Max Payne 3 review: The cover system has ruined a classic hero

Chris Farnell dives sideways into Rockstar's latest offering, Max Payne 3. Even though the slow-motion bullet play of the previous titles is still alive and well, a new story and some questionable mechanics make this an uninspiring third chapter.

Threequels are tough. There are plenty of perfect sequels, some of which build on the original in new and unexpected ways. But afterwards the third film never quite manages to keep that trajectory going. Alien 3, Terminator 3, Die Hard With A Vengeance: all of them are pretty good films in their own right, but because of their heritage they were all doomed to be a letdown. (You should bear this in mind while you’re drooling over trailers for The Dark Knight Rises)

Max Payne screenshot

Our hero starts off relatively well-dressed, but deteriorates fast

Sure, there are plenty of great third episodes in the videogame world, but Max Payne has always seemed more filmic than most shooters.
I’ve finished playing Max Payne 3 and have decided that if you’re thinking about getting Max Payne 3, you probably should. The graphics are pretty, you get to shoot lots of people in the face in the slow motion and there are lots of internal monologues full of needlessly tortured metaphors. It’s hitting a lot of the right buttons even if it doesn’t bring you any surprises.

Yes, there are some frustrating quick time events, and a couple of irritating (and lengthy) rail-shooter style vehicle sections, because apparently they’re obligatory now under international gaming law, but they don’t subtract from a lot of very enjoyable jumping through the air in slow motion while machine-gunning someone’s kneecaps out from under them.

Max Payne 3 screenshot

Max's propensity to end up in burning buildings remains intact

But while it’s enjoyable and worth the money you’re paying for it, Max Payne 3 still feels like it’s missing something.

Partly it’s the plot. The previous two Max Payne games featured stories that were very much about Max Payne, which makes sense on account of the name on the front of the box. The first game was the story of how he avenged his wife and child’s deaths. The second game was a tragic love story that ended up with the promise that Max might finally be getting some closure (by the start of Max Payne 3 it’s clear that he didn’t).

Both games feature byzantine plots and questions that you kept playing to find the answers to. In Max Payne 3 however, Max Payne starts off as a bodyguard and… that’s it. His charge is kidnapped, and for two thirds of the game the (lengthy) cut scenes could just as easily be replaced with a waistcoated toadstool telling you that the Princess is in another castle. Things get more interesting in the third act, but even then there’s no reason why Max should care about this job any more than any other down-on-his luck alcoholic ex cop.

Max Payne 3 screenshot

Max Payne 3 isn't for the faint of heart: there's plenty of gore hidden inside the faces of baddies

Which brings us to the other thing lacking in this game. The weirdness and sense of humour from the first two games is gone, presumably along with previous developers Remedy who spearheaded the first two games but are nowhere to be seen on this third instalment. While it used to be that you couldn’t walk through a level without overhearing some TV or radio playing a soap opera, the adventures of Baseball Bat Boy (who does get a single hidden cameo) or that bizarre Twin Peaks parody, now  that’s disappeared.

In the original games these weren’t just background colour, the stories in these made up shows were funhouse mirror reflection of Max and what he was going through. Quite frankly, if either of the first games had ended with Max waking up in a hospital bed, Sam Tyler style, it would have made perfect sense as the boundaries between the dream sequences and reality always seemed a bit blurry – even to the extent that Max, at one strange point during the first title, realised that he was in a computer game.

Max Payne screenshot

Learning the best time to make your break out of hiding forms a big part of the game

And yes, part of the reason these bits are gone is the new setting, and the new setting’s good. A third game set in the dead of night in the rain and the snow would have been a bit much (although there are couple of flashbacks to New Jersey). But the story’s set in Brazil. Are you telling me there aren’t plenty of ripe opportunities for weirdness on Brazilian television?

All of this is fine if you think plots are there just to get in the way of shooting stuff, but it comes through in the gameplay as well. Particularly, it comes through in the introduction of a cover-mechanic. These days a shooter forcing you to hide behind waist-high walls is such a cliché that game reviewers complaining about it is also a cliché, but in Max Payne it’s damaging in a very special way.

Max Payne dives sideways for great justice

Jumping sideways: strangely effective

You wouldn’t give Batman a machine gun in Arkham City and you wouldn’t have a James Bond game where it was possible to treat women as autonomous grown-ups. You wouldn’t do it because it violates the rules of the character. Likewise, Max Payne is an alcoholic, pill-popping maniac who now has far less than the nothing to lose he had in the first game.  Me personally? I’m a wuss who will hide behind a box and wait for the bad guys to get bored and go home, even during a simulated gun fight. But Max Payne should be diving in there face first, guns akimbo, spinning around in mid-air to take down as many people as possible before he hits the ground.

By introducing the cover mechanic, they’ve completely got rid of my incentive to do that, because unlike Max Payne I don’t want to die. For him it means sweet oblivion and an escape from the torment and guilt that’s been following him his entire adult life. For me it means I have to replay the level again.