Max Payne 3 (Rockstar Games)Rockstar Games might best be known as the force behind Grand Theft Auto, but they've got other intense franchises in their game stable, too.
And it doesn't get much more intense than Max Payne. After an 8-year layoff, the dark detective returns in the anticipated sequel Max Payne 3, which brings one of the more unique video game heroes to the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on May 15.
"Max is simultaneously the noir archetype of the hardboiled, war-weary detective trying to do good in a confusing world, who also is prone to making mistakes," explained Dan Houser, co-founder and vice president of creative at Rockstar Games. "He's a version of a super hero in some ways, and the fact that he has very strong flaws makes him very relatable."
The third game in the best-selling action franchise, which launched in 2001, finds Max Payne, still addicted to drugs and alcohol, far from his New York home. No longer a cop, Max takes up with a private security company playing bodyguard to a very wealthy family in Brazil. But the new exotic setting doesn't mean the third-person shooter gameplay won't still deliver some very intense firefights.
The addition of a new bullet camera that allows players to steer bullets in slow motion as they head toward the bad guys should keep fans happy.
"It's not like a lot shooters where there really isn't AI and enemies are pretty scripted so that it looks great when you first play it, but when you play it again it's the exact same experience," said Houser. "Max Payne 3 has very high replay value because it's always going to be different."
Houser is hoping gamers, both casual and hardcore, become immersed in the game's new story, which he believes marks something of a gaming milestone.
"One of the big things we really pushed in Max Payne 3 is for gamers to feel like they're living through a Hollywood action movie," he said. "The whole thing is one seamless experience. The way we can flow in and out of cut scenes and into gameplay without ever seeing a loading screen is a real technological breakthrough for storytelling in this game."
Speaking of Hollywood, Houser has never seen the 2008 20th Century Fox film starring Mark Wahlberg as Max Payne. Rockstar was not even involved in that film. Houser said there's a reason why gamers have not seen a Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt or any Rockstar game on the silver screen.
"We looked at it a couple times with a couple of different properties but never really got close because we never really figured out what we could say in a movie that we weren't already saying in the game," said Houser, who noted that a typical game's linear story can span the equivalent of five feature films. "Beyond the interactivity, one of the key things in the game is this digital tourism putting you in a place you've never been to, or in the case of Max Payne, putting you in the psyche of that character and letting you experience it as him. When that's all gone, we're not quite sure what's left."
Despite the violent nature of the character and Max's many addictions, the game franchise has escaped the negative publicity that has surrounded Rockstar franchises like GTA.
"Max is more of a hero, even with his flaws, whereas the protagonists in GTA games tend to be bad guys with good sides," said Houser. "Max Payne came out in the same year as GTA III and Max Payne 2 came out in the same year as Manhunt, and both of those games got much more negative publicity than Max ever did."
With the influx of new gamers entering the space via mobile (the first Max Payne was recently released for tablets and smartphones), free-to-play online and big-budget game franchises, the controversy surrounding violent game launches has subsided over the years.
"I think people have noticed one basic fact," said Houser. "These games have been around for 30 years and in that time society hasn't fallen apart. The claims of those who saw games as the next and most effective great evil unleashed upon society have proven not to be the case."
Gamers will contend with plenty of evil in Max Payne 3, and likely in GTA V in the near future. But that's what makes action games enjoyable, and even addictive. Just like the movies from the 1970s and the more recent John Woo Hong Kong cinema that influenced Houser and the team at Rockstar, the advances in technology have allowed storytelling to come to life more vibrantly than ever before.