Max Payne hasn't graced video gamers' screens for nearly nine years, and when we reacquaint ourselves with the former New York City detective, we find a man drowning his troubled past in bottles of scotch and prescription pills.
The protagonist of "Max Payne 3" ($59.99, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC) might be teetering near rock bottom, but developer Rockstar Games has created a cinematic masterpiece around him. The narrated third-person shooter packs intense action and exquisitely eerie production while revealing an engaging story line through solid acting.
Max, still hitting the bottle following the murder of his wife and daughter, heads down to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to join his friend Raul on the security team for a rich socialite family. An exclusive high-rise party provides the opportunity for some detective-style narration to introduce us to some new characters, but Max is quickly thrust into a violent gun battle.
The game immediately highlights a stretching of the familiar Shootdodge maneuver as Max gets to blast away intruders gathered on a large balcony while sliding down an awning. Also back is Bullet Time, a temporary upgrade that slows down motion so Max can concentrate on hitting enemies.
Three targeting options -- hard lock, soft lock or off -- adjust the difficulty to please both hard-core gamers and those looking for an easier experience so they can just enjoy the ride.
Scenes in "Max Payne 3" play out artistic yet brutally violent, with bullets splattering blood as they pierce skin and bones. And each scene ends with the perspective shifting to a slow-motion bullet cam that adds an exclamation point before Max moves on.
The game makes better use of cover, and unless you've been conserving painkillers, it's often better to pace and protect Max behind railings and desks instead of just running and opening fire.
The settings for Max's battles are varied.
A neon nightclub is gorgeous but distracting, with flashing lights and pulsating beats making it tough to spot those who broke up the party. A battle through a vast soccer stadium weaves seamlessly between wide-open stadium seating areas, tight catwalks perched above the field and more intimate back corridors and luxury suite areas.
Max once again is skillfully voiced by James McCaffrey (the ghost of firefighter Jimmy Keefe on the TV cable series "Rescue Me").
While pacing is an important part of the single-player story mode, multiplayer is a frenzied free-for-all.
The Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes are much like other shooters, but they're enhanced with the incorporation of bursts such as health and weapon upgrades and Bullet Time, which in multiplayer affects only those characters in Max's field of vision.
Gang Wars mode adds objectives to the mix, and Payne Killer makes the player who kills Max the new hunted one.
But story mode is this game's draw, and fans who have been waiting nearly a decade for the next "Max Payne" game should be raising their scotch glasses to Rockstar.
Four stars out of four.