By STEWART SMITH

Entertainment Editor

“Max Payne 3” might be the closest any game has yet come to emulating the experience of a Hollywood film.

“Ninja Gaiden” on the Nintendo Entertainment System may have pioneered in-game cutscenes, but “Metal Gear Solid” was the opening salvo of “cinematic gaming.” Hideo Kojima’s game forever changed the way developers attempted to bring a more cinematic feel to the design and storytelling in their games. Ever since then, through the use of voice acting, lengthy cutscenes and other design choices, scores of developers have tried desperately to make their game feel like the player is in control of a Hollywood blockbuster. More often than not, though, the result is a game that is either too loaded with non-interactive cutscenes (“Metal Gear Solid 4” perhaps being the worst, most recent offender) or the action feels far too scripted and guided for the player to truly feel in control (i.e. “Call of Duty”).

The “Max Payne” series has always floated somewhere in between. The developers at Remedy always touted them as being crime noir-inspired, although I don’t seem to recall a Mickey Spillane or Daishell Hammett novel ever being so action-packed. The stories lean that way, with Max Payne weaving his way through a maze of battered back alleys and derelict apartment buildings as he seeks out the shadowy figures who have decided to make his life a living hell, spouting colorful metaphors all the way. All of this was depicted via comic panels, however. It was the gameplay that was decidedly more cinematic as it combined the twin-fisted bullet ballets cooked up by John Woo with a slow motion mechanic directly inspired (ripped off, some might say) by “The Matrix.” The result was the ability to dance between bullets and dive through the air in a stylish manner that made the player feel like they belonged right next to Chow Yun-Fat, a true first for gaming.

The series’ third entry (now in the hands of the house that “Grand Theft Auto” built, Rockstar Games) finds a way bring together the stylization of comic panels while seamlessly transitioning between story and gameplay segments. The method? Tony Scott.

If the first two games were John Woo via Mickey Spillane, “Max Payne 3” is pure Tony Scott. Heck, you could probably substitute the character of Max for Denzel Washington’s Creasy from “Man on Fire,” call it a prequel and I doubt anyone would blink an eye. But it’s not just the alcoholic, hired bodyguard angle which Max fulfills that draws similarities to Scott’s film: It’s the hyperkinetic and colorful filters, the dynamic typography and overall aesthetic mixed with a story that has a lone man pushed to horrible depths as he tries (and fails) to protect his charges. The change of setting from the mean streets of New York City to the decaying depths of the Sao Paolo favela might be jarring to some fans, but it’s a fitting shift for a story that is all about plumbing the depths of a broken man who has less and less to lose.

“Max Payne 3” never evokes the pathos of “Man on Fire” (say what you will about the film, but Creasy’s determination to save his surrogate daughter was a great way to propel the story and his character), but it excels at putting us in the shoes a man who, every time he thinks he’s reached his lowest point, gets stomped further into the ground and descends deeper into what can only be described as a living hell. This is signified by Max’s ever-deteriorating physical appearance, as well as the increasingly hellish state of his surroundings, descending from the heights of Brazillian privilege to the depths of the favelas and below.

This is also where the “Tony Scott filters” start to feel like a natural addition. I found the filters and editing a bit annoying and overbearing at first, but once you realize they are Rockstar’s way of showing you the pill and booze-induced haze Max constantly inhabits, it becomes a perfect fit. Max’s inner monologue has been toned down so that his colorful metaphors are nowhere near as overwrought and heavy-handed as they used to be, but we’re still given an open window into his bruised psyche. Overall, it’s an engrossing story, well-written as any other narrative-driven game of the last decade.

But how does it play? “Familiar” is probably the operative word here. Max’s arsenal is more limited this time around. Players are forced to prioritize their weapon choices as Max can only carry what will fit in his two hands and in his shoulder holster (you won’t see any rifles magically floating on his back, unlike in other shooters). There’s a cover mechanic in place, but it manages to avoid the trap other games fall in by having the environments have a natural layout with sensible places to take refuge from bullets and not just a collection of conveniently placed waist-high barriers. Surprisingly, aid mechanic also never slows the pace of battle (well, except for one short segment during the finale).

The shooting, however, has been tweaked a bit, and it’s all for the better. Max has a surprising amount of heft to him now as you move him around the environments. It feels as though Max actually occupies these digital landscapes as such, making it all the more satisfying when you launch him, pistols akimbo, into a slow-motion dive. What really makes it feel substantial, though, is the animation. The wizards at Rockstar have found a way to animate Max and the other characters in a way that is more fluid, more realistic, more natural than anything I’ve ever seen in a game. It’s not just watching enemies writhe and twist as you target individual parts of their body, it’s the way Max adjusts himself when lying prone and aiming in different directions, or the way he realistically reacts when he dives into a wall, couch or other obstruction. It’s all but guaranteed you’ve never seen a digital character occupy an imagined space so fully.

Just as impressive is the level of detail that Rockstar has imbued into everything from the character models to environment destructibility. These are some of the best looking, best animated character models I’ve ever seen in a game running in real time. Combine that with an impressive amount of destructible environments and you have one of the more graphically impressive games of the generation.

Rockstar’s biggest accomplishment, though, is how all of these features consistently come together so that we are always being pushed forward in Max’s story. The gun battles, the increasingly dangerous and decrepit environments, Max’s dour (yet often poetic) inner monologue, it’s never there simply to be stylish or cool, it’s always in service of putting us further in the shoes of our battered hero. There are plenty of non-interactive cutscenes, but one always flows seamlessly into the other so the dividing line between them often feels invisible. You may not always interact with the story, but you always feel a part of it.

“Max Payne 3” feels like a seminal accomplishment for Rockstar Games. It doesn’t necessarily do anything out of the ordinary, but what it sets out to do it accomplishes with an almost unmatched level of fidelity.

Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Rating: M (Mature)

Stewart Smith is the Entertainment Editor for the Tyler Morning Telegraph. Contact him at 903-596-6301 or by e-mail at ssmith@tylerpaper.com.

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