Max Payne's journey through the night will continue.
It's been a long, long time since the end credits of Max Payne 2 made that pledge - about eight years, to be precise. Remedy may have moved on to Alan Wake and other projects, but Rockstar still has the license, and now it finally seems that the promise is finally about to be fulfilled.
We already know where the journey will be taking us: São Paulo, Brazil. This change of setting, along with Max's new appearance - bald, bearded, and shorn of his iconic leather jacket - has understandably generated a fair bit of controversy among Payne's long-time fans. The first thing to note, then, is that we won't be heading south of the border straight away. The story kicks off in New York, and over the course of the game we'll learn how and why Max ends up on foreign turf with a beardy chin and a shiny noggin.
At the start of Rockstar's demo, Max is chilling out at his swanky bachelor pad in the Big Apple. Ok, that's not quite true: he's marinating in his own filth, and given the state of his apartment - drab decor, empty booze bottles, and omnipresent takeout trash - it's safe to say he won't be winning Come Dine With Me any time soon. The leather jacket is there, as is a full head of hair. Max is being courted by Raul Passos, a former cop buddy who's offering a lucrative security gig in Brazil, but the negotiation doesn't last long; an angry mob boss shows up and starts baying for Max's blood.
It seems that our hero accidentally ran over the man's dog. Actually, replace the words "accidentally" with "repeatedly", "ran over" with "shot", and "dog" with "son".
Some things never change, and as Max dives down the corridors of his apartment block, blasting gangsters in slow motion, it certainly recalls the good ol' days. Bullet Time is still here, obviously, and now as our hero moves he leaves a slight shimmery blur in his wake. You still fill the guage for this power by killing enemies, or by being fired upon, and to heal you'll need to quaff vast quantities of pain pills. By now Max's liver must look like a six-month old Big Mac, but as drug abuse hasn't killed him so far, I doubt it ever will.
The single biggest concession to modern gaming is the inclusion of a cover system, but thankfully its use seems to be far from mandatory. If you want to play sensible - something Max himself would never, ever do - that's an option, but from the looks of things you're equally free to run and gun. If you were concerned that the series might become a Gears-style squat fest, you can stop worrying now. Should your Rambo tactics lead to you taking lethal damage, you'll get a brief Bullet Time chance to save yourself: snuff out an enemy in your dying moments, and you'll be resurrected - but only if you've got pills to chug down.
While the New York sequence clearly recalls the first two games, it's pleasing to note that the action still felt surprisingly close to home even in the second half of Rockstar's demo, which took place in SãoPaulo. It certainly helps that James McCaffrey has returned to voice Max once more (and his appearance, this time around), as his gravelly tones are undisputedly the core of the character. The first two games were almost entirely nocturnal in their setting, and yet the bright Brazilian sunshine does surprisingly little to warm up Max's world. This is still a game about a damaged man in a hostile world, slaughtering dozens of bad guys at a time, and when our pill-popper launches into one of his iconic slow-motion dives, bullets lazily whizzing past his head, follicular absence will be the last thing on your mind.
The latter part of the demo found Max and a companion battling through a deserted bus depot, a location that provided plenty of opportunities for creative mass destruction. The Havok engine was a shiny new innovation when Max Payne 2 was released, but in-game physics has come a long way in the past eight years. With slow motion being such a prominent feature, the game encourages you to revel in the pyrotechnics of an exploding petrol pump or shattering panes of glass. The environment is filled with clutter that begs to be shredded by gunfire, and the scenery frequently throws up additional ways for Max to murder his foes. A bus sits atop a hydraulic lift; plug the control panel with bullets and gravity does its thing, pulping the gunmen below.
Ostensibly this is an escort sequence, with Max accompanying the nubile Giovanna, Passos' girlfriend. Thankfully this setup is largely used to keep you on your toes, rather than forcing you to mind a suicidal NPC. One moment finds Max racing to save Giovanna from imminent execution, but this is a one-off event that's largely in keeping with the game's tendency to throw up slow-mo set-pieces. Elsewhere we find Max descending to a garage floor via crane, blasting villains as he goes, while the demo climaxes with a wonderfully overblown sequence involving a stolen bus and the world's least-subtle drive-by.
With both balletic gunplay and gritty tone in tact, the game's departures from its predecessors start to feel less drastic. Indeed, the most divisive issue for established Payne fans may be the removal of the series' trademark comic-book interludes. Their replacements take the form of collages of moving images, accompanied by McCaffrey's growled narration. They're edited with style - though I'm not sure about the way key words occasionally flash on screen - but I suspect most fans will miss the static art. They may have been born out of necessity (Remedy wanted more cutscenes in the original game), but they were a key part of the formula, and I felt their absence.
In all other regards, however, Max Payne 3 seems to feel like the real deal. Some things may have changed, but key ingredients are still very much there. Besides, you know what it's like when you get a hair cut: you think it looks weird at first, and then it grows on you. Quite literally, in fact.