I watched a film recently, which isn’t a thing I make a habit of. It was called Man on Fire and it was about a washed up drunk former soldier working as a bodyguard for a wealthy 11-year-old girl in Mexico, and completely fucking it up. It was a decent enough yarn, and minimally engaging on an emotional level. Apparently it was based on, or inspired by, or vaguely resembled a true story, which gave it an extra little kick. Nothing special, but it passed the time.
It made me wonder, though: If you’re going to rip off the premise of a film for a computer game, why not just rip off the plot as well?
Max Payne 3 represents the rebirth of a series which many computer gamers would consider ‘old skool’, but they’re idiots and children. It’s a third person shooting game about killing thousands of people in a balletic and nonchalant manner; and it’s responsible for the explosion of tired bullet-time mechanics in every computer game released since 2000.
For all its imitators, Max Payne’s recipe has never quite been replicated, so it’s with happiness I can report that Rockstar have managed to bring the series into the 2010s without losing its particular essence. Max is a bit older and balder and more grizzled and less well-written, but when you command him to fling himself headlong at a gun-wielding (dark-skinned and poor) maniac, he not only does so, but he flashes you his hairy, brown, puckered arsehole in slow-mo as he goes, saying ‘you like this don’t you? Pervert.’
Which is to say that the game feels Max Payne-y. It is also pornographically violent. What we’re offered is a combination of the acrobatic gunplay inimical to the series, and the sense of real weight and impact seemingly only found in the latest generation of Rockstar computer games for children. Bullets strike in furious explosions of gore, and the crazy old physics engine sends bodies spiralling to the mat. Slow motion is deployed to graphic effect, allowing you to ponder in detail the fountain of bloody chunks spunking out of your recently-vanquished foe’s now-hollow eyesocket.
You can even continue to pump rounds into an obviously already dead enemy and watch him twitch about in slow-mo agonised death throes; and thus begin a serious investigation into where your life has ended up, because you’re somehow unable to resist the lure of this extra bit of virtual bloodshed.
Unfortunately this weightiness can sometimes stumble into clunkiness, and Rockstar games’ typical problem of trying to wrangle a recalcitrant bloke into a bit of cover, or running around in confused circles trying to get through a tight gap while being plinked to utter bits, is fully present and correct. You’ll likely retry a few levels due to no fault of your own, but aside from loading times (covered by largely unskippable cutscenes which quickly become grating; frankly, i’d prefer a loading screen), it’s never really a chore. And when you do pull off a perfect chain of exploding skulls, frozen in time, there’s a sense of satisfaction to be had.
The levels mostly feel like realistic places that could potentially exist, and each sets up interesting circumstances for Max to engage his foes from. Be it narrow rickety quays that limit your ability to shootdodge, or arenas that force you to beat feet to avoid getting flanked or grenaded. And the levels get completely fucked up by the one-man war Max is waging, as windows shatter and cars explode. They’re all linear, and each contains one or more cool set-piece moments where Max flings himself heroically off a roof or through a window or something, giving you a fixed amount of slow-mo to waste every fucker you can see before you land. It’s a lot of fun.
Naturally, the plot is bollocks. It all makes a kind of sense, but it’s still bollocks. It seems to be a concession to topicality, taking kidnapping and organ harvesting for its plot drivers. But as noted above, it’s hard to understand why Rockstar didn’t steal more than just one idea from Man on Fire. Nobody would have blamed them.
Max Payne 3 is a game about a washed up drunk former cop working as a bodyguard for a wealthy family in Brazil, and completely fucking it up. Max, you see, is a haunted man, his life in ruins at the hands of demons he unknowingly unleashed upon himself. The only way Rockstar can think of to portray this is to show Max stumbling about his crummy apartment, doing nothing but washing down pills with belts of whiskey, to a soundtrack of TV static. As if anyone lives like that, then gets up to do lots of highly-efficient murder against dozens of superior foes the next day. It’s a lazy cliché at best, but I could have lived with it had they not missed the golden opportunity that was before them on a plate.
As the game stands, it’s populated with unsympathetic characters straight out of Grand Theft Auto, and it’s hard to see any personal reason for the bleak and cynical Max to give much of a shit about his charges, who he doesn’t even seem to like very much. We’re told he’s completely numbed by his addictions and his pain so it’s hard to grasp why he gets so heavily and murderously involved in the sick underworld of late-capitalist Brazil.
The reason Max is such a fuck up is due to the death of his wife and baby daughter at the hands of drug-crazed gangsters years prior; a pulpy and simplistic character motivation that perfectly meshes with the bodies-hit-da-flo action. Imagine, then, if instead of protecting trust-fund babies while they party and do cocaine, Max had been charged to guard the body of a young girl about the age his daughter would have been, had she lived. And then he fucked it up. That drug-addled asshole would probably forget who she was half the time anyway. It could lead to some cool ideas, and Max’s frustration as he struggles to put right what had gone wrong would be all the more engaging for it. We could have spent less time watching Max smoke tabs and puke into his sink and more time learning about who he is.
There’s always been an element of the psychological in Max Payne, firting with notions of paranoia and mental breakdown. What a way to probe the wounded psyche of a man who has nothing left to care about but the wreckage of his torched past. If they could have pulled off the ‘adorable little girl’ cliché, and made us care about this hypothetical kid even a fraction as much as Max would, we might have had something with a bit of an emotional punch, as well as good gameplay.
Sadly it was not to be, and plot is largely irrelevant to computer games in any case, but it would have made a big difference. It’s still worth playing, and hideous workplace abuses aside, Rockstar still make good computer games.
*flies backwards out of this review at 30 per cent speed, firing at you with bullets*