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Max Payne 3 and the conflict at the heart of Rockstar’s game design

I’m not sure if there’s another game I feel more conflicted about than Max Payne 3. The first two games rank amongst my personal favourites – particularly the second, which I think is one of the finest action shooters going. Max Payne 3 is at once better and worse than its predecessors. It has more intense shootouts, far superior visual effects, and production values to rival any Hollywood blockbuster – all of which were exactly what Max Payne strived to achieve back in 1999.

I also think it’s Rockstar’s most revealing creation. Rockstar has built a reputation as an architect of worlds, unparalleled not just in scope but in the nitty gritty of life simulation. No studio has taken a genre and made it their own quite like Rockstar North has with Grand Theft Auto. Rockstar may not have invented the open-city genre, but the Housers’ signature is so deeply inscribed upon it they may as well have.

Max Payne is another developer’s IP, and one which Rockstar sought to imprint its own personality upon. But Max already has his own personality, one constructed from wry cynicism, verbose monologues, and overwrought similes. The snow-lined streets, grotty tenements and endless nights of Noo Yoik Siddy are as much a part of his character as his tragic back-story and superhuman reflexes. Moreover, as a game Max Payne is the antithesis of everything Rockstar had built up to that point – a fast and furious action shooter that runs almost entirely on a highly specific style, whose substance only appears when time slows to a gelatinous crawl.

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