After nearly a decade, sharpshooting drunkard Max Payne returns with a proven developer and a questionable haircut in Rockstar's Max Payne 3. Much has changed in the gaming landscape since Max walked the streets of New York, but while the stylized third-person shooter has dropped one or two series mainstays in its new form, it hasn't forgotten the precision control and stark realism that made the original games great, sacrificing little for a modern, competent resurrection of the franchise.
Max Payne 3 finds Max where one usually finds Max: eyes down at the floor of a bar with a drink in his hand and ten more in his stomach. He's recently arrived in São Paulo, Brazil at the behest of an old academy classmate, Raul Passos, who's been busy running security for a family of politically-connected fat cats. Passos has promised Max nothing but free booze and watching rich people make fools of themselves from the safety of a bar stool, but things, as they often do for Max, don't go quite as planned. Soon, Max finds himself in a complicated war of rival South American gangs and political factions, and it's not long before he's back to his old, gun-slinging tricks.
With few exceptions, São Paulo feels refreshingly animate, more a living city than a stitched together series of boxy interior maps so common to the genre. Its denizens continually carry on about their lives without you, sometimes reacting to your ridiculously out-of-place nationality and wardrobe, sometimes ignoring you completely. The game's primary cast is equally convincing; good guys respond rashly when confronted with difficult situations, responding illogically or frightened when fitting, while the villains, though somewhat light on personality, are believably unpredictable.
Still, while the setting is immersive, Max Payne 3's delivery mechanism is flawed. Series veterans will be first to notice the removal of the games' signature graphic-novel-style cutscenes, replaced in this third installment by a slight twist on standard-fare cinematics. While the action now continues fluidly without breaking format, Rockstar attempted to keep the story sections unique by adding frantically-paced transitions; strange blurring, interlacing, and color effects; as well as double, if not triple vision. At first, the effect is novel, serving to place you within Max's drunken, pained mental state. The style, however, soon wears its welcome thin by overuse. The screen will go strange at least once nearly every time you aren't in direct control, creating a consistently distracting, and sometimes nauseating result.
Compounding that problem is the ratio of these tortured cinematics to actual gameplay, which, especially toward the beginning of the game, is severely imbalanced in favor of narrative sections. To its credit, Max Payne 3 does a tremendous job of tucking away loathsome loading screens behind what are, mostly, engaging story segments, but the final package still suffers. The tale of deceit and intrigue these cinematics tell never feels dull, but certainly isn't complex or engaging enough to warrant the raw time it's given in highlight.