Games

Forget Your Grand Theft Autos: This Is Why ‘Max Payne 3’ Is Rockstar’s Best-Ever Game

The small details in Rockstar's 2012 shooter add up to make it the studio's most impressively visceral title to date.

by Ed Smith
Apr 5 2016, 6:46pm

The story of 2012's Max Payne 3, at the best of times, is convoluted. In places, however, it's notably subversive. Max, our ostensible hero (or at least anti-hero), starts every mission with a clear objective: deliver the money, kill the police chief, rescue the girl. But on virtually every occasion, he fails.

In mission two, Fabiana is kidnapped. In mission three, the bad guys make off with the cash. In mission five, the kidnappers escape. In mission six, Rodrigo is killed. And on, and on, and on. The men in video games—especially the big, rugged men with guns—usually get the job done. They are unambiguously capable, returning heroes who always save the day. Max tries to be one of these men, but invariably he screws it up.

Unlike a lot of Rockstar's other "flawed" protagonists, all of who are at least partway successful—like the GTA series's Trevor Phillips and Niko Bellic, and Manhunt's James Earl Cash—Max is a failure. His consistent inability to do what video games have led us all to believe men can and should do finely undercuts the typical power fantasy narrative—a hard talking, ultra-violent, muscle bound man on the outside, Max, in practice, is a tragic incompetent.

Nevertheless, he's very well turned out. The disciplines of costume and character design, in video games, have become synonymous with ostentatiousness and flamboyance—rather than the grungy perfection of Kane and Lynch's thrown-together ensembles, or Cole Phelps's immaculate pinstripes, hairstyles, wearable gadgets, and distinctive monsters, often from fantasy and sci-fi games, are what enthusiasts fawn over. But you need to pay attention to Max's wardrobe.

In the mission at Rodrigo's office, he wears a crinkled, linen suit. At the stadium, he's in a loose-fitting shirt. These are tiny details, but they lend each mission ambience, a kind of mood. Looking at that tired, gray two-piece, you really get the sense that Max has just thrown it on, that he's hungover, dazed, and worn out even before the shooting starts. The shirt that clings to his back at the soccer field and the sweat dripping from his forehead in mission five make both those environments feel sticky and close.

Max Payne 3's gunfights, too, are claustrophobic and tense—the impression of hot weather and not being able to cool off and get a clear breath makes them more so. And smell, after all, is the most evocative sense. As you heave Max around a condemned hotel building, his vest stained brown from perspiration, you can really smell the world of Max Payne 3.

Details like these make me feel that, contrary to reputation, Rockstar is best at short, linear games. Manhunt is fantastic, so is The Warriors, and Max Payne 3, certainly, is for my money the best game the studio has made. Considering it's built its name from open-world and crime games, two genres that by definition betoken free rein and anarchy, it must be difficult for Rockstar to justify the production of something more structured.

Perhaps that's why, compared to its other big games, Max Payne 3 was a low-seller, shifting 4 million copies, a figure that just about covered development costs. (Red Dead Redemption, in comparison, has sold more than 14 million copies, and Grand Theft Auto V over 60 million.) But I wish the company would belie its audience's expectation more often. When Rockstar constructs sequences intricately, rather than letting players dictate the action, the results are often electric.

Three things stand out about Max Payne 3's gunfights. First, they're always properly defined. You know from where the enemy is attacking, you comprehend the area you're supposed to "defend," and you get a clear sense of what's around you—positioning the camera slightly at an angle, looking down at Max's shoulders, opens up the environments, and shows where you can run and where you can take cover.

In an open-world, the stakes and "set" for a shootout are harder to quantify—the nature of the games makes everything baggy and unevenly paced. Max Payne 3 doesn't just carry you through one distinct, vibrant setting to the next—it does so deliberately. They're taking her to the roof. There's a sniper in the tower. They're heading for the runway. Rockstar excels at these simple, concrete action set-ups. The studio's been practicing them ever since it dropped you into a parking lot with three enemies and nothing but a plastic bag in Manhunt.

Second, the game's gunplay is wonderfully scored. Given that Max Payne 3 boasts perhaps the greatest original soundtrack in popular gaming, it's difficult, at this point, to keep from devolving into useless sycophancy—Los Angeles noise rock group HEALTH has yet to cut a better album than its score for Max Payne 3. (Though VICE Gaming's editor might disagree, and does.) In an effort to keep things measured, rather than describe the music, the video below illustrates one of its strongest uses. (Spoilers, obviously.)

'Max Payne 3,' final boss fight and ending

So many shooters—possibly self-conscious about heightening their players' enthusiasm for on-screen violence, or possibly just boring, are scored by either generic orchestral droning or nothing at all. Rockstar, expertly and proudly uses tracks like "TEARS" and "MAX: FINALE" to egg players on. Max is washed up and exhausted, but he's very determined. When the soundtrack dips, in between gunfights, we feel his lethargy. When the bullets start flying and the tribal drums swell, we want to get stuck in and win the fight.

If Portal 2's soundtrack, which grows increasingly complex with each piece of a puzzle that is slotted into place, reflects the gradual process of finding a solution, Max Payne 3's music appeals similarly to the players' emotions. Ebbing and flowing at just the right times, it's another example of how Rockstar works better within close structure.

Finally, Max Payne 3's shootouts physically play in a way that reflects your character. Violence in games is often a kind of story intermission, something for only the player to do, which is never discussed, formally, by the characters. The player's murders exist outside the narrative. When John Marston rides into town in Rockstar's celebrated Western Red Dead Redemption, nobody talks about the hundreds—literally hundreds—of people he's killed: They ask only about his (narratively vital) hunt for Bill Williamson.

Max, however, in the players' hands is the same Max as in the story. Ducking behind cover, playing it cautious will often get you killed in Max Payne 3's gunfights—a more effective method is to dash onto open ground, hit the slow-motion Bullet Time mode, and charge your enemies, suicidally. Given how often Max talks about having "nothing to lose" and acknowledges his depression, his loneliness, his listlessness, the fact that playing like somebody who actively wants to die, or at least doesn't much care about life, is the most rewarded approach, feels appropriate. Like the sly undermining of the male power fantasy, it's subtle but lends Max Payne 3 a consistency rarely found in shooting games, and practically never found in Rockstar's open-world efforts.

I've criticized Rockstar in the past for what I see to be poor writing, but perhaps it's more a matter of genre. With Max Payne 3, its strongest game, Rockstar shows that on linear, more restrictive projects, it truly thrives.

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