Was Max Payne ever actually any good? Well, sort of. 2001's ultra-hyped, mega-delayed first entry - starring possibly the most constipated-looking character model ever to escape a development house - debuted the oft-copied mechanic/gimmick that was Bullet Time (itself ripped off from The Matrix and sundry Hong Kong action flicks). It scooped awards aplenty, but was still overrated.
The second - 2003's The Fall of Max Payne - was a classic. It may have retained the simplistic core values, but the addition of Havoc physics (making their blinding debut) with a noirish, flashback-riddled narrative so dark it'd give John Huston the shivers pushed Payne to superlative heights. Also: Mona Sax = phwoar.
Being quoted as an inspiration by every developer who ripped off Bullet
Time thereafter helped cement Max as a bona fide gaming icon too, and that makes his belated return - and the confusion surrounding it these past two years - one of the industry's most fascinating mysteries.
Especially when the debut screenshots depicted a near-unrecognisable Payne: insanely muscled, bearded, shorn of skull and clad in a wife-beater. Then there was the tangled development, with four Rockstar studios (Vancouver, Toronto, New England and London) getting embroiled with the creation of the game.
Not to mention a belated release date that's creeping into Prey territory... If MP2 depicted Max's Fall, then MP3 - rather than focus on Max's wooing of a loving new lady and adoption of some cute sprogs - continues his ultra-cinematic decline into emotional oblivion.
In true neo-noir style we'll get to play as the tortured 'tec in a convoluted mixture of flashbacks while regaling three distinct periods in our anti-hero's brutal life - Rockstar fairly revelling in the way they're "always playing with time in the story." From the iconic New York Payne in the battered leather blazer to the boozy, barnet-receding wreck in Sao Paulo and somewhere in between, things are set to get brain-busting...
Happily, when Rockstar talk mechanics it's reassuring to see they acknowledge that the Bullet Time shooter has taken strides over the past decade. "Both the games and the audiences have become more sophisticated," admits art director Rob Nelson. "Gamers expect a more fully realised cinematic experience, even if the main mechanic is still shooting. And though this is a more linear game for us, people want to be constantly surprised and entertained in new ways."
That admission of linearity - games like Gears of War are able to overcome it via crazy production values and perfectly-tweaked multiplayer. Will Payne pack the same kind of bite?
"You need a lot of custom setups," Nelson argues. "The environments need to be varied, and all of that while keeping the gameplay fun and responsive - people have become really specific about how they want things to be controlled. It's a lot more work!"
Nelson also alludes that levels will be "fully destructible" this time around. We find that hard to swallow, but even if this manages to come within blast radius of, say, Red Faction Armageddon, the results could be bombastic.
Rockstar, meanwhile, has a bona fide ace up their sleeve to befuddle their competitors: NaturalMotion's Euphoria. The physics engine, used to trap-smacking effect in Red Dead Redemption and GTA IV, conjures up some of the most intensely realistic (and sometimes silly) deaths in gaming. "Every game we do, we're thinking about how to push NaturalMotion in new directions," Nelson discloses.