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When Max met Rockstar: How Max Payne transformed from an action cliché into a believable protagonist

Has Rockstar reinvented the action hero? Nick Cowen investigates...

I have a special relationship with Max Payne. After all, his first outing is the title that got me back into gaming.

Before I picked up a PS2 controller at the Barbican's Game On exhibition back in 2000 and blasted my way through the first few levels of Max Payne, I hadn't played a video game in nearly two-and-a-half-years.

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After an hour at its controls I was kicked off the machine by a rather irate member of staff, who informed me curtly that it was about time some other people were allowed a go on it. Two days later I'd bought myself a PS2 and was playing Max Payne at home.

It was the bullet-time that seduced me initially. Sure, as a mechanic it's pretty passé these days. Bullet-time has been ganked by everyone from F.E.A.R. to Red Dead Redemption to Stranglehold to Enter The Matrix (although in fairness to the last two, their cinematic starting points pre-date Max Payne).

But at the time, Remedy's third-person shooter felt like the coolest ride on the block. The way gunfire and screams turned to muffled thumps and whines, the way opponents flew backwards from my firearms, their arms pin-wheeling - it all never ceased to give me a charge.

Occasionally I'd hit pause in the middle of a shoot-dodge and marvel at the screen; there Max would be, suspended in mid-air with Sam Lake's constipated expression plastered on his mug, muzzle flashes and flying shell-casings frozen in time. If I'd known how, I would have made posters of the screenshots.

So, I have to admit that when I first heard that Max Payne 3 was being developed by Rockstar Games, rather than Remedy - the developer that created the IP - I felt some trepidation. I didn't doubt Rockstar's prowess as a creator of great games, nor did I suspect that the end result would be a massive departure from the aesthetic of the rest of the series.

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But Rockstar Games - at least since GTA IV - have banked some measure of their success on plonking players down in believable worlds and then surrounding them with well-rounded characters. So I just wondered how the hell a developer like Rockstar, whose recent titles have all been shot through with an atmosphere of gritty realism was going to make a Max Payne game.

You could argue that the first two Max Paynes contained their fair share of grit, but you'd be hard-pressed to convince me that either of them have anything to do with reality.

The world in both games is wrapped in a grimy visual aesthetic, sure, but it's also a place where a Satanic Mobster owns a Nightclub inspired by Viking Myths. Where a corporate CEO is making a killing selling military-grade drugs out in the open. And where henchmen shoot the shit about everything from bullet-time in movies, to naming their firearms, to the fact that their jobs shouldn't dictate how they're perceived by other people.

And then there's Max, the game's protagonist, character whose exploits are so over the top the bar is barely visible beneath him. Forget for a second the gruff monotone, which he uses to speak almost exclusively in action movie clichés. Forget the fact that his life consists entirely of noir tropes Forget even bullet-time. Consider only this premise: Max is a walking slaughterhouse.

If you're a developer whose calling card is fast becoming real-world authenticity, how do you go about applying that aesthetic to a game in which your protagonist is a cop who does most of his best work when he's breaking the law?

Over the past couple of weeks, I've spent a lot of time in the company of Max Payne.
Thanks to the accommodating folk over at Rockstar Games, I've been given some substantial time with the grizzled gun-slinger's latest escapades (read my Max Payne 3 hands-on). I've watched his transition from a self-destructive cop on the streets of New Jersey to a cagey bodyman for the family of a South American business magnate in Sao Paulo.

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