Spoilers for Max Payne 1, 2 and 3 within, as well as Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2.
…ah, non-sequitor titles.
So, I finally finished Max Payne 3 last weekend. Before its released, I was really excited for it, honestly, although no nearly the same level as my excitement for Mass Effect 3 (…and we all know how well that turned out…).
You see, Max Payne 1 is probably one of the first games that I truly, genuinely loved, and the game I felt would best translate to the silver screen (that is, if it was done by people who gave a rat’s ass…). It was a third-person shooter that pretty much was the first major use of ‘bullet-time’, where on hitting a button the game would slow down, bullets would make visible trails in the air and you would be given plenty of time to aim and make your shots, allowing you to simply tear through the enemy. The combat was gloriously vicious and gorgeous, showing Max Payne taking apart the enemy with an incredible style. The story might not have been Oscar-worthy, but it was a classic-style film noir, with frequent references to Norse mythology, taking place in a New York City that’s in the midst of the most brutal snow storm in ages.
It was dark and mature (in the classy sense) and filled with great lines and scenes, and a real sense that they understood how over the top some of it was, but without making any apologies about it. One of my favorite lines from the game, for example…
After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil, out to right a grave injustice? Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you.
Max’s narration throughout the game was often dark and brooding, but there was also a sense of wry humor to it all, an awareness of how insane things have gotten and how insane he himself is also acting, providing an occasional bit of comic relief amongst the tragedy, often helped by Max’s own occasional snarky line. And the impetus of it all, him being framed for murder, and later hunting down the people responsible for the murder of his wife and child? It made the hero tragic and relatable, helped most often by drugged out glimpses into Max’s psyche, as he is tortured by drug-induced nightmares. In the end, Max Payne was a dark, thoughtful film-noir style game, and the comic book style images that served as cutscenes fit quite well, an effective way to tell a great story without spending a few million dollars on CGI.
The first sequel, Max Payne 2, subtitled “The Fall of Max Payne”, wasn’t as good, of course. The story wasn’t as strong, the gameplay wasn’t as revolutionary and different as it was in the original, and too many of the themes were being reused. It felt like a normal sub-par sequel: Riding the coattails of the original, trying to recapture what made the original work so well. Not to say it was bad, though. Just forgettable and derivative, a bit of a wasted opportunity.
And boy howdy do I like it more than Max Payne 3.
And Now For Something Completely Different
So, what does Max Payne 3 have to do with Max Payne 1 and 2?
- The main character is named Max Payne, who’s wife and child were killed a long time ago. He was a cop with some incredible deeds of valor, who got fired, presumably after the events of Max Payne 2.
- There was a character named Mona Sax that Max had a brief relationship with. (…because she died, and apparently, according to MP3, it was just a ‘fling’. Grumble.)
- There’s Mob stuff going on in New Jersey and New York, and there’s two levels set in New Jersey, flashback levels.
- Max Payne monologues like a MoFo.
And the things that are different?
- No other characters, besides Max, return for Max Payne 3. While, yeah, most of the cast from MP1 and MP2 kinda died, there were a few others that they could have brought back.
- The drug Valkyr is never mentioned, which was a major part of Max Payne 1.
- The ancient conspiracy “The Inner Circle” that was a huge part of Max Payne 1 and 2, is never mentioned. Any conspiracies are of the normal criminal sort (or at least on that level), no far reaching government or such conspiracies.
- If there’s a reference to Norse Mythology in Max Payne 3, I didn’t see it.
- Mona Sax is mentioned ONCE, despite being a significant character in MP1 and Max’s full on love interest and femme fatale in MP2. She was even on the cover!
- Aside from two flashback levels (out of 15 levels total), and a pair of other missions that also take place outside the US, the game takes place in Sao Paolo, Brazil. Not a speck of snow visible, despite being a huge symbolic element in the previous two games.
- Max Payne is private security now, not a police officer. Again, private security in Brazil.
- Max’s hyperspace arsenal is gone, he can now only carry two one-handed guns and one two-handed gun at a time.
- No Femme Fatale. In fact, the style has very little in common with “Film Noir”, instead going for a more “Hollywood action movie” feel. Hell, it ends on an action-movie-esque explosion ridden car chase.
- No dream sequences or drug trips to delve into Max’s character, what little there is of it.
- Max’s dead wife and daughter are almost NEVER brought up, and did I mention that the love interest from the previous game who DIED IN HIS ARMS gets a single “It was a fling” mention?
- Cover-based shooting has been added to Max Payne 3, something that was nowhere in MP1 and 2.
- The comic-book style cutscenes from the first two games are gone entirely, replaced with full motion cinematics and the occasional ‘important word’ being thrown up on screen.
So, yeah. Basically, the only thing that connects Max Payne 3 to Max Payne 1 and 2 is… well, Bullet-time and Max Payne, and even then only the superficial details about his character. The art style is different, the setting is different, the plot elements are different, the combat is different, etcetera etcetera.
This leads to something I like to think of as “Dragon Age 2 Syndrome”. Rather than people coming into the game with a blank slate, not having many expectations about the piece as a whole, they come in expecting it to have strong connections to this other game that they know and possibly love. While they’re probably not expecting just ‘more of the same’, they’re going to be expecting SOMETHING. And so, as the new work deviates more and more from the previous parts of the series, the viewer’s opinion of it gets worse and worse too.
Dragon Age 2 suffered badly from this. While its greatest failings were its reliance on waves of respawning enemies in most fights and the over-reliance on reusing the same map styles 50+ times (and that is NOT an exaggeration!), it took a lot of flack for being very different from Dragon Age Origins, as the first game was a straight-up epic about a heroic warrior (or mage or rogue or whatever) saving the land from an unstoppable evil menace, and the second game was about the rise of a refugee to become one of the most powerful people in this city, and the city’s eventually downfall, partly as an inadvertent result of the hero’ s actions. One’s a heroic Epic following in Lord of the Ring’s footsteps, and the other is a rather dark tragedy. That’s not to say that either is better, story wise, they’re just different, and the changes to the combat system didn’t help matters either.
Max Payne 3 is the Grade A version of this problem. The gameplay is great fun and fantastic to behold, especially once you start abusing bullet-time like a golden god. The story is a bit formulaic, but hits its beats well and the execution is rather impressive, making up for some weak spots. It gets a bit joyless at the end, particularly when Max is reaching new Emo depths with the “I suck” narration, right after you just dove out a window, down a flight of stairs, taking out a half-dozen enemies with headshots before you hit the ground, but even that’s not too horrible, and mainly just suffers from too many filler fights in the later parts of the game. Its honestly to the point where my recommendation to others is “Go ahead, play it, its really good, just don’t think of it as about Max Payne.”
If Max Payne 3 was about a grizzled ex-cop that got tossed out of the force, and signed up as a mercenary in order to make a living, that’s not Max Payne but some other well-named character? It would be far better, and the plot would work just as well. There’s nothing in the game that really requires the Max Payne from the first two games, no plot arcs that are carried over, no other characters that make an appearance, nothing. The game is strong enough to hold up on its own merits, and it really is a shame to see it weakened so much by the attempted connection at a game that did really really well a decade ago.