Time hasn't been kind to Mr Max Payne. His first game – a thirdperson shooter filled with noir and comic book obsessions, told with illustrated panels and gloriously overwrought metaphors – killed his wife and child. His second sent an assassin after him and, after Max had softened her heart and fallen in love with her, killed her too.
But new developers Rockstar have saved the biggest body blow for the third game, and it's literal: Max has got fat. Gone is the ex-cop's sleek figure, as thin as a stiletto drawn from the heart of a terrible noir metaphor. In its place is a definite paunch.
Eight years have passed since the end of Max Payne 2, and Max has cut most of his ties with his old cop life. Fat and sad, Max is resigned to pouring his remaining days away like doing a secret wee in a swimming pool (these noir metaphors are hard). He spends his time drinking and popping painkillers – remember it was us PC gamers that earned him that particular vice 11 years ago – in a New Jersey bar just outside his old New York stomping ground.
And then, like a pretty dame with a nametag that reads 'Tara Rouble' sauntering into an office, trouble walks into his life. In Max Payne 3, it takes the form of a gaggle of hoodlums in Max's local. They're hopped up on steroids and testosterone, and you can't help but cheer when Max shoots them. Problem is, one of them is the son of a local crime lord. Max has to get out of the city in less than a New York minute – which, for UK readers, is pretty sharpish – lest he bring the full force of the city's scummy underbelly down on his head. Again.
He's lost his cop contacts, but Max still has a few buddies. Through his old police academy friend Raul Passos, he's offered bodyguard work in a sunny spot. Problem is, that sunny spot is Sao Paulo, one of Brazil's biggest cities and one of the world's most notorious crime spots.
But the change of scenery doesn't mean a change of tone: Max Payne 3 is as noir-y as a black and white film about a PI in a trenchcoat smoking a cigarette. Sure enough, his boss's wife Fabiana Branco gets kidnapped. Max suggests buying the kidnappers out, arranging to transfer the money at a football stadium. It's from here that I got to play Max Payne 3, trying to secure the release of Fabiana before she disappears into the Brazilian night forever, lost like a blue biro in a big box of identical blue biros. In an alley. In the rain.
Time may not have been kind to Max Payne the man, but for the game he inhabits it's had no such debilitating effects. Somewhat surprisingly, Max Payne 3 feels as fluid and gratifying in 2012 as it did back in 2001. Most third-person shooters emphasise restriction and defence; Max Payne 3 demands you go on the attack.
Max can move well for a big lad, demonstrating his time-bending powers – which return unaltered from the previous two games – as things start to go wrong at the stadium. Press Left-Shift and time slows down. Press Space and Max launches into a lengthy 'shoot-dodge' leap, letting him draw a bead on his enemies and execute them in mid-air.
The kidnappers want to collect their cash at the stadium's centre circle but, before Max can hand it over, sniper shots disrupt the meeting. A bullet slams into Max's shoulder, crippling his dual-gun wielding ability until he's able to patch himself up – cue a trip through the stadium to reach the home team's medical centre.
Bar the added weight, 12 years has gifted Max a cover system and very little else. Even the UI is the same as in previous games: a silhouetted figure reddening as slowly damage is taken. Health comes in pill form only: there's no recharging behind cover. In fact, enemies aggressively flush Max out from environmental hardpoints, Rockstar's way of coaxing players out into the open to greater use Max's slow-motion dives and dodges.
The result is something as smooth and satisfying as a neat scotch poured over a packet of cigarettes and served in an upturned fedora. Bullets slam into enemies with palpable force. The last enemy killed in a wave is subject to particularly gruesome effects: they're given their own special killcam, letting players gawp as their target's entry and exit wounds spurt geysers of blood.
After three minutes, I slipped back into long-dormant attack patterns honed on previous Max Payne games. It's clear the new developers understand Max, and want to produce a game as simultaneously silly and serious as its predecessors – a game where a fat, growly man can launch himself feet first through a window and slide down 30ft of tarpaulin, kick a soldier in the face, then get up a second later to complain about his day. Rockstar wear their influences on their sleeves: Max Payne 3's got the obvious nods to films – Man on Fire, Boiling Point, Reservoir Dogs – but its biggest informer is Max Payne itself.
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