Max Payne 3 makes video-game violence mean something again. Whether that is its greatest achievement or its biggest failing is in the eye of the beholder. A gruesome, sometimes enervating shooter, it doesn't shy away from the gory details. Limbs fly off, eye sockets cave in, and arterial blood sprays like champagne. Yet Max Payne 3 doesn't forget the human cost of the carnage. For all the firepower on display, this is a game that truly believes that guns don't kill people; people do.
The person who does the most killing is, of course, our titular hero. Max delivers a running narration, dropping wry, Chandler-esque witticisms even amid the most hectic firefights. But unlike the charming everyman heroes in superficially similar games — Uncharted's Nathan Drake comes to mind — Max is not intended as the player's idealized avatar. He's a drunken, pill-popping loser, washed up as a cop and working private security in Brazil — badly. He is repellent, and all the more fascinating for it.
The tale of how Max came to South America, and the shady dealings he uncovers, unfolds in expertly produced cutscenes that are, for once, more entertaining than the lengthy gunfights that comprise the action. Save for a few playable flashbacks to scenic Hoboken, the story flits back and forth between the decadent high-rises where Brazil's masters of the universe entertain themselves, and the squalid favelas below, where the masses wait for their turn to be chewed up and spit out. Nobody ends up looking good: not the well-fed oligarchs who have hired Max, nor their paramilitary lackeys, nor the hordes of indigents who are all too willing to take up arms against a gringo foolish enough to set foot on their turf.
Is Max Payne 3's version of Brazil accurate? I can't say, but it is depicted with authority. You can almost smell the trash rotting in the alleyways. Let's just say this game won't be appearing in any tourism videos to promote the 2014 World Cup.
For as slick as the presentation is, the heart of Max Payne 3 is an endless series of shootouts against an inexhaustible supply of meatbags, none of which feels fresh or new. Yes, you have to take cover behind convenient waist-high barriers. Yes, you have access to "Bullet Time®" and "SHOOTDODGE™," two terms that I am terrified of attributing incorrectly, lest the Phoenix get sued, yet which mean only that things go in slow-motion for a bit while you deliver precisely placed shots to your opponents' heads and crotches.
Fun enough, but nothing novel, and not so thrilling that you don't sometimes find yourself sighing as another cavalcade of extras stream in through the nearest door. "Where are they all coming from?" Max occasionally wonders, and the question is never satisfactorily answered.
Yet when it comes to the main plotline, Max Payne 3 delivers what so few shooters do: a reason to care. Max is no angel, but as he follows a trail that leads him from high-level political intrigue to a sickening black market, he becomes the spirit of vengeance. The punishment he doles out is appropriate to the situation, and withering for the player. Maybe it's too early to hand out accolades, but I think we can call it now: this is the feel-bad game of the year.
HEADSHOTS, HEADSHOTS, HEADSHOTS.