Multiplayer modes can be treacherous things.

Too often these days we’re presented with a poorly executed appendage to the main event, a developmental afterthought pandering to a committee’s belief that releasing a shooter without an online component is tantamount to market hara-kiri. In other cases, the multiplayer may appear to be cynically implemented to deter second-hand sales – or incentivise first-hand sales, depending on how you perceive the glass.

But whatever the reason for their inclusion, such multiplayer modes all share one common trait: no one is playing them. A cursory scan of the available multiplayer matches for many recent releases can make for rather depressing reading. In this era of gaming, any shooter not built almost expressly for online play is quickly abandoned for those that are. Small wonder Human Head rushed to douse any suggestion of a multiplayer mode for Prey 2, rightly arguing that those development costs are better spent polishing the singleplayer rather than desperately paddling against the Halo tsunami.

And why should Max Payne 3 be any different? Rockstar may be known and widely admired for many things, but creating hardcore multiplayer shooters for cosseted teenage boys is not amongst them.

New Max Payne 3 weapons screenshots
Brandishing his trusty 1911 pistol.

Maybe it’s unsurprising to learn, then, that Max Payne 3’s multiplayer is unlikely to radically alter the demarcations of the online shooter landscape. But it doesn’t appear to be designed with that intention. It seems that Rockstar wishes to craft a carefully realised aperitif to the main course rather than attempting to throw a competing keg party across the street from the Battlefield, Halo and Call of Duty fraternities.

To do so, the developer has focused particularly on implementing those gameplay mechanics and stylistic elements that appear to set Max Payne 3 apart from other contemporary shooters. The singleplayer’s developmental tenets – narrative context, cinematic and graphic novel-like presentation, authentic physicality, time-bending Bullet Time and Shoot-Dodge – have all been doggedly reproduced across the game’s multiplayer.

Naturally, characterisation is the cornerstone of these features, and Rockstar has created a comprehensive suite of customisation tools to allow players to personalise their criminal counterpart. These characters are based on the footsoldiers, both male and – this ought to be reinforced – female, that vie for dominance of São Paulo’s favelas.

New Max Payne 3 weapons screenshots
Max's signature dual-wielding returns in Max Payne 3.

Whereas too many multiplayer avatars now resemble armed and armoured phalluses pompously jogging around an obstacle course, the women of Max Payne 3’s multiplayer appear to demonstrate their own refreshingly gender-specific muscularity. The visceral delight gleaned by watching a fiery petite Brazilian woman dislodging her bewildered opponent’s nose with a jandaled foot cannot be overstated.

That level of sanguine detail is delivered on kill-screens that mimic the singleplayer’s graphic novel aesthetic. Elsewhere, Max himself will deliver monologues as red herrings – for example, when a player has taken out a vendetta against another who has killed him or her twice in succession – or as the multiplayer’s flagship competitive mode, Gang Wars, transitions from one phase to the next.

Gang Wars demonstrates the implementation of narrative in multiplayer. Here, two gangs square off against one another over a series of dynamically changing objectives. How these challenges unfold is based on how the last objective played out. Max will talk players through each transition, commenting with typical disillusion and detachment on the success or failure of the previous round before outlining the goal of the next.

New Max Payne 3 weapons screenshots
Max fires his Micro 9MM at a nearby thug.

Two additional modes, the largely self-explanatory Team Deathmatch, and Payne Killer round out the multiplayer offering. The latter is a variant of King of the Hill: Two players will assume the roles of Max and his partner Raul Passos, and go up against the rest of the match’s players. Those who kill Max or Raul will assume their role. The mode seeks to recreate the experience of the singleplayer while assigning the duties held by the AI to players themselves.

Gang Wars looks to have some merit in and of itself, but the other modes would be decidedly routine were it not for the remarkable feat of including Max Payne’s signature Bullet Time. The system uses a depleting resource called adrenaline, and is based on line-of-sight. Any players caught on another’s screen as he or she enters Bullet Time are bound up in the time-slowing effect, and will fire and target at a much-reduced speed. Similarly, any additional players caught in their line of sight also will be affected, thus meaning a single Bullet Time could theoretically chain across the entire map.

A few measures counter this. Firstly, Bullet Time will last a maximum of six seconds and only when fully levelled-up. Next, any player who also enters Bullet Time will have their firing rate and targeting restored. Finally, breaking line of sight will also break the effect. While the maps demonstrate some verticality, they’re littered with objects behind which players can take refuge: being caught in Bullet Time is the exception, not the norm.

New Max Payne 3 screenshots
Enemies will react dynamically to injuries as they’re inflicted.

In multiplayer, Bullet Time is one of a number of “Bursts”, special abilities that can be individually loaded out and upgraded. These can benefit the player individually, the player’s gang, or adversely affect the opposition. Other Bursts include Paranoia, that, when activated at the highest level, makes the opposition appear as enemies to one another. Another, Weapon Double-Dealer, forces all rival gang members to temporarily lose their weapon upgrades, lose their back-up magazines and ammunition, and causes them to drop all their grenades on the ground, primed.

Altogether, these Bursts add substantial unpredictability to any match. The initial impression is of a highly entertaining multiplayer addition that is sure to appeal to those gamers increasingly jaded with the po-faced predictability of Max’s modern military counterparts.

Players can find out for themselves whether Max Payne 3 will deliver on that promise when the game is released for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the 18th of May, and for PC on the 1st of June.