Here's an analogy: Rockstar for games is almost like Miramax was for movies at its prime.
While Rockstar is not as indie as Harvey and Bob Weinstein's company was when it was flying high, Rockstar is indie in spirit from the top down, and it shows in their latest effort, Max Payne 3.
Last week, Rockstar released the mature-rated shooter, which is so obviously inspired by super-heroism and over-the-top action movies that you'd think it would be mired in cliché. That's what happened to the Max Payne movie, which was thus mired, in fact, to the point that it wasn't even watchable as a parody of itself. The less said about that film, the better. [Ed. note: If you must hear more, consider NPR's review from Mark Jenkins, who said, "The movie declines to stoop ... to such tricks as acting and characterization."]
It's genuinely shocking how real Max Payne 3 feels. Most reviewers have said this realism in the face of action-movie super-heroism has to do with "game mechanics." That's a weird phrase, and it has nothing to do with little people in overalls who fix the game when it breaks. What those critics are referring to are the bells and whistles that make the game something special. Indeed, Rockstar game designers and programmers have made an extraordinarily realistic experience for players, even more than last year's L.A. Noire.
Still, as fine as they are, it wasn't the features that kept me coming back for more. In part, it comes down to the story. I would not have enjoyed Max Payne 3 if the protagonist and his story weren't inspired by the best crime novels of the day. Its booze- and drug-abusing protagonist is so down on his luck, he may be a chilling reminder of someone you know who's fallen on hard times to the ... max. [Har.] He's a survivor who has barely endured almost unimaginable pain, and his self-deprecating wit is, in its way, a panacea that helps him survive the loss of love, his greatest challenge. Like a character out of a Toni Morrison novel, Max is so brutalized by his past (the tragic murder of his wife and child), he's not sure if he even wants to survive into the future.
Here's a game that's as grimly affecting as Nick Tosches' boozy, punky Dean Martin biography Dino and as depressing and violent as Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn. Here, a grizzled former cop takes a job as a security agent in Brazil. Not long after he arrives, the trophy wife of a rich Sao Paulo real estate tycoon is kidnapped. With his chatty cohort Passos, also a former cop, they travel through the nooks and crannies of Sao Paulo to rescue her. Rockstar writers Dan Houser, Rupert Humphries and Michael Unsworth must have consumed the best of popular crime fiction to pull off the taut dialogue, which allows the characters to say utterly wry or complex things in satisfying ways.
It's a good thing, too, because I have never been the biggest fan of shooting games. Aiming a gun via a reticle to down a baddie far in the distance in the stands of a soccer stadium usually gets old quickly. For me, it's the humor and satire that keeps this game alive. I found myself continuing on this 12-hour journey of weapon-fire because of Max's razor sharp quips and metaphors. I eliminated the gang members in favelas and the hired goons in speedboats primarily because it was a kick to hear what Max has to say after they die. At the same time, he's never really happy to kill. It's his job, and he believes death carries a heavy, haunting burden.
Rockstar has refined the way a game like this is played in many ways. Max moves like a human and never slides along the ground like a skater (a problem with many similarly structured offerings). Each step he takes looks like the work of a human with 206 bones. They've polished bullet time, their brilliant riff on slowing down time first seen in The Matrix movie, so much so that a physicist would appreciate the smooth motion of ammunition as it leaves the gun and hits the target.
Beyond programming, the attention to minute detail is admirable. As bullets fly in a Hoboken dive, you hear Garland Jeffries' Rolling Stones-like "Wild in the Streets," a jangly rock and roll anthem from 1973 — the perfect song at the perfect time. And the online play is as tense and heart-pounding as that in any game out there today. With all the frenetic action around you, you might not appreciate the hundreds of small touches that make Max Payne 3 a superior game. But that's all the more reason to play it a second time.