no bullshit. All shootouts, all the time.