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Max Payne - A Rare Union of Bliss

Feature: Why Remedy's hit fully deserves a replay

The game that put third-person shooters - and decent stories - on the map

"The feeling hit me like a point-blank shot straight in the face... Something was not right about this."

Max Payne, a suitably grizzled New York drugs detective, with an even more grizzled name, has just returned home and is only a few comic panels away from finding his beautiful wife and kid with the contents of their heads emptied out on to the lino.

The opening line is brutal, simple and direct, but it's all too easy to undervalue the importance of good old-fashioned storytelling in a game. Consider UT3: great game, but just look at the tosh holding it together.

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If most marriages end in divorce, Max Payne is one of those rare unions of bliss, wedding addictive action to a story that could have been written by Raymond Chandler. From the moment it opens, Max Payne seizes you like no other game.

The graphic-novel cutscenes and superb voice-acting, the grimy New York underworld setting, the blinding action: this is what noir should be, not Humphrey Bogart spouting '50s slang at some 'doll' who's meant to be attractive. You're playing a comic book in a way not even XIII's cel shading could achieve.

Despite all this, the feature that earned Max Payne the hype it got on release was Bullet Time. With a click of the right mouse button Max dives into the air in slooow-mo, giving you time to slay hordes of enemies in one go, like all those Hong Kong films where Chow Yun Fat flies around shooting people while holding a baby, often to be found urinating on him in a cute way.

There's never been anything quite as exciting in any game as diving backwards out of a building, taking down several wiseguys in the process, regardless of the repercussions (some painkillers will heal that open wound right up). It was so influential, it's still being mimicked six years after it came out, most recently in the Rage mode in the otherwise awful Scarface.

But everything else about the game is so fluent that it deserves to be replayed for much more than this. As you wade deeper into the revenge tale of murder, drugs and mafia, what you realise is that those publishing suits have been barking up the wrong tree with this 'interactive movie' lark - Remedy have already made one, with balance between action and story pitched just right.

Each level is a burst of action that segues into the next comic strip seamlessly. To this day, Max Payne (and the sequel) is the only game that has caused me to choose it over sleep, even at six in the morning. The apparent cancellation of number three is as tragic as the first game's opening scene, but today's graphics couldn't make the game any more compelling than the original.

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Payne was revolutionary above all, though, because it made third-person shooters work, and beautifully. The genre had been around for years before, but let's be honest: people only bought Tomb Raider out of some vague sense of patriotism, like Rover cars.

Remedy nailed the key flaws that stopped third-person shooters playing well: moving and shooting accurately without a first-person point of view. The camera works perfectly here, even in narrow halls, and you can tell because you don't notice it. Targeting is smooth and recognises the difference between looking upwards and diving forwards.

You can move Max at the speed you want without any niggling blocked views, and seeing the cop pull off all his acrobatics from a viewpoint a few feet behind him immerses you in it all the more. Although it's been replicated very little, you can't help but feel that it showed how to make third-person combat work in games such as Splinter Cell and GTA.

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