Max Payne 3 is the Best Possible Game We Didn't Need

I remember a few years back, I was watching Mel Gibson on some late-night talk show. (This was some time before poor Mel went completely off the deep end, mind you.) As host and guest went through their perfunctory motions, the question of another Lethal Weapon came up, an idea to which the audience incomprehensibly responded with raucous applause.

I didn't understand it, and I don't think the audience did, either. Lethal Weapon was done, finished, over, and not because the characters were all dead or because the actors were all too old to play loose-cannon cops a few days away from retirement, but because the idea had run its course. Only so much diplomatic immunity can be revoked.

Max Payne 3 feels pretty much the same way to me, and not just because it's about a gritty, boozy lawman who's over the hill and in over his head. Max Payne 3 is a game that shouldn't have been, one that has no real reason to exist and shows it.

The series makes for a great mirror image of itself. Once upon a time, Max Payne (and Max Payne, for that matter) was a legend. He shook things up, he took no prisoners. He went up against titans and slew them. He was lean, he was hungry, and when you walked through his world, you were glad it was dark out, because seeing what lurked just out of sight would have only made things worse.

Max Payne brought bullet time to gaming not too long after The Matrix brought the idea to movies. Meanwhile, Max Payne brought himself, a character rumpled, unshaven, and generally suicidal enough to deserve a few slow-motion leaps through a few drugged-out low-level mafiosos' front doors. Max Payne the game made the promise that Max Payne the character delivered, and the result was a sickeningly beautiful picture of a man too anguished to live but too angry to die.

Not so today. A sequel, a forgettable movie adaptation, and a whole lot of time later, both Max Payne and Max Payne 3 are worse for the wear. They're both slower now, ugly plodding things that can't hope to keep up with the kids who occupy the seats they long left cold. They're long since out of new tricks, and the old ones they brought with them aren't enough to impress anyone.

Even still, the mechanics are serviceable if not particularly groundbreaking. Cut out the part of your brain that recognizes things like plot elements, and Max Payne 3 looks pretty much like a high-definition upgrade of the whole Max Payne thing. Find bad guys, run for cover, count to three, leap out in slow motion, spray the room with lead, find more cover, take some painkillers, repeat. That's all there, and despite the fact that it's also everywhere else now, Max Payne 3 doesn't forget how to do that part justice.

But from the very beginning, something seems seriously wrong, and not in the way that something's always wrong when Max is around. Max is in São Paulo now, working as a bodyguard for what passes for a reputable businessman in his world. Things, as they typically do, get hairy, and Max finds himself in the middle of someone's personal war—but this time it's not his own, and that's a critical difference.

This takes Max Payne, and therefore Max Payne, to places they've never been before, and with good reason. The first two Max Paynes had all the charm and good feelings of a wet brick to the face, but Max Payne 3 is the sun-drenched hangover of someone who should have given up drinking altogether a long time ago. Max is confused, alone, and unsure of what to do or who to trust, but for the first time since we've met him, there's no real reason for Max to care beyond a paycheck from a dead man and the word of a disgraced drunk.

Max Payne was never about a fish out of water. Max has always been a fish drowning in water, one too fundamentally attached to his own water to see what's lurking out of sight in the deep end. Max Payne was great because despite all the hell the world threw at Max, he somehow still managed to truly care, and the weird, unkillable determination that engendered made you believe that a bottle of painkillers and a soliloquy could give him superpowers. Take him out of all that, strip him of his badge, his gun, his dead family, and his city and drop him in a scenario that means nothing to him, and he's just an old man with a gun. Aimless. Pointless.