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Max Payne 3: the perfect antidote to shooter fatigue

Hands on with Rockstar's thrilling franchise reboot

Rockstar's reinvented Max Payne 3 doesn't look like he can defy gravity. In fact, he looks like he'd struggle to defy a no-smoking sign. Years of borderline alcoholism have reduced Remedy's original keen-eyed duellist to a paunchy, balding tank - menacing, yes, but in a cuddly way, like a grumpy house cat.

He belongs behind a desk, arranging office poker games. Instead, he's slumped against a stadium wall in Sao Paulo with a bullet-riddled bicep. He's just lost about three million US dollars in ready cash, ransom money for his employer's thrill-loving wife, nabbed (like her) by unknown and well-armed parties. He doesn't know the lingo, and he's got the barest inkling of the criminal agendas in play. "The brochure sure didn't mention any of this shit," he growls.

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At first, Rockstar's potent physics engine merely underscores Max's helplessness. He wobbles to and fro as we follow old colleague Raul Passo (the man who persuaded Max to take an overseas private security job) down the corridor, smearing blood everywhere. Damage is conveyed via a queasy combing effect, edges and textures splintering to mush, but it's the dynamic animations that make you feel vulnerable: Max reaching for a rail, or wiping the sweat off his brow. He doesn't handle like a traditional hero with a scratch-proof coating. He handles like somebody who can die.

And then Bullet Time kicks in, sweeping the fear and confusion away. Max's signature trick no longer sets him apart - even Skyrim has a variation on the idea, for goodness' sake - but it's never looked this spectacular. Descending the stadium's flank, a click of right stick slows incoming fire to a swarm of silver points. Max pivots, his legs and torso reorienting naturally, to spew equally lethargic SMG rounds at the men huddled below, and without releasing the trigger, throws himself sideways.

Bullet Time lasts forever while you're in flight (it drains away quickly when you're on foot), so we're able to glide the length of the stalls, scoring two, four, six headshots in succession. The eventual impact costs us most of our health, but in an unwitting stroke of brilliance, we skid along the ground into cover.

Ah yes, cover. Returning Payne fans won't like the sound of that, but Rockstar's PR folk aren't lying when they call the system "strictly optional". Digging in buys you breathing space, but it won't replenish your health or restock your weapons - far better to push forward, catching your foes half-cocked before they can knuckle down. There's a Last Man Standing mechanic to spare you the tedium of reloads: slot the man who fired the fatal round quickly, and you'll suck down a life-saving painkiller.

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One interior sequence hammers this home. Entering a hallway filled with paras in body armour, we make the mistake of trying to pick them all off, Gears of War style, from the shelter of a pillar. Result: we're savaged, pinned and over-run. As in other games, armoured foes are weakest from the neck up, and you'll have a better view of your opponents' scalps if you're channelling Superman.

Given the greasy magnificence of the game's Natural Motion physics, it's hard to resist shoot-dodging whenever you spot an enemy. All fine and good, providing you master the art of fighting from floor level. Unlike Remedy's detective, Rockstar's Max won't flip himself instantly to his feet after a dive. Getting up leaves you vulnerable for a crucial second or two, so it's often advisable (and satisfying) to writhe around a bit first, polishing off survivors.

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