Let’s pretend it’s the 90s, when shooters are all about and only about shooting, when storylines have to be inserted between action bits like commercial breaks, when bullet time is the new hotness, when 80s style jumpshooting isn’t replaced by wirework yet, and when finding the next medkit is the single most important factor in determining whether you’re going to have to play this part over again.

Your tour guide through this blast from the past is not the lovable squinting Max Payne you might remember. Instead, it’s a young James Caan, or at least an uncaany valley approximation of him that goes all Breaking Bad (i.e. shaves his head) half way through the game. Your shootporn will include the latest gen technology in entry wounds, exit wounds, and arterial spurt. It looks about as authentic as the ragdoll effects. Keep working on that stuff, guys. It should look good in two or three more games.

After the jump, it’s enough to make a guy long for a funhouse level or a dead baby

Max Payne 3 is clearly not a Remedy game. The Finns who made the first two games had a distinct voice and the affectionately skewed perspective of foreigners admiring America from afar, learning about her through television and movies and exchange students in school and the occasional Raymond Chandler novel. Remedy’s writing had the endearing enthusiasm of someone attempting idioms in good faith. If it was bad — and it often was — at least it was enthusiastic, eager to please, and consistently entertaining.

But Rockstar’s Max Payne has none of that. It has only Dan Houser’s usual predilection for nightclubs, booze, blow, bitches, burnouts, and elaborately animated, wildly gesticulating goombahs double-crossing each other, all ponderously written without nuance, energy, or affection. Houser’s Max Payne is all tediously grim prattle, like an 80s action star muttering to himself while he works out in his garage, waiting for his agent to call.

We’re in Brazil, so these goombahs have Hispanic accents and there are a few favela levels. You can take Max Payne out of New Jersey, but you can’t take– Oh, wait, it seems you actually can’t take Max Payne out of New Jersey. He keeps going back. The flashbacks give the game plenty of time to include actual goombahs in their native East Coast grey. Meanwhile, in Brazil, the setting is mostly squandered. The plot is far too confused to make any sort of point about corruption and paramilitary squads (see Jose Padilha’s taut Elite Squad movies for an example of what Max Payne 3 seems to think it’s trying to attempt to be about). The big reveal — not the one about the double-crossing, which isn’t a reveal so much as an obligatory plot point — is organ harvesting, an urban legend appropriated by dopey horror movies. Frankly, it was handled better in Shank 2, which knows enough to play out like a comic book.

The shootporn is satisfying enough, if you’re into that sort of thing. I know I am. Which is why I have so little patience for how often the awful story and grim prattle get in the way. Max Payne 3 presumably lets you replay the levels as scoring and timed challenges once you’ve finished the storyline. You might think you’re in for a bit of The Club, an underappreciated game that knew how to do shootporn as scoring and timed challenges. You’re not. You get to sit through the cutscenes and voiceovers and turgid storytelling all over again. You would think Rockstar, of all developers, would understand that shootporn, like any porn, works best when you just get to the good parts.

Max Payne 3 mostly looks good, but it’s no Kane and Lynch 2, and not for lack of trying. It’s obviously attempting Kane and Lynch 2′s brilliant and subversive YouTube aesthetic without really having a reason to do it, or even any creative insight into what it’s doing. You get a lot of visual noise, presumably to represent Max’s DTs or something. Then the screen breaks into panels and certain words of dialog flash like subtitles, presumably to represent comic books. Then Max intones some forced tough-guy faux noire voiceover, presumably to represent Max Payne 1 and Max Payne 2. None of it works. Like the storyline, it feels like it’s aping without understanding, without motive, without any appreciation for the previous Max Paynes’ endearing clunkiness.

The multiplayer is a sheer joy. It better be considering how long Rockstar has been iterating it. This is pretty much the multiplayer from Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption, but with an intricate leveling system based on Call of Duty style loadouts, including achievements, perks, and weapon upgrades. With so many modes to play, the multiplayer maps come alive in a way that they can’t in the single player game, where they’re just backdrops behind a parade of duck targets. If there’s any saving grace to Max Payne 3, it’s how easily you can ignore all that turgid story stuff and enjoy the shootporn as a satisfying online game that has absolutely nothing to do with this newly earnest Rockstarred Max Payne.

2 stars
Xbox 360