Previews

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

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

It begins with the familiar strains of a cello. The ornate, sweeping, mournful waves of melody, written for the first game by Kartsy Hatakka but cast in iconic grandeur in the second, by swapping a synth for full-blooded orchestral menace.

It's fitting, in a way. The first Max Payne was as much a self-parody as it was a noir-action-thrill-ride. It was stylish, gritty and downbeat but it contained enough knowing winks to take the edge off its darkest moments. That all changed in Max Payne 2, a sequel in which Finnish developer, Remedy, dumped all the in-jokes and sly references and took Max into terrain steeped in Gothic opulence.

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Rockstar don't do opulence. Since the arrival of GTA IV, the developer has made an unshakable claim to the thematic terrain of gritty realism. Every major title that has rolled off their production line since Niko Bellic stepped off the boat in Liberty City has asserted the position that Rockstar has traded cartoon-violence for real-world authenticity. So you have to wonder how this emphasis on the real matches up with an IP that's intimately tied to the high-concept hyperbolic presentation of the first two Max Payne games.

The answer to this query is evident in the opening credits of Max Payne 3 as the cello kicks in. Max enters a small flat and unpacks his bag. He rifles through his belongings and then gazes into a picture he's brought with him. His signature baritone rumbles over the action on screen as he cracks open some whisky, lights up a tab and starts drinking. His vision blurs and shudders. One moment he's staring out from his balcony over the vista of Sao Paulo that's glistening beneath the night sky, and the next, the next, he's stumbling towards the bathroom.

It's an affecting cutscene; Max is still depressed, still battered and bruised, still haunted by the memories of his dead wife and child. But he's also knocking back the booze and pills with reckless abandon. As he mutters on about how everything he touches turns to dust, it becomes apparent that no matter how far Max Payne is from his home, his problems remain right with him.

This is because, in Rockstar's hands, Max is something other than the walking action movie cliché he was in the first game or the noir archetype he became in the second. In this, his third outing, Max is simply presented as a drug-addled, depressed alcoholic. He doesn't want to get better. He doesn't want to stay sober. It seems that what he wants, above all else, is to annihilate his brain cells and wallow in his own misery. In Rockstar's hands, Max is his own biggest problem, and by applying their trademark aesthetic of gritty realism, the developer has forced Max to man-up in a way and infused the IP with a maturity it never had until now.

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As the credits draw to a close, we're told that the action is about to jump ahead about an hour into the game to avoid us heading into spoiler territory. We rejoin the game with Max in a helicopter, now part of the security detail for a South American business magnate, Rodrigo Branco. He, and his friend Passos, are chaperoning Branco's trophy wife, Fabiana, and his playboy dolt brother, Marcello, to one of Sao Paulo's hottest nightspots, Club Moderno. Fabiana's sister, Giovanna, is along for the ride, presumably, Max sneers, so Fabiana "could show off how much money she has."

Max's low opinion of his charges isn't without basis. As the chopper cuts through the sky above Sao Paulo, its occupants reveal how loathsome they are. Fabiana is a shallow and spoiled airhead, fully aware that her body is her meal ticket. At one point, she pauses between sips of champagne to playfully mock her sister for doing charity work with street kids in the city's favela. Marcello, for his part, is what we refer to in Britain as a colossal wanker; he's a mouthy show off who seems to think that having a security detail with guns makes him something of a hard man. He's also quite happy to leech off his brothers' labours while contributing nothing himself.

The club they drag Max to is, unsurprisingly, a bling-encrusted hellhole. Whirling strobe lights bounce off neon-pink walls while thumping techno blasts out of gargantuan speaker stacks. Fabiana and her sister hit the dancefloor while Max decides the best way to cope with Club Moderno is to get drunk as quickly as possible (as if he needed an excuse). Marcello, for his part, grouses about not getting the best table in the club's VIP lounge, and considers picking a fight with the person who has - a star player in Sao Paulo's local football team. His desire for a punch up fades pretty much instantly when he realises Max has little intention in backing his play.

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