Max Payne returns after a nine-year hiatus in Max Payne 3, but those hoping Rockstar Games was going to bestow the grizzled hero with an open-world crime saga will be sorely disappointed. A doggedly linear affair without much in the way of variety or complexity, Payne’s latest outing replaces its predecessors’ urban noir affectations for more generic crime-film stylings, situating Payne—who, still grieving over his dead wife and kid, is now working as a hired gun and bodyguard—in São Paulo, and embellishing his tale with so many schizoid split-screens, scan-line effects, and unnecessary dialogue subtitles that the proceedings feel like they were directed by a second-rate Tony Scott. The writing, fortunately, exceeds the aesthetics, with Payne’s typically overwrought narration marked by slightly less self-seriousness and more clever humor than before, though he remains the same old cliché, boozing and shooting and striking flawed poses while performing superhuman feats against hordes of anonymous gunmen. The difference this time around, however, is that those user-controlled skirmishes are accompanied by cutscenes of such immense length that, despite the polish of these scripted segments, there’s little momentum to Max Payne 3, which herks and jerks along with taxing irregularity.
Having to sit through innumerable non-interactive sequences would be slightly more tolerable if the basic time-hopping narrative weren’t the usual grab bag of genre clichés, and if the action itself weren’t so one-dimensional. Rockstar gives Max’s adventure a gorgeously textured sheen, but despite the surface variety offered by various scenarios (such as incidents involving Max wielding a sniper rifle to protect a comrade from incoming enemies), the basic mechanics involve little more than taking—and firing from behind—cover, and/or using Max’s trademark Matrix-style “bullet time” powers to slow down time so as to better dispatch adversaries. The difference between wielding pistols, machine guns, or shotguns is minor, and though there are certainly many moments in which success depends on skillful timing and aiming, there’s also an on-the-rails quality to Max Payne 3 that’s disappointing in and of itself, and even more so given Rockstar’s recent Red Dead Redemption, which provided gamers with the ability to actually explore—and feel like a living, breathing part of—an iconic genre milieu. In Max Payne 3, by contrast, you’re just a morose, tough-talking type blasting your way through superficially different, yet in truth largely identical, environments, with slowed-down depictions of your kill shots providing some unnecessary ultra-violence for good measure.
If the game is never quite dull throughout its 10-plus-hour main campaign, it’s still too formulaic and unadventurous to truly distinguish itself from the pack. That goes for most of its online modes as well, including Payne Killer (which has you slay hordes of online opponents) and Team Deathmatch. The multiplayer “Gang Wars” comes closer to being an innovative blast: Split into five rounds, it provides tactical missions that vary depending on your success or failure at prior tasks, in the process providing an actual plot and, by extension, a continuity of experience that’s rare to the usual kill-’em-all online arena. Regardless of the customization options at your disposal, “Gang Wars” can get a bit tedious, largely because its tales are far too thinly sketched. Yet even a passing attempt at actual storylines feels fresh, and the more open-ended possibilities afforded by these scenarios is a welcome relief in comparison to the primary game—and offers a vision of the more uninhibited and extensive possibilities that Max Payne 3’s overriding go-forward-and-slaughter-everything structure ignores.