Hong Kong cinema blood spurts. That’s what it all comes down to. All this technology and setting (gloriously riffing off Man On Fire) and accomplished storytelling, and it’s the theatrical blood spurts that bring it home. Max Payne 3 is a Hong Kong action tragedy, a John Woo piece made interactive.
It is as well written and plausible as a game with a bodycount this high can be. Set mostly in Brazil (with flashbacks in New York), Max Payne wades through hundreds of goons, shooting his way through cemeteries, slums, airports and police offices, a white man lost in a strange world, stumbling through, munching painkillers and gulping booze whenver he’s not pulling a trigger or staring at a mirror, contemplating whether things can go any worse. The script plays this all the way, commendably so, reaching almost but not quite Kane & Lynch levels of tragedy.
However, there’s a fundamental issue with the story and thus the whole experience – I just can’t bring myself to care about any of the supposedly important characters, aside from Max. When there’s a pivotal reveal and confrontation, I just don’t give a shit. It doesn’t move me one bit, and I’m a sucker for appealing to my emotions. The only conflict that works is Max’s relationship to alcohol, and they almost make that carry the whole game. It’s just not quite enough, erring on the side of window dressing when it should be core.
A large part of that distancing myself from the game’s emotional attempts is the fact that it’s really bloody hard. I am decent in this sort of game and completely expected to want to play through again on a harder difficulty level, but as it is, I really (really) struggled to complete it. There were scenes I had to replay dozens of times just to get through. I applaud the decision to make it challenging, but it proves counter-productive to what the game is trying to do elsewhere.
Shooting takes place over too great ranges – aiming with a pad is tricky and just not satisfying when you can’t properly see what you’re hitting, your cursor obscuring what’s going on, because the target is so far away. Most of the time the only way to fight is to take cover, pop-up by taking advantage of the generous auto-aim at the target nearest to center of the screen, squeeze off one shot, and take cover again, not manually aiming at all. It feels like running on automation. Close quarters, shoot-dodging all the way, it’s very good and satisfying. It feels like the game was developed with a mouse in hand, not a controller.
Avatar changing throughout a game’s arc is not used enough. Batman getting all used up during the course of Arkham Asylum was great. Here we get to see and play as Max in various points of his story, never managing to get off his rollercoaster. He goes from bad to worse, and they use his wardrobe and hair to tell a story. There’s a gravity to his descent that the wardrobe, hair and makeup departments convey very effectively.
In the end, though, it’s just too long. I would’ve been ready to pack it in at the halfway mark, as much as I enjoyed it. John Woo knows when to send in another wave of bad guys, and when to let the doves fly, the tears fall, the blood to pool, and the story come to a close. This is the best imitation of a John Woo tragedy we’ve seen in videogames, but it’s still not good enough.