Max Payne is dead. A few seconds ago he was shot in the neck by a girl with an afro wearing hot pants and a gas mask. Max is dead, and now you're patting down his body so that you can go through his wallet. Don't be too sad, though: in a moment, another Max will show his face. Hell, you could be Max yourself, if you get your act together.

Welcome to Payne Killer - one of the more unusual modes available in Max Payne 3's multiplayer. It's a riff on that fairly uncommon match type - think Juggernaut in Halo - where everyone gangs up on one player, who's the only person who can score. In a nutshell, the round starts with everyone on equal footing. The first player to score a kill becomes Max Payne, and the next person they kill respawns as his sidekick, Passos. Max and Passos hold out for as long as they can, scoring points for every gangster they kill. If another player manages to take one of the pair out, they respawn as the slain character, and the round continues.

It's a mode that you've probably played at some point in your gaming career, but Max Payne 3 has made a few subtle but important alterations to the norm. Aside from the fact that there's two of you holding out against the masses, rather than one lone outsider, there's a key difference between the two sides. The gangsters have strength in numbers and regenerating health; Max and Passos are stuck with old-school health, and must rely on painkillers (and their own skills) to keep the Grim Reaper at bay. On the plus side, they also get better weapons, and the ability to use Bullet Time - I'll explain how that works in a moment.

Payne Killer is intended to be a sort of multiplayer update of Max Payne 2's Dead Man Walking mode, and at times it does feel remarkably similar. If Max or Passos confront a lone street ganger they'll almost certainly win, but it's never long before their situation becomes desperate: painkillers long gone, the pair of you make a last stand in a shabby alleyway, determined to take as many grubby thugs as you can. At moments like these, you tend to think about the ending of Scarface, or perhaps Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid - and clearly, this is a Good Thing.

On a more serious, chin-stroking note, the finer points of Payne Killer show a willingness on Rockstar's part to mess around with the conventions of multiplayer scoring. Typically in a contest like this it's the person who lands the last hit - the kill shot - that gets the next turn in the scoring hot seat. Here, however, the role of Max or Passos passes to whoever scored the most hits overall: if you pump Passos full of lead and then some other pup performs the coup de grâce, they won't steal your victory. On the other hand, each successful hit on the pair earns you a smattering of points and XP, so even failed assassinations yield a minor reward.

Another multiplayer mode, Gang Wars, makes even more effort to daub narrative paint over the varied body of slaughter. This somewhat resembles Killzone 3's Operations: a five-round contest between two warring factions, with a dynamic story (of sorts) that evolves depending on the performance of each side. James McCaffrey pipes up with occasional dollops of narration, but as commentators go, he's no John Motson. The real draw of Gang Wars is the way the match twists and shimmies through different styles of play. One moment you're battling to hold down patches of turf, a la Domination; the next you're diffusing bombs, or trying to save your VIP, who remains anonymous until the other side notch up a set number of non-VIP kills. In a nice twist, the aggressors will still win even if they kill the defender's leader before he's formerly identified - so one lucky grenade can end the round in heartbeat.

Prior to the start of the fifth round, the game dishes bonuses to the side that fared best in the preceding bouts. The exact nature of the final clash also varies, but the odds are always stacked in favour of the dominant side. One example gives each gang a limited stock of lives, doling out more to the leading group: the underdogs start with a hefty disadvantage, but with tight team play it's still possible to turn the tables.

Rockstar is confident that this is the best multiplayer mode it's ever offered. It's certainly the most complex, with even vanilla Team Deathmatch offering the chance to bet cash (used for upgrading your loadout) against the performance of your competitors. Get whacked too many times in a row by a specific player, and you can set a Vendetta against them. The offending player is highlighted on your mini-map, and you then have a limited window of opportunity to extract revenge - earning you a nice XP bonus into the bargain. Unless, you screw up, in which case you lose the bonus and look like a tit.

While there's a lot to take in, Max Payne 3's multiplayer is littered with smart ideas and refinements to the status quo. This doesn't guarantee it'll take off, of course, but don't be surprised if a few of these devices show up in established multiplayer offerings. Each player death is marked by a comic panel-style snapshot of the killer and his victim, but the real innovation is arguably the accompanying target indicator, showing exactly where the fatal shots hit home. It's particularly aggravating to learn that your murderer emptied a full clip into your crotch, for example.

Also underpinning the whole shebang is hefty chunk of customisation options, allowing you to kit out your avatar with the aforementioned hot-pants-and-gas-mask combo. If you're the kind of player who likes to appear as a walking fashion atrocity, you'll be well served here. More impressive still is the class system, assigning you a weight based on the combined burden of your guns and equipment. The latter also affects the speed of your movement and health regen, though at the moment it still feels sensible to stomp about with body armour and an RPD, or a similarly weighty weapon.

Kill Bursts offer yet another way to tilt the combat in your favour. Playing out like a combination of CoD's Perks and Killstreaks, these are multi-tier special powers that can only be used at the cost of Adrenaline, earned from successful kills and via the looting of bodies. Intuition reveals the location of enemies, while the brilliant Paranoia makes rival players see everyone as hostiles; if you save up enough Adrenaline for a Level 3 Paranoia attack, this also enables friendly fire for the opposing side. Someone at Rockstar has even worked out how to fit Bullet Time into a multiplayer environment, limiting the power's effects to anyone caught in its immediate vicinity. It's localised slow-motion, in essence, with only the activator able to aim and fire at "normal" speed.

To repeat the obvious, there's a lot going on here - so many mechanics that it's near exhausting just to list them, let alone appraise how they might fit into an active community. To be honest, the most important thing is that when you sweep all the bells and whistles aside, it's really fun to shoot people. It's obvious that Rockstar has set out to build on Red Dead Redemption's deathmatching, pinching elements from other shooters and making its own tweaks, wherever it can.

Whether you're launching RPGs across the map, pistol-whipping someone in the face or making an ill-advised shootdodge over a balcony (you'll try it, guaranteed), someone's going to get hurt. And whatever the outcome, you'll feel like a badass.


Max Payne 3 will be released on PS3 and Xbox 360 on May 18, and PC on June 1.