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Max Payne 3: Hands-on with the first 3 hours

We discover why Rockstar's campaign is worthy of the best Hollywood blockbusters...

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Rockstar's presentation of this scene adds a thin layer of menace - and not just because this is a Max Payne game. Between the pounding soundtrack, flashing lights and the crush of people in the club, it becomes clear that, should any ugly situation arise, it'll be an absolute nightmare to contain - a fact that isn't helped by Max knocking back shot after shot. The cutscene also judders and strobes occasionally, adding to the player's sense of disorientation, so when the camera reveals a group of thugs taking up positions around the club, it feels logical that Max wouldn't have noticed them.

Up until now, Rockstar has positioned Max Payne 3 as a stark thriller shot through the stylish filter of a music video. Think Michael Mann's Heat by way of Tony Scott's Man On Fire and you're starting to get the picture. Of course, when all hell breaks loose in the club, Rockstar bring in a third cinematic influence - one that Max Payne has enjoyed since his first outing - the slow motion bullet ballet from Hong Kong action films. As Fabiana and her sister are dragged from the dancefloor, Marcello ducks out of the way and Max charges full tilt at an armed assailant. He crashes the pair of them through the window of Club Moderno's VIP lounge and down onto the dancefloor.

As soon as the pair of them are airborne, however, the action slows. The soundtrack becomes a muffled rumble of thumps and screams. Max draws his gun from a shoulder holster and crosshairs appear on the HUD as he and his human surfboard drop to the floor in slow-motion. We have to confess that we'd been so enthralled by the stylish presentation up until now, we almost forgot to pull the triggers on the control pad we were holding. However, before the thug breaks Max's fall from a storey up, we've taken out three of his mates with precision shots. As a kick off to the game's action, it's a scene worthy of the best Hollywood blockbusters.

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So Rockstar can do grit and Rockstar can do style. But as Max pursues Fabiana's kidnappers through Club Moderno, Rockstar plays two more trump cards in its hand. First, the developer expertly laces all the explosive gunfire with plot developments, which makes progression feel organic. Max's internal monologue, his exchanges with Passos over the radio about Giovanna and his random encounters with terrified club patrons push the narrative in tandem with each action set-piece. There's even time for some comic relief in the men's room with another ex-cop. The point is, you never feel like you're running between identical rooms, blowing away bad guys solely so you can get to the next cutscene.

Second, the environments compliment the shooter mechanics, and throw tactical options to the player, allowing them to tackles each gun battle in multiple ways. There's never just one way to win a fight and the rather nasty AI will challenge the player to use cover and bullet-time wisely. The AI will swarm players who spend too much time in cover, but they won't emerge from cover conveniently if bullet-time is activated, either.

It's also worth pointing out that the bullet-time shoot/dodge move isn't the get-out-of-jail-free card it was in previous Max Payne games. Max doesn't automatically pop back to his feet at the end of a shot/dodge, so players should have a care where Max's projected landing zone is. If he winds up on the floor surrounded by enemies, he's not long for this world. Perhaps to compensate for this, players occasionally find themselves in a 'Last Man Standing' scenario. When Max is low on health, he'll whirl in a slow motion arch and bring his crosshairs to bear on the enemy that is his most immediate threat. When this happens players are advised to let go of the control pad's trigger until Max has drawn a bead on his target, because if they don't there's a chance they'll empty his gun before he can kill his foe.

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