After nearly a decade, sharpshooting drunkard Max Payne returns with a proven developer and a questionable haircut in Rockstar’s Max Payne 3. Much has changed in the gaming landscape since Max walked the streets of New York, but while the stylized third-person shooter has dropped one or two series mainstays in its new form, it hasn’t forgotten the precision control and stark realism that made the original games great, sacrificing little for a modern, competent resurrection of the franchise.

Max Payne 3 finds Max where one usually finds Max: eyes down at the floor of a bar with a drink in his hand and ten more in his stomach. He’s recently arrived in São Paulo, Brazil at the behest of an old academy classmate, Raul Passos, who’s been busy running security for a family of politically-connected fat cats. Passos has promised Max nothing but free booze and watching rich people make fools of themselves from the safety of a bar stool, but things, as they often do for Max, don’t go quite as planned. Soon, Max finds himself in a complicated war of rival South American gangs and political factions, and it’s not long before he’s back to his old, gun-slinging tricks.

With few exceptions, São Paulo feels refreshingly animate, more a living city than a stitched together series of boxy interior maps so common to the genre. Its denizens continually carry on about their lives without you, sometimes reacting to your ridiculously out-of-place nationality and wardrobe, sometimes ignoring you completely. The game’s primary cast is equally convincing; good guys respond rashly when confronted with difficult situations, responding illogically or frightened when fitting, while the villains, though somewhat light on personality, are believably unpredictable.

Still, while the setting is immersive, Max Payne 3‘s delivery mechanism is flawed. Series veterans will be first to notice the removal of the games’ signature graphic-novel-style cutscenes, replaced in this third installment by a slight twist on standard-fare cinematics. While the action now continues fluidly without breaking format, Rockstar attempted to keep the story sections unique by adding frantically-paced transitions; strange blurring, interlacing, and color effects; as well as double, if not triple vision. At first, the effect is novel, serving to place you within Max’s drunken, pained mental state. The style, however, soon wears its welcome thin by overuse. The screen will go strange at least once nearly every time you aren’t in direct control, creating a consistently distracting, and sometimes nauseating result.

Compounding that problem is the ratio of these tortured cinematics to actual gameplay, which, especially toward the beginning of the game, is severely imbalanced in favor of narrative sections. To its credit, Max Payne 3 does a tremendous job of tucking away loathsome loading screens behind what are, mostly, engaging story segments, but the final package still suffers. The tale of deceit and intrigue these cinematics tell never feels dull, but certainly isn’t complex or engaging enough to warrant the raw time it’s given in highlight.

Perhaps the reason those lengthy cutscenes seem to sting is because the gameplay itself is so engaging. The mechanics are precision-tuned and, with the minor exception of an infrequent camera malfunction, feel just as sharp and responsive as you’d expect from a game carrying Max’s name on the cover.

Max Payne’s trademark time-bending bullet time mechanic is back, once again single-handedly transforming the gameplay from a typical shooter to that transcendent experience unique to the series. As you absorb and dish out damage, a long, white meter fills near your health-bar, which can then be emptied on command to place the world, and the bullets, around you into immediate slow-motion. This ability can be activated anytime you have enough juice to do it, adding a layer of strategy to most fights that’s as crucial to your survival as it is entertaining. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll find yourself using it just as often for getting out of a hairy situation as you do for simply making a fight look cooler. After all, even if you didn’t need to, there’s really nothing like leaping backward over a second-story banister, one-shotting eight thugs on the way down, then watching their bodies crumple in unison as your back collides with the floor and time returns to normal.

There’s even a newly-added cinematic version of bullet time that activates when you’ve downed the last enemy in a room. Keeping with the spirit of the game, these sequences exist for no other reason than to feed you pure eye-candy between fights. As you watch the path of your terminal bullet travel into the body of a goon across the room, you can manually adjust the speed of the scene to a standstill, watching a fountain of blood splatter from the wound you’ve just torn open. And if you’re feeling really sadistic, you can even waste additional ammo to pump in more shots, creating even more of a violent mess than you’d already made.

This beautifully designed combination of tight gunplay with Max’s signature bullet time mechanic creates a razor-sharp, gory gunfest that leaves you appreciating nearly every fight long after it’s finished, and it’s that same excellence that makes inconsistencies within the game’s narrative package so frustrating. That being said, Max Payne 3 is a joy to play, succeeding far more than it fails. The frenzied, balletic combat segments it offers are almost universally worth the wait to get there.

Bottom Line: Brilliant gunplay, and a classic character make for an exhilarating experience, but much of the narrative style distracts more than aids the final package.

Recommendation: Whether you’re a fan of the original, or a complete newcomer, Max Payne 3 is an extremely worthwhile experience. Just be sure to have some popcorn on hand for the frequent downtime.

[rating=4]

The review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Max Payne 3
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Platform(s): PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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