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'Max Payne 3' first impressions: 'Baghdad with g-strings'

Max Payne is back. Trading his badge for what appears to be a cushy gig in Brazil guarding socialites, our titular character seems to spends much of the game working on a pretty steady cocktail of booze and pills.

In between the drunken hazes and flashbacks rests a gritty third-person shooter that tells a story unlike almost any other game out there. “Max Payne 3” is cinematic in the best ways possible, never wasting the player’s time with a cutscene that doesn’t mean something or keep the action moving. The gameplay and cinematic elements are so well-interwoven in fact, that in some ways one might feel as though they are being directed in a really excellent film or cable drama.

The change in scenery makes “Max Payne 3” not just good, but special. The contrast of the bright sun and glitzy evenings of Sao Paulo (which Max refers to as “Baghdad with g-strings”) against the familiar film noir pacing makes for a truly memorable experience. The dichotomy between rich and poor, the immense beauty contrasted with the brutal violence all point to an aesthetic only achieved elsewhere in the brilliant film “City of God.”

The mechanics of the shooter portion of the game are good but not mind-blowing. “Bullet time” feels more for flair than as a useful tool, and the shoot-dodge move adds even more theater to the firefight. That said, the novelty of getting out of a hairy situation by flying through the air guns blazing has not worn off yet.

Max looks phenomenal, withered and tough and sad, which makes up for the fact that the other characters don’t always look to be pushing the limits of the technology with their rendering. The blurred line between where the actor portraying him (James McCaffery) ends and Max Payne begins would make the creators of “The Polar Express” blush with envy. Even if you’re not very familiar with Max or his past, the strong visuals and fantastic voice over writing allow you to connect with and care about the character immediately.

“Max Payne 3” does a phenomenal job of telling a very specific story without being heavy-handed. There’s a sequence of events that’s supposed to happen, but the game allows them to develop organically, even peppering in some voiceover from Max when you’re taking a while to clear an area. There is never the sense that the game is simply waiting for you to reach the next save point. On the first playthrough, it’s unclear how wide the decision tree spans and how much of a “choose your own adventure” model really lies beneath. Even if the game were 100% linear, it would not detract from the experience one iota.

Perhaps the great storytelling is what drives the player through the modest shooter experience, and masks what is ultimately a fairly straightforward series of firefights with some cool stunts like shooting out tires or diving off a roof while firing. Once I dig more into the new multiplayer, I’ll have a better sense of whether the nuts and bolts of the game can stand on their own without the narrative backing behind it.

I’ll follow up with a full-on review once I’ve had more playing time, but if there was any doubt in your mind about whether “Max Payne 3” was worth a look, the debate should be put to rest.

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