Early screenshots of a bald Max Payne leaping around sunny São Paulo suggest this might be a sequel in name only.
Yet watching Max Payne 3 in action - demoed on PS3 at Rockstar's London HQ - amplifies the reverse: it's a legitimate, old-school, allaction, sequel. So much so, its defiantly retro feel risks irking modern gamers. Let us explain...
Rockstar are famed for their variety and freedom, Max Payne 3 offers neither. It has all of their trademark polish - impeccable production values, handsome visuals, robust tech - but none of the 'emergent' magic of their open world games. It's a conscious, and bold, departure.
The action is breakneck, moving between setpieces and locations at a frantic pace, but regardless of what's going on around him, Max is still doing the same as he was a decade ago - falling over in slow motion while shooting enemies. Sure, 'bullet time' feels tired, but if anyone should be allowed to reclaim the cliche he invented, it's Max Payne.
BACK TO MY ROOTS
Old-school fans will be pleased, though. This really is an honest sequel - from the hard-boiled narration to the balletic gunplay, it's all as it was.
Before you set foot in South America you fight through the dark, rain-soaked streets of New York - and even when palms replace skyscrapers, it still feels intravenously linked to the series. Even the HUD is the same, as is the crunch of painkillers as Max pops the tablets to restore his dwindling health.
Max is in São Paulo for a job: working as private security for a wealthy and influential family. But, his luck being what it is, it doesn't work out and a young girl is kidnapped on his watch. Events quickly spiral out of control, and he finds himself battling vicious gangs and sinister paramilitary groups in the streets and shantytowns of the city.
Max is still doing the same as he was a decade ago - falling over in slow motion while shooting enemies
The story is breathless, with no loading pauses between levels and wobbly documentary-style cutscenes. It has a real filmic quality and James McCarey, in a returning voice role, is better than ever as the eternally world-weary Max.
The action is just as Hollywood. While the slow-motion mechanic no longer has the novelty value it did in the first Max Payne, there are still moments where it really shines - mainly thanks to RAGE, Rockstar's in-house engine, and its Euphoria physics system.
Blast an enemy and they tumble backwards with gruesome realism, crashing into scenery and sending debris flying into the air. Environments shatter and crumble as they're pummelled with gunfire, glass bursts into a thousand shimmering pieces and Max leaps and rolls with palpable weight and momentum. It's a curious marriage of old-school gameplay and modern tech.
There are some concessions to modern design. Max can now use cover, but the action doesn't revolve around it. You spend more time diving between bullets than cowering behind concrete pillars. And if your health hits zero, a 'last man standing' mode kicks in: it's a brief chance to kill an enemy and, at the expense of one painkiller, revive yourself.
There's no regenerating health - that's a modern trap Rockstar's avoided, so you still scour levels for bottles of painkillers to keep health topped up.
This ties into the story too, as Max is hooked on pills and booze. It's his way of dealing with his many demons, and maybe it's why he keeps falling over.
The aiming, however, has been updated: if you don't like the old-school free-aim, there's an auto-lock option.
Based on our limited demo exposure, Max Payne 3 might prove divisive - for a developer known for pushing technology forward, MP3 seems almost like a slow-mo leap backwards. To get the most out of it you're going to have to embrace the game on its own terms: a polished, well-produced third-person shooter that exists to entertain, not break new ground.
The always-impressive RAGE engine, and Rockstar's knack for fi lmic storytelling, elevate it above other, similar games... but this isn't 'classic' open-world fare. Can Rockstar reclaim linear, set-piece, shooters? Like Max himself, the outcome currently teeters on the edge.
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