Feel the Payne

So this afternoon saw me finish the third Max Payne game, the startlingly originally-titled Max Payne 3. Despite my being hamstrung by some weird sinus/skull thing, I really enjoyed the ending; Rockstar (who most non-gamers would probably know as the publishers of the Grand Theft Auto series) took the cinematic roots of the series, whacked it full of booze and sent it on holiday to Brazil.

The game has flaws, of course. Most notably, my PSN version had a tendency early on to crash to black, the second time taking my game progress with it – a real problem when you’re a third of the way through and have to go back to the start – and there’s a real sense of being on rails for some of the gameplay. But I enjoyed the callbacks the game made to the original – music, flashbacks, writing and voice-acting – as it reminded me of the feeling of discovery I had when I played the first in the series.

The original Max Payne was one of the first games I played (after Red Faction and the original Half-Life) on my PlayStation 2. Though the resolution and chunkiness is pretty laughable these days, I loved it; it was hard-boiled lit – all drugs and death and references to Ragnarök – brought to life.

Also, we had the same hairdo.

It was also the first game to use the bullet-time mechanic as popularised by The Matrix. So to me it seemed super-modern and darkly cinematic. (So much so that a terrible movie – from all accounts – has been made of the thing.) It’s stayed one of my favourites, even though it is pretty hokey in parts.

The first sequel wasn’t so good; it seemed a pumped-out excuse. When the games became cheaply available on PC, it was the one I skipped. I found myself returning to the first a couple of times after I first played it.

Where the gameplay in the games tends towards too much hide-and-shoot stuff, there was always enough to keep me pushing forward through the crappy parts – something I suppose is common to all three. Whether it’s Tom Waits references, intense self-loathing (and admittedly fist-pump-inducing karmic violence) or the fact that some scenes took place in some kind of blood-trail, find-your-child nightmare dreamworld, there was enough quirk to make the player want to see the finale.

Is it smart? Not incredibly. But the series does appear to be reasonably self-aware. There’s a lot of stock characters, but it’s all assembled with a lot more love than seems evident in multi-sequel lines such as Call of Duty.

Back to the third. I appreciated Rockstar’s zazzing of the game. There’s some rather hyperactive editing, and screen distortion and lots of highlighting of words as they’re spoken; a little like a hyperactive magazine layout. But there’s certainly the feeling a lot of work has gone into making it. The self-loathing is real, and the rage is less cartoonish than I remembered from the earlier games, and there is the distinct feeling of being the outsider in Brazil: locals’ language is untranslated, and it emphasises how much of a dumb gringo you really are. Settings are detailed, and the trips through the favela areas are pretty confronting. Of course, this sort of thing does verge on trafficking in cultural cliche and could well feel like cultural tourism – but it’s handled pretty well.

The game seems a little long, but it’s shiny enough and doesn’t quite overstay its welcome. Most importantly, the story has the right noir feeling of weight – of an approaching, immovable end. You know it’ll be bad. Perhaps not for you, but certainly for every other jerk in your way. There’s a pleasing heft to the tale, and when it finally unfolds it feels just right, with enough humour to ensure satisfaction rather than depression.

It’s cheesy and classy, and exactly the sequel the original deserved. Now I wonder if I should give the movie a go…

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