It's clear from the outset of Max Payne 3 that our cleverly christened protagonist is not in a happy place.
It's been 10 years since he avenged the death of his wife and daughter, and he can still think of nothing else. Drowning in lethal mix of booze and despair, Max – now a bit craggier, a little greyer and slightly broader around the waist – leaves his old life behind to start anew as a bodyguard in São Paulo, Brazil, where he takes a job protecting a family of local celebrities. But the new setting does little good. Chasing pills with whisky, he seems on a mission of self destruction set to rival Nicolas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas.
Little changes when his employers come under unexpected attack and a wife is kidnapped. Still thinking about the other women he's failed to save, Max sets out after her, but he's far from his best. He undertakes missions drunk and stoned, wearing his insobriety as a badge of honour even as he fears it may be costing innocent people their lives.
On the other hand, Max's intoxicants may partly explain his uncanny ability to view events in "bullet time," a feature from the first two games in the series carried forward in style here. He fires with deadly precision while sliding down roofs, hanging off helicopter skids, and "shoot-dodging," exhibiting a reckless abandon that even trained Hollywood stuntmen would do well not to emulate.
The slick slow motion effects should be all the evidence the series' fans need that Rockstar Games, which has taken over stewardship of Max from Finnish originator Remedy Entertainment, hasn't messed with the franchise's core formula – this despite the game's marked overhaul in outward appearance.
The original games' graphic novel aesthetic is mostly gone. Comic panel storytelling and speech bubbles are out, replaced by movie-like cut-scenes in which key words and phrases from the dialogue flash stylishly in text form to pound home their importance.
And we've been given a world that's at once glossier and grittier than those of its precursors, with photorealistic levels set in shining office towers and rooftop bars as well as within the rambling chaos of São Paulo's ramshackle favelas.
But Max is still irrefutably Max; a gruff-toned and brooding widower. He provides a near-constant voice over that deftly shifts between unexpectedly sharp insights into human nature and darkly comical self-deprecation. He's disgusting yet somehow cool; deeply pitiable but also fearsome. Most importantly, he's likeable – a borderline antihero deserving of a sympathetic, perhaps even cheering audience.
What's more, Rockstar – a studio known primarily for sprawling, open-world games such as those in the Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead series – has taken ownership of the franchise's decidedly linear format. Every moment and location has a purpose. There is no fat or waste, no getting mired in pointless repetition. Each mission feels new, each scene fresh. We may be lead down an inalterable path, but it's one I think is well worth following, if not for the taught narrative than for the finely choreographed gunplay.
Of course, in a market cluttered with shooting games of all ilks, players have developed their own tastes. Some may not take to a game that expects players to swallow the notion that terminal wounds can be healed instantly by a bottle of painkillers, or one that frequently pauses play in order to cut to angles that show a more spectacular view of the grisly carnage. A realistic combat simulation Max Payne 3 is not.
That said, the action isn't quite as run-and-gun as it has been in earlier games. A new and smartly implemented covering mechanic makes gunfights more strategic than before, forcing players to pause and consider their options while catching their breath.
Don't take too long, though. The game's enemies are cunning, and quick to flank and throw grenades. I was frequently astounded by their tactics, especially one scene in which an enemy drew my fire by popping his head out of cover too quickly for me to take a bead on, acting as a decoy while others moved up on my blind side.
Another welcome addition is a soft-lock targeting system that doesn't snap your reticule to an enemy, as most do, but instead gives it a helping nudge. It's a clever middle ground that could find traction among both those who write off typical console-style target assist modes as cheating and more casual players who'd like to experience a more manual control.
Interestingly, the soft lock system has been carried into the game's multiplayer as well (matches are smartly sorted by style so that free aimers aren't mixed with auto-lockers). Truth be told, though, I've spent little time online. The action is a bit too frenetic for my liking. From what I've experienced play seems to push players to be constantly on the move, and those in possession of better reflexes hold a significant advantage.
However, gamers who cue to this fast-paced play will get to have fun with some unusual – dare I say innovative? – match types, the most curious of which is Gang Wars. This is a mode made up of multiple rounds with varying objectives, from standard territory defence and deathmatches to challenges in which one team might need to flee from the other or assassinate specific targets. There's also what looks to be a deep levelling system, complete with weapon upgrades and "grinds" – side tasks that play out over multiple matches and earn players extra experience points in their quest to level up.
Even if you don't take to online play there's still plenty to squeeze out of the game beyond its story mode – which, it's worth noting, bears a second play through, if only to track down all of the golden weapon collectibles or find every last piece of hidden evidence, which add flavour to the plot in the form of surprising revelations and odd side stories. There's also the Score Attack mode, where you can zoom through story chapters with the goal of racking up points through stylish and expert marksmanship, and the series' familiar New York Minute mode, where it's all about maximum carnage in minimum time.
Max's absence has been long, and his return is welcome. Rockstar's Vancouver team has managed to keep his soulful character and the franchise's distinct style intact while bringing both to modernity by adding a dash of graphical glitz and the studio's own signature panache. Our grieving, gun-happy widower remains broken, but he's in good hands.
Max Payne 3
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3, Windows PC
Developer: Rockstar Games
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release: May 15, 2012