By Darren Franich
Updated May 18, 2012 at 11:00 PM EDT

Max Payne 3

  • Video Games

In Max Payne 1, Max was a renegade cop with a constipated scowl and a Matrix trench coat. Looking back, he screams early ’00s as sure as Sonic the Hedgehog screams early ’90s. But the new Max is an action hero in decline. He’s fat. He wears dad khakis. He doesn’t shave. The first time we see him, he’s in a lonely apartment, drinking fifths of whiskey, chain smoking, and passing out on a bed without sheets. He’s a wreck.

The animators and motion-capture actors have given him a cautious gait, like he’s worried about throwing his back out. (We’re miles away from Nathan Drake’s jaunty Errol Flynn strut.) James McCaffrey once again voices Max, but this time around he also plays Max via motion performance. I recently saw McCaffrey as a shady lawyer on Revenge who wasamused by his own world weariness, and that peculiar blend comes through in his performance here. And McCaffrey’s voice is still just right: gruff but powerless, like an old drunk who has to beg the kids to get off his lawn.

But Max never stops talking. The bullet-time gameplay is a thrilling rebuke to the modern vogue for duck-and-cover shooter strategy, and the soundtrack by HEALTH is invigorating and idiosyncratic, yet the dialogue drags it all down.

Max Payne 3 features some of the worst dialogue of any videogame I’ve played in years. Most videogames have bad dialogue, because most videogame dialogue is purely functional, and (I assume) because good writers are expensive. But Max Payne 3 focuses on the script. That means Max narrates everything. Whenever you clear a room of bad guys, Max offers his thoughts on the situation. Here are some of Max’s chestnuts:

“He was smoother than an oil slick on an iceberg…and twice as toxic.”

“This place is like Baghdad…with G-strings.”

“These bastards make the NYPD…look like the Hare Krishnas.”

“While I’d been dead to the world, some of my shipmates…were just plain dead.”

The intention is Sam Spade. The result is much closer to Tracer Bullet, the tough-talking detective from Calvin’s daydreams in Calvin & Hobbes. Except that Tracer Bullet was funny on purpose. There’s a moment in the middle of the game when a mobster holding Max hostage screams, “You killed my son!!!” Max’s response is so businesslike that we could be watching an SNL skit: “Listen… I’m sorry.”

You might argue it’s unfair to focus on dialogue in a game. But dialogue is all over this game. It’s a central part of the Max Payne 3 single-player experience. And it doesn’t have to be. Max Payne 3 has an incredible sense of atmosphere. There are rooftop battles above neon cities at midnight, and a ramshackle favela that feels like a shanty town metropolis. There’s a Collateral-esque nightclub shootout, and Max occasionally wears the same gray suit that every Michael Mann hero wears. (Between this, Drive, and the last couple of Christopher Nolan spectaculars, we’re living through a boomlet for Michael Mann-influenced product.) The difference is that Mann is a visual storyteller, always willing to let cool colors and a killer soundtrack tell a story. For whatever reason, the makers of Max Payne 3 feel the need to over-explain. Or worse, they think the dialogue is good.

NEXT PAGE: What is Rockstar?

Bad dialogue was a problem with the earlier Max Paynes too. But those early games had genuine heart, which is easy to overlook when our hindsight is distracted by hokey graphics and load times. Developed by Remedy Entertainment, Max Payne 1 put you in the shoes of a cop who still hadn’t recovered from the brutal murder of his wife and child. The game unfolded in what felt like realtime. Stylewise, it was composed out of a weirdo cocktail of Hong Kong urban action and outright horror, with a dollop of Norse mythology thrown in — the high point being a visit to a Satanic nightclub called Ragna Rock. It had the awkward authenticity of a nightmare. It wasn’t like any other videogame on the market.

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne didn’t radically alter the game play. It tried something more radical, for the time: To craft something like a genuine romance. The subtitle for the sequel was “A Film Noir Love Story.” Try to imagine that phrase sitting on a shelf next to other videogames in 2003. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Payne 2 was not financially successful, which has to be at least part of the reason the series was dry-docked for so long.

Remedy has nothing to do with Max Payne 3. The game is a full-on Rockstar Games joint — co-written by co-founder Dan Houser, developed by Rockstar Vancouver. Rockstar deserves a lot of credit for relentless technical innovation, vivid game worlds, and a focus on pushing the boundaries of videogame storytelling.

But for me, the best thing about Rockstar is also the thing that’s difficult to define. To get really vague for a second, the company has the remarkable ability to construct pure pop moments. Their best games constantly throw you into situations suffused with joy and verve and pop culture energy. Like a Quentin Tarantino movie, or an episode of Community, or an album by Kanye West, Rockstar assembles recognizable pop tropes and reconstitutes them into something at once recognizable and wholly original. Ten years ago, the best comment you could give a game was to say that it made you feel like you were starring in a movie. With Rockstar, it’s like you’re at the most mindblowing concert in the world, and you aren’t just watching it happen, you are the person onstage, and the world is adjusting to you.

Max Payne 3 is the least ambitious game Rockstar has put out in years. It doesn’t have the bruised heart of the earlier Max Paynes — nor, for that matter, the mature characterization of Red Dead Redemption. At times, it almost feels dangerously like the videogame version of Live Free or Die Hard, another long-in-the-making sequel which Flanderized an everyguy action hero into an airplane-exploding superbeing. At other times, it feels like a bit of throat-clearing by a creative team that just wanted to do something fun for once.

But Max Payne 3 is filled with scattered Kanye West moments — sequences designed to wow you. The game’s mechanics are very different from the typical shooter. You can hide behind things, but you’re generally encouraged to run into the fray, leap forward into slow-motion, and then carefully pick out your targets. If you’re like me, you’ll die pretty often, but that’s part of the fun. You learn how different enemies move, and the whole thing slowly becomes a bullet ballet.

And because the whole nature of the bullet-time gameplay potentially stretches every moment into infinity, you’ll constantly find yourself staring at a gore-splattered image that resembles a Jackson Pollock painting brought to life by H.R. Giger. See here:

As near as I can figure it, I managed to shoot that dude in the head from four different angles. (I reloaded in midair.)

Max Payne 3 is, in the end, one of the most enjoyable and most frustrating games you’re likely to play this year. It’s gorgeously designed and terribly written. At a moment when most shooters fart out a crappy single-player storyline with B-list celebrity voices while waiting for those hot-hot DLC multiplayer bucks to roll in, Max Payne 3 is focused on crafting a genuine single-player experience. And it’s also a weird step back, or at least sideways, for a company that has always seemed at the forefront of the narrative experience in videogames.

It’s a successful exercise in pure swagger. But when you play it, there will be moments when you look at the character at the center of it all — Max Payne, bald and bloody and alcoholic — and you wonder when Rockstar will make a game that feels as despairing and bleak and hopeless as Max Payne looks. Max Payne 3 represents the limits of awesomeness: Lots of fun, eerily heartless.

Grade: B

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Max Payne 3

  • Video Games