A decade ago, most of the good shooters were first-person, featuring unimaginative plots with stereotypical, one-dimensional characters. That’s when a little-known independent developer named Remedy Entertainment changed the complexion of the genre with Max Payne, blending thrilling gunplay, cinematic noir-styled presentation, and compelling characters. Ten years on, the third-person shooter genre that Remedy pioneered has evolved into a whole different beast, with franchises like Gears of War and Uncharted pushing it to new heights. So what better time than now for Rockstar Games, who published the first two games, to take it upon itself to raise the bar once again. This time, they’ve taken over development duties from Remedy as well for this iconic series’ long awaited return in Max Payne 3.

Fans were quite miffed by early screenshots of the game, which showed a bald-headed Max Payne sporting a wife-beater in an unfamiliar surrounding; a total 180 from the suit-clad, perpetually hung over NYPD detective in the dark, sombre setting of New York City. I had the opportunity to get a glimpse into what Max Payne 3 holds in store, and while not much has changed from those images or the trailer that followed, they don’t quite tell the entire story either.

Mas sure loves diving

Max sure loves diving

A large part of Max Payne 3 plays out in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where Max now works in private security after leaving the NYPD, but my first look at the game was from an early level set in New York. While there’s no indication of how long after Max Payne 2 this game is set, Max did look a fair bit like his old self; untidy black suit, bottle in hand, full head of hair, et al. The level began with Max in his dingy, unkept apartment, drunk and wallowing in self pity. Here, the quality of writing and storytelling that is the hallmark of every Rockstar-developed game comes to the fore. A verbal exchange with an old acquaintance, although brief, exudes dry, sarcastic humour and reminds you once again of Max’s cynical, glass-half-empty outlook on life. It’s here that you realize that even in the unlikely event that Max Payne 3’s gameplay fails to bring the magic, Rockstar’s penchant for delivering gripping storylines filled with great characters definitely will.

Moments later, a firefight ensues and any doubts I had about the once revolutionary Bullet-time mechanic being outdated were quickly dispelled. With Rockstar’s own RAGE graphics engine and the Euphoria physics engine working in symphony, Bullet-time looks so good that it’s almost poetic. Max moves with eerie realism and every animation, from transitioning between cover to replacing an empty clip in his 9 mm, is silky smooth. Max stumbles over to the door as a bunch of mob goons take aim from the rooftop across the corridor outside his apartment. A shoot-dodge is initiated and Max lunges forward in slow-mo and turns sideways mid-air as enemies unleash a barrage of gunfire. In a great showcase of the game’s environment destruction, gunfire shatters glass and chips away wood from window panes as Max racks up headshots and dispatches his enemies in almost-effortless style. It’s all very John Woo, minus the flying doves.

Rocking a sweet Hawaiin shirt

Rocking a sweet Hawaiian shirt

That brings me to the many changes Rockstar has made to the combat in Max Payne 3; some to bring it in line with modern-day third-person shooter conventions, and others simply because they work well with the game. The first of these is the limit on the number of weapons Max can carry. These now only include two single-handed guns to be used individually or by dual-wielding, and one double-handed weapon. What’s really cool about this is that Max can be seen carrying all these weapons at all times; even in cutscenes. To add to the realism, choosing the option to dual-wield from the Read Dead Redemption-style weapon wheel will drop the double-handed weapon that he’s currently carrying, bringing a bit of risk and strategy into the weapon selection.

Max Payne 3 is also the first in the series to include a comprehensive cover mechanic, and even in the unfinished version of the game I saw, it was smooth, intuitive, and didn’t seem to get in the way of the shooting. But despite the existence of the cover mechanic, you’re encouraged to approach Max Payne 3 as a run-and-gun shooter. Killing in style is what it’s all about, and the game is quite liberal with its supply of Bullet-time. As before, initiating a shoot-dodge (lunging in either direction) automatically takes you into Bullet-time and with the implementation of the Euphoria engine, the shoot-dodge works brilliantly with objects within the environment. You will seamlessly jump over and behind cover objects, taking out enemies in slow motion along the way. You can also turn and aim a complete 360 degrees in Bullet-time as well as when you’re on the ground following a shoot-dodge. It all looks believable too; there’s no exaggerated sliding into cover or along the ground.

There’s also a Bullet-time gauge that fills up as you kill enemies, which can then be used when initiating Bullet-time manually without a shoot-dodge. There are also certain instances where Bullet-time is automatically triggered during set-pieces or interactive cutscenes. The bullet cam has now been replaced by the ‘final kill’ cam, which is used as a cue to let you know when you’ve killed the last enemy in a particular area. The camera follows your bullet in slow motion as it takes out your last remaining enemy, usually in gruesome, blood-splattery fashion.

While the inclusion of a cover system and the limitation on weapon slots sounds very this gen, one element of modern-day shooters that Rockstar has thankfully left out is regenerating health. Max still requires painkillers to keep himself alive, and these can be found littered around the game world. The painkillers also play into the game’s new ‘last man standing’ mechanic. Being fatally wounded in one of the many frantic gunfights with painkillers in stock initiates Bullet-time and gives you one last opportunity to take out the enemy who killed you. Doing so successfully brings you back from the dead, removing the annoyance and interference of frequent deaths.

Cos cool guys don't look at explosions

Cos cool guys don't look at explosions

The New York level is proof that Rockstar hasn’t abandoned the noir-styled presentation of the earlier games, and I was thrilled to hear the return of Max’s signature self-reflecting monologues (once again voiced by James McCaffrey) accompanied by a haunting piano and violin score. The mid-level cutscenes, which were earlier presented in the form of comic panels, now use in-game footage and text showcased in a graphic novel style, again with a voiceover from Max. Everywhere you look, there’s clear evidence of Rockstar’s dedication towards staying true to what made the first two games great. The level ended with Max at the edge of the apartment building rooftop, a stunningly detailed recreation of night time New York City all around him.

Next, we move to Sao Paulo, where Max is completely transformed into the John McClane lookalike that we’ve all seen in the screenshots. It’s made abundantly clear that a lot has gone down since the New York level. While escorting Giovanna, the girlfriend of Passos (the aforementioned old acquaintance), Max quickly finds himself surrounded by enemies seemingly sent to kidnap Giovanna. In stark contrast to New York, Sao Paulo is bright and colourful, and this level also did a great job of showing off the variety in level design that makes every firefight feel different. From open streets with vehicles for cover, to a Bullet-time set piece where Max descends on a moving pulley as he clears a warehouse full of enemies, to an on-rails vehicle section that seamlessly transitions between gameplay and cutscenes, every gun battle throws up a different challenge. The environment can also be used to aid you, with petrol pumps, vehicles and exploding barrels just begging to be used for multiple kills. The more open levels of Sao Paulo also showcase the dynamic enemy AI brilliantly. They move independently, use cover, and always seem aware of your presence and location.

He's still got game

He's still got game

The one complaint from pretty much all Rockstar games so far has been that while they’ve excelled in certain departments, usually story and character development, they’ve faltered in others, like graphics and mission structure. But it’s hard to find a single weak spot in Max Payne 3. From the stylish gunplay and pixel-perfect presentation, to the multi-faceted characters and signature storytelling, this is Rockstar Games firing on all cylinders. The only possible issue I could foresee is the incessant gun battles getting tiresome as the game moves forward, but there’s certainly been no evidence of that from what I’ve seen thanks to the fantastic implementation of Bullet-time, the diverse level design, and the challenging enemy AI. This may sound like a loaded statement considering its track record, but Max Payne 3 really does look like Rockstar Games at its very best.

Max Payne 3 is scheduled for release in March 2012 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC.

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