I don’t usually use this space to review anything – at least, not recently. It’s been a place for me to write humor and get way too personal and serious and share parts of my life that I used to hide. But I played this game over the weekend and I can’t get it out of my head, so I’m going to review it.
I love good video games, especially those I can play on my PC, which is far superior to any console that exists. I can save my Xbox 360 for Just Dance, when I drop it like it’s slightly lukewarm. I have very specific needs for a game, though:
- It has to be a single-player game. I don’t have any desire to play a multiplayer game with a bunch of people who I don’t know. Sure, if I had 12 friends who all played the same game, I’d love to play with them online, but I’d rather just play through a game at my own pace, when I have the free time.
- It has to be a shooter or something like Hitman, Half-Life, Grand Theft Auto, Batman: Arkham City, Thief, or Assassins Creed. I want something that’s fun, challenging, and not generally a role-playing game. I don’t care about increasing experience points and leveling up, though I’ll enjoy shooters with those elements, like Borderlands.
- It has to have an end. I don’t mean that the game has to have a satisfying conclusion – I mean, it has to end – there has to be a way to finish the game. I have an obsessive personality that means once I start a game, I will play it almost non-stop until I finish it, and if there’s no ending, I’m at a loss.
The Max Payne series has had that for me. Following the story of a cop who loses his whole world, told in a gritty noir style with liberal use of flashbacks and dark humor, the first two games were most notable for their use of Bullet Time, the ability to slow down the entire world for short bursts, allowing Max to overcome overwhelming odds of gun-wielding enemies.
******MAX PAYNE 3 SPOILERS AFTER THIS POINT******
Max Payne 3 takes the story to a new level. No longer a cop, Max becomes private security for a wealthy family in Brazil and everything goes to hell. What made this such a compelling experience for me is the simple fact that you’re not playing a game. You’re playing a movie.
The intense action sequences are interspersed with sometimes lengthy cinematic scenes, setting up each chapter and putting the titular character in place to wreak havoc and kill everyone before they can kill him first. At first, the scenes were a little off-putting, but before long, I was completely engrossed in the story and invested in each of the characters. This game feels like it was written like a screenplay, with [let player shoot people] inserted throughout the script. The game is very linear, with little choice in where to go or what Max can do, but I never had an issue – the gameplay was fun and varied enough from scene to scene that it never got old.
In the story, we find through a combination of flashbacks and noir narrative that Max was recruited to act as private security for Rodrigo Blanco, a rich businessman with a young trophy wife Fabiana, a politician brother Victor, and a young playboy brother Marcelo. When Fabiana is kidnapped by a street gang and held for ransom, Max does everything in his power to rescue her.
Even while his employer and Fabiana’s husband is murdered and his business demolished by a series of explosions, Max remains resolute that he will see this through to the end, out of that sense of loyalty that only noir heroes seem to have. He quits drinking and follows threads of a larger conspiracy involving the entire Blanco family until that moment of vindication. He finds Fabiana. Alive and tied up, along with Marcelo and Fabiana’s sister, Giovanna (who took it upon themselves to attempt to pay ransom for Fabiana), held at gunpoint, Max’s prize and redemption, the young beautiful wife, is in his grasp.
And then the leader of the gang shoots her in the head in a cinematic scene that had me gasp and yell in outrage. Max is too late, and though he frees Giovanna and Marcelo, he has failed at the only purpose he had left in life. He pushes through and follows Giovanna and Marcelo, who have been captured by a private police force. As he moves in for the rescue, the police drench Marcelo in gasoline and set him on fire and yet again, Max has to watch as someone under his care and protection dies a terrible, brutal death.
The story continues from there and reaches a satisfying conclusion, but one thing becomes very clear as Marcelo screams while he burns: everyone in this game is expendable. The lack of control I have as a player of the game is palpable and parallels Max’s frustration with his inability to save anyone from the grasp of death. Giovanna, pregnant with Max’s partner’s baby – was she going to die next? His partner Passos? Max? Was the main character going to die with a bullet in the head and leave his story as unresolved as the rest of his life had been? I expected it to happen. I flinched constantly at each cinematic, feeling the drama and gravitas build as the story unfolded. When Max won – when he took down the politician brother after a brutal battle that left an airport strewn with bodies, I didn’t believe it. Will he actually get his happy ending?
The amount of skill the writers of this game had in creating living, breathing characters that interacted with real emotion, evoking genuine pathos, is amazing. It’s not a typical game, and replaying the game to find the hidden Easter eggs (hint: play every piano you see), among other clues and golden gun parts, can be a bit frustrating, just like rewatching a movie you love too soon can also be frustrating, but for 12 hours this weekend, I was playing, watching, participating, and enthralled by one of the best films I’ve seen all year.
It’s noir done right, and I think I’ll end this review with some of my favorite quotes by the gritty, dark, dirty, usually very drunk, Max Payne:
“There must have been another way out through the VIP lounge. Rich fools love a private exit.”
“I now had a hole in my second favorite drinking arm.”
“When you’re stuck in a foreign country and don’t know the words for “reverse charges”, and you’re in some lonely skin joint in the middle of some poor slum and just had every last cent robbed from you, and you call yourself a bodyguard, then you know you’re a loser.”
“It was a bad idea, but in the absence of any good ones, I went with it.”
“I’d been sitting at the bar for three hours, or five hours depending on the way you looked at things. I tried not to look at things.”
“The explosion in my apartment had started a fire. The flames couldn’t burn away my past. They only made the shadows behind me leap higher.”
“He was trying to buy more sand for his hourglass. I wasn’t selling any.”
“I might have laughed, if I had remembered how.”
“I ain’t slippin’, man. I’m slipped.”