This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK 233.
Mull this over: it's been eight years since we last saw Max rip a raw, bloody wound through the New York criminal underbelly. Eight years. That is old (staff writer Rich was 17 when Max Payne 2 came out). But no one has managed to take his place. Kane & Lynch tried, and they're still trying, but for grumpy, hyperviolent third-person action, we really need some more Max.
Despite a new haircut and the sunnier setting of Sao Paulo, as I'm shown the new game in Rockstar's offices it's clear they're sticking to the well-worn path that Max sourly trod before. In fact, we're in New York. Brazil does feature a lot, but this wouldn't be the same game without a dingy, Big Apple corridor to tear up.
It starts in Max's apartment, where he's under siege from a mob family. Max has killed the boss's son. It's the incident that'll send him to Brazil, fleeing from the rage of the mafiosi. Rockstar have done a remarkable job of impersonating the original developers Remedy: when Max runs out into the corridor blasting at the mob guys and drops into bullet-time, everything feels spot on. The world thickens as the trenchcoated ex-cop fires his gleaming handcannons. I can pick out individual bullets leaving the gun. The guy at the end of the corridor folds. The sniper rifle laser sights coming in through the window are easily dodgeable as time takes a break.
Coming out of bullet-time, the noise and bodies play catch-up, and everything rushes into place with a chaotic whoosh that's as satisfying as the violence. Glass tinkles as the snipers' bullets play across the corridors: Max dives into bullet-time and aims at the opposite roof, peppering the snipers. As he hits the ground, the camera zooms to his target's face, tracing the bullet. A short cutscene plays – a crazed ex-military neighbour of Max's runs into the corridor with a shotgun and takes out a few mobsters, before detonating a bomb vest. Inside, his apartment is littered with conspiracy paraphernalia and bomb-making equipment. It has nothing to do with the main story, but those surreal little pockets of madness fit into Max's strange dream-like noir world perfectly.
The story bounces between New York and Brazil. Fleeing NY, Max ends up working for the Brancos, a wealthy Brazilian family, as a security chief for hire. Their money makes them a target for the paramilitary group Cracha Preto. They've already kidnapped the trophy wife of the family's boss, Rodrigo Branco.
Max goes through some major image changes on his trip; the shaven-headed, wife-beater-vest look is the final stage in his transformation. It's a 'fuck you, shit's about to get real' to the people he's fighting. Before that, though, he's rocking a cheap, crumpled grey suit, while protecting the family from strangely well-equipped invaders.
The bad guys rappel into Branco's HQ while Max is escorting an IT guy to the server room, but the NPC isn't a burden: he keeps away from the fight and opens doors when asked. That's his contribution. The open-plan office is a perfect place to show off the new cover mechanics. Max sticks to the walls, and ducks under waist-sized desks. He can blind-fire over and around the edge of cover. It's a concession to stealth, but there's a lot more fun to be had just running around and gunning.
Modern offices are good places for shootouts: everything explodes in papery, glassy blasts under Max's double-Uzi onslaught. There's just enough cover to take people unawares, and Max now has a disarm move that spams a few punches at a nearby enemy before yanking whatever weapon they've got out of their grip. There's plenty of opportunity to upgrade weaponry from a warm grasp – or cold, dead hands. While Rockstar are known for their open worlds, this is a tightly choreographed bolt. The bullet trail camera, which follows the killshot from the barrel of your gun to the target, kicks in when Max fires at an enemy standing in front of a glass window. He spins backwards out of the window, the camera following his final moments in a haze of blood and broken glass. It's a nice reward for the player, and it doubles as a way of telling you that you've just shot the last bad guy of the section.
Further on, after Max has a battle with a heavily armoured minigun boss who requires nothing but bullet spam to put down, the office explodes. As offices tend to do, when around Max.
Stumbling through the ruins of the building, Max has collapsing floors and flames to contend with. But even when he's limping, concussed and slightly on fire, he still has to shoot people. Max battles his way through the flames; no wonder he's grumpy.
The game is punctuated with cinematic moments: tiny instances of obligatory bullet-time, a few per level, such as the warehouse sequence I'm shown. The level floods with enemies and you're given a few seconds of unlimited ammo. Max leaps from a balcony to a hook, and dangles from it, before slow-motion kicks in and he's swinging, shooting everyone in a few seconds. The warehouse is part of a bus depot, which is where Max has to lead Giovanna, a girlfriend, to safety – and again it looks like Rockstar have got it right: there's no mollycoddling a dim AI here. She only gets in trouble when the story demands it.
There's a lot of environmental detail in the bus depot. Nearby, a petrol station explosion results in an impressive blast that destroys a bus and launches enemies through the air. Other points of interest include a gunfight in the station garage that ends with Max shooting the control panel on a massive platform, dropping the bus that's resting on it onto the heads of the enemies who were using it for cover. Later, Max uses his bullets to aid a loose balcony on its way to collapse.
It all looks lovely in slow motion. It was never enough for Max Payne to look slick: it had to feel awesome as well. Rockstar have expanded the Woo-some action a little, allowing Max to land after a dive and to continue firing in a 360° arc from the ground. It's a nice touch, further empowering the player to shoot whoever you like while lying on your back.
But laid back it's not. When Max and Giovanna have to commandeer a bus to make their escape, the inevitable happens: an on-rails shooting section. Yet, as with the NPC escorting, it looks like Rockstar have neatly side-stepped the usual pitfalls. It's short and it's explosive. Giovanna drives while Max leans out of the open front door and unleashes his Uzi. Even in a bus, Max can use bullet-time to pick out the gas pumps, although the constant forward progression tends to leave the resulting plume of flame somewhere in your peripheral vision. The demonstration ends with the bus crashing and a fitting fade to black.
Truth be told, the action hasn't moved on that much in the dormant years. The NPCs are a bit smarter, but this is the sort of stuff that Remedy delivered nearly a decade ago, just with some spit and polish, and extra action moments underpinning the classic manshoots. The gravelly narration remains and the story is still delivered through graphic novel-style cutscenes, although now they take scenes from the game and force them into each panel.
In fact, the only concession to what we expect from a modern game is in the hidden multiplayer that Rockstar have confirmed but are refusing to talk about. In pretty much every other aspect, Max Payne 3 has refused to move with the times. It's absolutely the old Max in new clothing