It’s been a long, cold, dark ten years between drinks for the Max Payne video game saga. The original New York noir masterpiece was released in 2001, and its sequel followed in 2003. Rockstar’s continuation of the series eases up very slightly on the grittiness, and takes the storyline into a more exotic clime.
Max Payne 3: Single-player
Max Payne and Max Payne 2 were video games that felt like graphic novels: action progressed in fits and starts, with an overarching story built by comic book panel cut-scenes often dipping into the surreal and macabre.
Max Payne 3 feels a lot more like a modern action movie — in both setting and feel it evokes plenty of Tony Scott’s Man On Fire, with lashings of Michael Mann’s Heat and Collateral and the Pacino-Penn vehicle Carlito’s Way. The game is constant action, with no let-up and no down-time.
After the gruesome happenings of Max Payne and Max Payne 2 — if you haven’t played them, the second game’s The Fall of Max Payne byline should provide some insight — grizzled ex-cop Max has washed up after years of drinking and popping painkillers. Intervention from an old police academy buddy sees Max in São Paulo, Brazil, running security for a wealthy family. Abductions, assaults and intrigue means our anti-hero is arrayed against an army of gun-toting paulistanos.
While we’re not going to spoil the story — it’s worth playing and uncovering yourself — we do like its mix of present-day and flash-back action. There’s just the right compromise between bring back old memories from the previous titles, and pandering to gamers who haven’t played a Max Payne before.
The story is around 10 hours long, and every second of it feels like a big-budget blockbuster. There’s plenty of set changes, costume changes, flash-backs and twists. It’s believable, it’s well paced and we found the entire narrative thoroughly enjoyable and immersive.
Max Payne’s signature shoot-dodge and bullet time gameplay elements form a large part of the game. The game doesn’t rely on immersion-breaking quick time events or button-mashing — it’s a solid, traditional third-person shooter with a polished and minimal approach.
Take for example the Last Man Standing approach to death — if you’ve got a bottle of painkillers left, and you’re about to die, the world enters slow motion for you to pick off your assailant. If you’re victorious, your health is restored thanks to the painkillers. If you’re not, that’s the end of the game, and you’ll have to restart that section.
Max Payne 3 relies heavily on cut-scene set pieces to create back-story and emotional investment in the narrative. The entire game is a near 50/50 mix of gameplay and in-game cut-scenes, which introduce characters and locations as well as giving reason for all the violence that takes place. Occasional voice-overs during gameplay also add some flavour and keep the game from seeming like an on-rails shooter broken up by movie scenes.
If we had one key criticism of Max Payne 3, it would be that the majority of narrative development takes place in cut-scenes. We can understand why Rockstar has taken this path — it’s easier to build a story when you’ve got a captive audience, and the story is told excellently through camera angles, character body language, dialogue scripting and everything else you’d expect to see in a big-budget Hollywood action drama — but the gameplay can sometimes feel like a means to an end rather than the reason you’re playing in the first place.
Max Payne 3: Multi-player and arcade
If you’re all done with Max Payne 3’s single-player storyline, the game isn’t over. The arcade mode lets players run through the game again with Max Payne 2’s immensely enjoyable New York Minute mode, running through levels with a minute on the clock counting down and scoring kills for extra seconds.
The Score Attack mode places emphasis on style over speed, with chapter play-throughs scored on the efficiency of kills and combinations of attacks. These modes are legitimately enjoyable on their own and aren’t just tacked-on afterthoughts.
Multiplayer was a feature that was sorely missing from Max Payne 2, originally planned but never implemented. It’s fully fledged in Max Payne 3, though, with traditional solo and team death-match as well as the Payne Killer and Gang Wars modes.
Gang Wars is five rounds of team-based, objective-focused gameplay, so it values teamwork and coordination over all-out mayhem. Payne Killer is a cat-and-mouse, two-versus-the-world amalgam of deathmatch and teamwork.
If you’ve got a team of friends — the Rockstar Social Club works well to organise acquaintances, arrange games and track scores and kills — the multiplayer aspect of Max Payne 3 is great fun. Even if you’re playing against random adversaries the deathmatch mode hits a good middle-ground between mindless killing and tactics. Multiplayer isn’t a long-term love affair like the single-player storyline, but if you can spare half an hour the Gang Wars mode especially is a consistently enjoyable and varied experience.
Max Payne 3: Graphics and controls
In their own style, the graphics of Max Payne 3 look brilliant. The game environment and models are built on the same RAGE engine that powered Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption: both games that had their own distinct look, but shared a common middle-ground between modern graphics and smooth performance.
Our long-time benchmark for a high quality game engine has been Valve’s Source, which has powered everything from Half-Life 2 in 2004 to 2011’s Portal 2: it’s an engine that works well on low-end PCs but can also deliver impressive graphics from a high-end gaming machine.
Max Payne 3 is the same deal: it will run comfortably on a sub-$1000 PC at playable frame-rates and decent graphics quality, but with a more powerful machine it begins to look excellent. A PC that’s custom-built for around $2000 will max out Payne on a 27in 1440p monitor, and the game looks and plays beautifully.
The game is very scalable. The default graphics setting, set based on the PC’s specifications, are slightly conservative but do ensure a consistent and solid frame-rate. Anyone looking for better graphics can adjust a myriad of settings, with a handy hint for when a system’s graphics card will be outclassed. You can even run the game in 3D on a compatible graphics card/s and 3D monitor.
Video game artist Dead End Thrills worked a little with Max Payne 2, and while we’re not sure whether there are any plans to do the same with 3, we hope there are. The results would be excellent.
Controls in the PC version of Max Payne may be distinct from the console gamepads of the PS3 and Xbox — and the PC version is entirely its own beast, rather than a clunky port from another platform — but the game engine might feel slightly more at home on a gamepad.
PC gamers who are used to strafing left and right will come unstuck as Max turns to run sideways — while the motion would work well on a gamepad’s thumb-stick, it doesn’t translate as smoothly to W-A-S-D on a keyboard.
It’s easy to get used to, but if you’ve just come from playing Battlefield 3 or any Source engine shooter, there’s a bit of a mental stepping stone to get across. Apart from this, we think the controls are good: the cover mechanism works smoothly but isn’t mandatory, and shoot-dodge and bullet time use feels natural rather than forced.
Max Payne 3: System specifications
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We tested Max Payne 3 on two PCs:
CPU: Intel Core i7-2600, overclocked to 4.2GHz
GPU: ASUS Geforce GTX 680 TOP 2GB
HDD: Crucial M4 256GB SSD
RAM: 16GB DDR3 1333MHz
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
CPU: Intel Core i5-2500K, stock
GPU: AMD Radeon HD 6950
HDD: Seagate Barracuda 7200.13 2TB
RAM: 8GB DDR3 1333MHz
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
The high-end system performed happily at 60FPS on a 27in Samsung SyncMaster SA850T monitor at 2560x1440 pixels, while the low-end system generally clocked between 30-45 FPS on a 24in HP W2448hc monitor at 1920x1200 pixels. Both games were perfectly playable, although the low-end system did dip down to around 20FPS in a few extremely busy and explosive fire-fights.
We think this is very impressive: the game runs well and looks great on a system that’s slightly behind cutting-edge. Considering Rockstar’s last foray into PC gaming, Grand Theft Auto IV, was buggy and extremely resource-intensive and still doesn’t run smoothly on a modern system, Max Payne 3 is a revelation.
Rockstar has also released minimum and recommended system specs for Max Payne 3:
CPU: Intel Dual Core 3GHz or AMD equivalent
GPU: Nvidia Geforce 450 512MB or AMD Radeon HD 4870 512MB
OS: Windows 7/Vista/XP 32- or 64-bit
CPU: Intel Core i7 Quad Core 2.8GHz or AMD equivalent
GPU: Nvidia Geforce 480 1GB
OS: Windows 7/Vista/XP 32- or 64-bit
Max Payne 3: Conclusion
Max Payne 3 is a return to form for PC gaming from Rockstar, for both the Max Payne franchise and for the quality of the game itself.
It’s a good-looking game that runs and scales well, and the gameplay is excellent. The noir-meets-Hollywood story is lengthy and detailed and intriguing, the arcade and multiplayer modes are valuable extras, and overall we found it an entirely enjoyable experience.