The biggest videogame release of 2012’s first six months is, surely, Max Payne 3. Developer Rockstar Games (Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, etc) is rarely an outfit to do things by halves – and the advertising campaign, pre-release video trailers and general hullabaloo surrounding this latest instalment in the series following a New York cop steadily losing his loved ones, his own lust for life and, if played particularly badly, the use of his lungs, shows all the signs of a blockbuster.
But unlike Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, Max Payne isn’t a particularly high-profile IP, not compared to several other character-led releases from the last generation of consoles. The big push behind Max Payne 3 could be seen to represent a risk: a pill-popping alcoholic with considerable personal demons? Cool, sign me up for that. The first two games in this chronologically scripted trilogy of third-person shooters were well received by critics; but neither is ubiquitous in the collections of PS2 and Xbox gamers, and the second game sold poorly enough for its publisher Take-Two Interactive to reforecast its 2004 finances. A film adaptation in 2008, loosely set around events of the first Max Payne, did little to further the prospects of the franchise – it currently holds a 5.3 score on IMDB.
But age is a healer – perhaps not for Max, the character, but certainly Max the videogame giant (at the time of writing, Max Payne 3 has just entered the UK sales chart at number one). By seeming not to have fixed what wasn’t broken gameplay wise – going on those trailers, Max Payne 3 mirrors the combat refinements made on 2 (The Fall of Max Payne), and liberally layers on the current-gen’ gloss – Rockstar may discover that the wider gaming community has caught up with the mechanics of games one and two: intense shoot-outs, odd sequences of supernatural shenanigans, realistic enough energy levels (a few bullets and Max is dead, and neither game featured self-regenerating health), and a storyline that’s more cinematic than your usual shooter, albeit not without a certain corniness.
I mean, really: “Life knows two miseries; getting what you don't want and not getting what you want.” Nobody came away from the first two games with any scriptwriting awards. (Okay, they did… but maybe they shouldn’t have.) But the black humour that ran through Max’s monologues was just another hook for the gamer’s attention – every cut-scene, played out in graphic novel style, genuinely mattered in moving the story on. Today, these transitions can be seamless; but in 2001, Max Payne bathed in bleeding-edge presentation. And both games hold up surprising well today, as I found out ahead of shoot-dodging my way through number three.
Played on PlayStation 2; also available on Xbox, Windows, Mac OS, iOS and more
First release: July 2001
First thing’s first: Max Payne does not look too well throughout this first game. Facially, he’s Johnny Knoxville with constipation halfway through an especially funny gag, a sort-of half-smile on his face, muddled with a grimace. Guess finding your wife and baby daughter murdered after a day’s work can do some pretty weird shit to a man’s appearance. The graphics on the Xbox and PC versions take a number two on the PlayStation’s aesthetics from a considerable height – but who cares, really, given the age of this title, and the fact that it still plays magnificently.
I’ve not tried Max Payne on iOS/Android – it was released for mobiles earlier this year, but I imagine it’s not the most intuitive title to pick up. Because the console version is no instant-click classic: it’s a game that takes time to sink into, both in its gameplay and storyline, which factors in some wild tangents that call to question not only Max’s sanity, but also that of the developers behind the game*.
(*This game was developed by Finnish company Remedy, who’d also work on the sequel and, later still, Alan Wake. There are several parallels to be drawn between Payne and Wake, not least of all the runs through the titular character’s decaying mind, references to Norse mythology – Old Gods of Asgard, anyone? – and the numerous playing-to-themselves televisions dotted around the gameworld.)
A little stiffness aside, inevitable given the progress made on games of this kind in the intervening decade, Payne plays well, and Bullet Time is a revelation: you either use it or lose your health in seconds. If the term’s new to you, think about those scenes in The Matrix where Keanu would spin about a bit in slow motion as bullets sliced through the air in amazing detail. That, in a nutshell, is Bullet Time. Why or how Max can summon this power, no idea. But it doesn’t half help with clearing a room full of Desert Eagle-brandishing baddies.
If you’re going straight into 3, it’s worth YouTube-ing the start of Max Payne, just so you get a handle on the catalyst for his self-destructive descent. Long story considerably shortened, as it’s been referenced up there already: he comes home from work at the NYPD to discover his wife and baby daughter murdered (even with these visuals, it’s fairly chilling stuff) by junkies high on a designer drug called V, short for Valkyr – another Norse mythology nod, there. He subsequently transfers to the DEA, goes undercover to get to the root of the V trafficking, and then… Well, shit hits fans all over the shop. And lots, and lots, and lots of indentikit thugs get shot to brilliantly amusing effect (I love the animation as they flop limply to the floor).
The plot weaves fairly wickedly, but the game never seems unfair. Sure it’s difficult – it comes from a time when the latest releases didn’t hold the player’s hand for the long-haul only to let them loose, unprepared, when a boss showed up (oh, hi Deus Ex: Human Revolution). But the game adjusts itself to the player’s ability, meaning that if you fail to clear a room full of goons three times, the fourth time will likely seem marginally easier. Progress can be slow, but it’s achievable by anyone with a little patience.
Remedy’s instruction booklet statement that “Max is not your typical hero” rings true the first time he slumps down dead in a shower of bullets – other games would let the player soak up the abuse, cower behind cover and watch their health meter refill. Playing Max Payne today, it’s actually quite refreshing to die repeatedly – and because the game can be quick-saved, you’re straight back into the action without too much of a slog to get back to the previous point of failure. If you’re about to play 3 and wondered if it’s necessary to play the original ahead of it, the answer’s no. But if you want the full story, and want to feel how these games have progressed, it’s an essential first port of call.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne
Played on Xbox; also available on Windows, PlayStation 2
First release: October 2003
A direct sequel, recalling many a character from its predecessor into the fray, The Fall of Max Payne tweaks the combat mechanics of the first game but keeps the plot gritty, albeit mercifully without infanticide. The biggest change is that Max can now perform a shoot-dodge. This move doesn’t deplete the Bullet Time meter, but does give the player an advantage over enemies by slowing down time as Max flies through the air. It’s a really useful manoeuvre, one that I used far more frequently than Bullet Time itself.
Whereas the first game’s difficulty never taunted the player, though, Max Payne 2 has some particularly tough sections. Or, rather, they seem tough the first eight times they’re attempted; and then either by good fortune, innate ability or complete fluke the area is cleared. I suffered a handful of what I’d call unfair deaths – I’d be thwarted by camera angles and get stuck in a corner, only to be blown to pieces; I’d shoot-dodge my way through a crowd only to land and skid off a precipice; I’d lose track of some idiot in a Captain BaseBallBat-Boy outfit and have to do a sequence over because he’d gone and got himself blown up. But, again, it’s rare that repeating passages of gameplay leads to frustration, and the game moves at a click enough to reward 10- or 15-minute sessions when you’re waiting for The Simpsons to start.
Like the first game, there are transitions into Max’s own fracturing mind; unlike the first game, you don’t just take control of Max in the sequel. A couple of times the life of assassin Mona Sax is placed in your hands. Assumed dead by the end of the first game, Sax returns at pivotal points in this game’s plot. She saves Max from the attentions of closing-in henchmen when he’s pinned on a construction site; she saves him again when he’s caught in an explosion and left for dead.
Mona handles much in the same way as Max – but it’s something of a treat to not have to suffer Max’s monotone observations (some guffawable, some god-awful – but they do serve to jog the narrative along), with Mona’s outlook rather less tainted by loss, her life deemed that bit more precious. (Well, if you survived a bullet in the head, you’d probably count each day as a blessing, too.)
Come the game’s conclusion, Max is in no more of a happy place than he was when he walked in on his murdered wife: around him are scattered more bodies, more fallen loved-ones. (If played on the highest difficulty, one major character does survive; but canon dictates that, so far as game three goes, she’s been buried several years.) I’d love to say that something more happened after a typically bleak closing cut-scene, but my Xbox decided to fade to black a little earlier than it should have done, before any credits rolled. Press A. Press B. Press every button at the same time. Nothing. Perhaps a glitch with playing the Xbox disc on a 360, I don’t know.
Max Payne 2 holds up better today than the first game, perhaps due to it being two years younger, but mainly because its gameplay is remarkably polished (the aforementioned ‘unfairness’ aside, which is largely dependent on how the individual plays the game anyway). Remedy took any shortcomings from the first game and scrubbed them out; in their place they added the invaluable shoot-dodge, which has been carried over by Rockstar into Max Payne 3. The voice acting is better, the graphic-novel cut-scenes are better, the guns are better, the deaths are better and faces actually have a handful of expressions. In short, this is everything a sequel should be: a discernable improvement on what came before it. It sets the bar fairly high for Max Payne 3, even factoring in the hardware advances made since 2003. Again, it’s not essential you play it before the third title; but if I had to recommend one of these two older games, it’d be this one.
Sniff around a bit and you’ll find both older Max Payne games for just a couple of quid on last-gen formats; and the Xbox games do play in a 360. I recommend them – look beyond the visuals and they’re a lot of fun… if fun is quite the right word, given how each plays out plot-wise.
Max Payne 3
Played on Xbox 360; also available on PlayStation 3, Windows
Released: May 18, 2012 (UK)
Max’s newest (mis)adventure begins with the same orchestral refrain as the previous games, instantly setting the scene: isolation amid millions, the streets of New York and New Jersey singing their ballads of bloody retribution. But this isn’t America anymore: Max has, several years after the events of the second game, moved on, and is wallowing around an apartment in Sao Paulo. He’s older, but far from wiser, here to work private security for a wealthy family with some shady connections.
Needless to say, before long the familiar frenzied gunplay takes centre stage, Max stumbling from one shoot-out to the next in a state of constant confusion and suffering the effects of ditching his booze dependency.
If Max has gained some additional pounds, it doesn’t show in his agility – Max Payne 3 features the same shoot-dodge ability as 2, and again its use is essential for progress. But it, and Bullet Time, aren’t as necessary as before due to an abundance of cover, turning Max Payne 3 into a real-world realisation of the Gears of War franchise more than once. Unlike the previous games, Max’s pockets have realistic dimensions, too, and he can only ever carry two single-handed firearms and a rifle- or shotgun-styled weapon.
Switching between guns is easy enough, but it doesn’t stop the action as other games can, so it’s worth having your most powerful model to hand when barging through a door into a new scenario of pain. The problem is that, when the game cuts (seamlessly) to a cut-scene as Max moves from area to area, the gun in hand reverts to the smaller option. It’s a slight complaint, but a complaint nonetheless.
Given Rockstar’s reputation for sandbox titles, gamers may come to Max Payne 3 expecting large, open environments to explore. But even during the game’s outside situations – in a graveyard, a maze-like favela, the streets and rooftops of New Jersey during one of a handful of flashbacks – routes are closed off by locked doors and scattered debris. It’s rather like Final Fantasy XIII’s first 20 hours or so: always promising some widescreen vistas but maintaining a close-up for the meantime.
But the difference is that while FFXIII did open up, the Sao Paulo of Max Payne 3 can never be enjoyed in the same way as L.A. Noire’s 1940s Los Angeles, or Grand Theft Auto IV’s Liberty City. There are a few points where rooms can be explored for collectable golden gun parts and essential painkillers; but most of the time the player is funnelled towards each section’s (bloody) conclusion.
But while it’s linear, Max Payne 3 is never boring. Chapters progress quickly, with a twist in the tale never too far away. A particularly violent turn of events around the halfway mark (expect to play the story mode for 10-12 hours – I finished it in four sessions, and I never play for too long at a time) really changes the mood of the plot, Max’s mission changing from pursuit to escape.
The game never shies away from gruesome violence, and happily does away with what appear to be major characters with a Game of Thrones-style nonchalance. The previous Max Paynes were bloody, sure, but never like this, the current-generation power of the 360 and PS3 providing liberal splashes of the red stuff, and some key scenes warrant the game’s 18 certificate like few comparably rated titles do. There’s abundant swearing too – but what the Portuguese-speaking cast are discussing, and how crudely, I couldn’t say.
With the gameplay essentially Max Payne 2 with a few tinkers – the restricted gun capacity; plenty of cover-taking opportunities; a new Last Man Standing set-up where Max can come back from the dead by killing the guy who’s topped him, so long as he’s a painkiller to spare – presentation is paramount. And this is a wonderful-looking game, with awesome draw distances and finely detailed environments to pump bullets into. Cover can be destroyed, and the way Max punches through glass before opening fire, or crumples to the floor after shoot-dodging into a wall, looks incredibly classy. Max Payne 3 pushes its Euphoria engine beyond the beauty of Red Dead Redemption, generating some truly stunning surroundings.
The constant double-exposure cut-scene visuals and lens flare effects – cinematically, think a Traffic-minded Steven Soderbergh at the reins of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire – will be as divisive as James McCaffrey’s reprising of Moody Max’s Monologues, but they do lend the game a distinct identity. Remaining on movie comparisons, there are elements of Heat and Die Hard 2 at work – the latter comes to mind during the final chapter’s airport-set showdown – and at times it’s hard to shake the feeling that the team behind Max Payne 3 would rather be filmmakers than games developers. If adapted for the big screen, there’s no doubt this story would translate well enough to earn a respectable box office.
But it’s nowhere near as game-as-movie as, say, Heavy Rain or Asura’s Wrath, and the action becomes heated enough for even HEALTH’s pounding soundtrack to fade into insignificance at times. Not that the LA band haven’t delivered the goods (anything but; read the interview, below), but their music complements the action well enough for it to become part of a satisfying whole rather than an awkwardly jutting constituent. And when they begin pounding on the drums, you just know things are about to get pretty intense.
Not everything works. The Last Man Standing ability is a great idea, but too often I found myself already dodging behind cover when I was shot, so unable to zero in on the culprit who dispatched the deadly bullet. Some on-rails sections are dramatic enough, but they dissipate the tension of the best stand-offs. And given that so many of his enemies wear body armour, you’d have thought Max might’ve picked up on the idea once an opportunity to loot a fallen foe arose – just as with the previous games, it’s a very limited amount of abuse this Max can soak up. Perhaps if he wore more than John McClane’s dirty vest while on the job…
But, overall, this is a fine product that’s actually benefited from prolonged development time – it was originally scheduled as a 2009 release, but the delay has buffed everything to a fine shine, and Easter-egg-style flashbacks to past games – there’s an episode of Captain BaseBallBat-Boy that can be watched – are a bonus for those who’ve played 1 and 2. Everything feels right, so that when stuff’s going wrong the player instinctively knows that’s precisely how it’s supposed to be going. Max is a failure, a flop cop turned a shabby security guy, and when events get away from his control with gory results it’s simply a perverse serendipity in action. It’s not a generation-defining title like some of Rockstar’s best; but one suspects they’d admit the same, knowing they’ve turned out a blockbuster game that ticks all the boxes it needs to without overstaying its welcome.
Come the end, there’s a semblance of finality to Max’s story. Loose ends have been tied, and the ties that led him so close to destruction so many times have been severed. If there isn’t another Max Payne-starring game in the future, it’s because he may have finally retired. His peace has been well earned.
A quick note on multi-player, which I’ve not got to: Rockstar, undoubtedly aware of the short story mode (which does offer some replay value via arcade-style time-attacks and the acquisition of collectables), have rolled out a variety of online options. There’s Team Deathmatch, Gang Wars, something called Payne Killer which blends cooperative and competitive play (says the manual), and more. From the menu screen, and online footage, it looks as if these modes are far from the tacked-on extras of, say, BioShock 2 or Dead Space 2. And with this game having charted at number one in the UK already, there are sure to plenty of new friends to offload a few rounds at.
Interview: HEALTH’s John Famiglietti on creating the soundtrack to Max Payne 3
To those wondering if HEALTH doing this soundtrack is a big deal, the simple answer is yes. And it’s yes because they’re not a widely known act, making their involvement here, on a triple-A videogame release, akin to Michael Bay inviting Xiu Xiu to score his next Transformers movie. These two worlds were so far apart before, save for occasional dalliances (Amon Tobin on Infamous, Nitin Sawhney on Enslaved: Odyssey to the West); but now you sense that an Electronic Arts, or a Rocksteady Studios, or a Valve, could approach Your Own Favourite Band and they could come up with a startling soundtrack. HEALTH’s score isn’t going to set the soundtrack scene alight, but it’s a highly effective treatment that complements the action exceedingly well (Pitchfork’s 7.0 feels correct, though, as shorn of game context some of the music makes little impression). And their new song ‘proper’, ‘Tears’, is typically tremendous.
But HEALTH are far from unknowns here on DiS. Indeed, this site was one of the first places they were covered in earnest, when their eponymous debut album was reviewed positively in September 2007. They’ve been DiS favourites ever since (certainly with writers who’ve been around a few years, ahem), so when we found out that Rockstar had asked the LA-based four-piece to score Max Payne 3, arses slipped from seats and jaws struck carpet. Quick as a flash an email was sent to Rockstar HQ asking for a chat; and, sure enough, answers were soon procured from the band’s bassist, John Famiglietti.
What came first: the game or the songs? Were some of these cuts already floating around the band’s collective consciousness ahead of the Max Payne 3 commission, or did you start from scratch once signed on the line?
The game came first. There were a handful of ideas that were in the scrapbook that we pulled out for the game, but mostly everything was made to fit the game, its gameplay and the story.
Did you have any hands-on time with the game ahead of completing your score, to get a real feel for the pace and action of the title, or did you work from Rockstar’s prompts as to how the game would play out?
We did most of the composing to video captures of someone playing through the levels; but later in the process we went to Rockstar's New York offices and played through the whole game. That enabled us to hear the scripting of the music and how it feels to hear it when the shooting is distracting you. It’s a great game.
Clint Mansell – behind scores for Black Swan and The Wrestler – recently worked on music for Mass Effect 3. Of the process he said it was more like being a DJ, controlling myriad elements of music that can jump in dynamically, rather than crafting a record ‘proper’. Is this something you found to be the case?
Well, it’s definitely nothing like crafting a record ‘proper’. The way the process went for us is we'd make six ‘stems’ or bits of music that could be used alone or combined in different ways to cover all the different events in a level, and they would always have to have a way to go up or down in intensity depending on the action taking place on the screen. If it suddenly goes from tense and quiet to a full-on firefight with a bunch of bad guys, you want the score to be able to reflect that completely naturally without jarring the player out of the game.
Are there any scores/soundtracks you have looked to for inspiration on this project – perhaps from comparable cinema releases?
The great thing about working with R* is they really wanted us to be us, to do our thing, so we mostly were trying to make a score version of HEALTH that fitted with the gameplay and world of the game. We wanted to be true to the Max Payne series though, and have our music make sense in the narrative; so we found a lot of ways to reference the first two Max Payne soundtracks in our score, which we did often. Also, for a few levels we intentionally took inspiration from other music (something we usually don't let ourselves do in our own music), and that was Giorgio Moroder's Midnight Express score, Brian Eno, and The Durutti Column (although that particular piece didn't actually end up making the game).
Do you think your involvement in Max Payne 3 is likely to encourage people amongst your fanbase, who’ve not picked up a control pad since their teens, to get back into gaming?
I’m really not sure how many of our fans play videogames, but it’s pretty hard to find someone who hasn’t played videogames at some point. I'd be honoured and excited if someone got back in to check out the score, it’s really the way it was meant to be listened to.
Who in the band is the keenest gamer, and what stands out as the pivotal game in their life? Do you take handhelds, etc, out with you on the road? Who is the Tetris KING? (Look at me, living in the past…)
That would be me – the other guys haven't got the hang of the dual analog sticks yet, but they're buying PS3s to play Max Payne 3. I grew up with videogames and I'm not sure if I could choose one game over all others. I don't own a handheld, but the Vita is looking pretty tempting for long drives... Jake (our singer) is the Tetris king, that and the original Mario games are the only videogames he feels comfortable playing.
Random top five of the month: Max Payne quotes
Love or loathe his po-faced quips, there’s no doubt that Max’s stream of consciousness is a key characteristic of this gaming franchise. So, just for shits and giggles, here’s five of the ‘best’ dredged from across the three games.
“Fraternizing with the enemy. I had stepped over the edge. The cartoon moment when the gravity waits for the coyote to realize his mistake before the plunge.” (Max Payne 2)
“I walked straight in, playing it Bogart, like I'd done a hundred times before.” (Max Payne)
“After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil out to right a grave injustice. Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it's happening to you.” (Max Payne)
“I wouldn't know right from wrong if one of them was helping the poor and the other was banging my sister.” (Max Payne 3)
“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.” (Max Payne 2)
Next time on Savage Pixels: Lone Wolf picks his Fantastic Five, I scan through some FMV games to see if they were all as terrible as memory suggests (hello, Mega-CD; goodbye, gameplay worth a dollar), and Dirt: Showdown gets reviewed. And the column after that, it’s all about RPGs, looking at new releases Dragon’s Dogma and Game of Thrones as well as some genre essentials that you, mister or missus adventurer, really should have played by now. Toodle-pip!
HEALTH photograph by Renata Raksha