Fire storm: screen shot from Rockstar Games' 'Max Payne 3' – designers have made its bullet-fire physics ultra-realistic

How Rockstar's Advanced Game Engine is set to make Max Payne 3 one of the biggest videogames of 2012.

One thousand five hundred and forty two feet per second; 1,051 miles per hour; 1.3 times the speed of sound... no, not the speed of Superman, but the deadly rate at which a bullet leaves the muzzle of computer game antihero Max Payne's Desert Eagle handgun.

In the instant it takes for the hammer of his gun to fall forward, striking the firing pin and igniting the primer, a chemical chain reaction is let loose, its inevitable culmination being the unleashing of a bullet able to penetrate all but the densest of material.

Underneath the hood Rockstar's Advanced Game Engine (RAGE) not only provides the necessary animation but simultaneously calculates just where the bullet will hit. Impressively gauging trajectory, aim, rate of fire and obstructions – be they inanimate or flesh-based.

There's even further number-crunching required, for Rockstar Games' Max Payne 3, much like in its predecessors, utilises a sophisticated Matrix-esque slow-down effect called "Bullet Time", by which our its eponymous protagonist can stretch out that crucial time between pull of the trigger and impact.

"The big challenge was ensuring all the components worked together flawlessly in real time and in Bullet Time," explains Rob Nelson, Max Payne 3's art director. "The guns are made up of individual components and each bullet is singly modelled, so we had to make sure that every animation looked perfect. Everything needs to look incredible, regardless of the speed at which you're playing, so in some cases, we'd create new animations for actions that take place in Bullet Time because they wouldn't look right if we simply slowed down real-time animations."

My first-hand look at the game begins with Payne arriving at a Brazilian football stadium – the ex-cop having had to leave his familiar New York surroundings due to as yet unspecified "trouble" – in order to deliver cash in exchange for the release of his wealthy boss' wife. As even Jeff Bridges' Dude discovered in The Big Lebowski, however, seldom does such a drop go smoothly and sure enough the ransom is quickly whisked away by hired henchmen amid a torrent of sniper fire.

Crashing through the nearest door Payne finds himself hurt, confused and facing the unwelcome sight of none-too-friendly looking local militia with itchy trigger fingers. No stranger to danger, he leaps to his left as gunfire explodes around him and finds cover behind a concrete pillar. "Max Payne 3 is the first Max Payne to have a dedicated cover mechanic, but the gameplay is designed so that cover is an option, not a requirement."

"AI responds differently to player actions and each type of enemy will have their own unique responses," he continues. "Mobsters might not coordinate well with each other, while a group of paramilitaries might try and box the player in, laying suppressive fire while one of their members flanks you or flushes you out with grenades." As if on cue, one of Payne's attackers pitches a grenade his way; I send Payne dashing head-on towards his three assailants; jinking left and right as to make himself a hard target to hit, while looking for an opportunity to return fire.

And so here we are, back at the very instant we came in, with our hero about to pull the trigger; at the tap of a button I switch to Bullet Time and all at once calmness descends. The slowed down vapour trails of incoming bullets give away their trajectory, so allowing for a ballet-like dance around projectiles. All at once the tables are turned and it's Payne's turn to take control in a world of splintering wood, shattered glass and flying metal. "We were able to use advanced particle effects so that everything that should break, shatter or explode does so in the most beautiful way. You'll notice the minute details of the weapons themselves: hammers cock back, slides move, shells expel from the chamber – and it looks amazing in slow motion."

Three rounds explode towards their target – a gunman foolishly hiding behind a wooden partition. As if realising his mistake he rises at the last, but it's too late, the slugs smashing through the wood, kicking their target to the left as the force of the impact registers. "Enemies will react to multiple hits from bullets no matter how fast they happen," explains Nelson. "This has never been done at this level and is a direct result of upgrades to the integration of RAGE and Natural Motion's Euphoria System (which governs animation and model reaction)."

I despatch a second henchman with similar alacrity and abruptly, with Payne's latest victim still to hit the floor, the game accelerates back up to regular speed, his reserves of Bullet Time having been depleted for the time being. Seizing his opportunity the last gunman tries his luck, unloading the full magazine of his sub-machine gun in Payne's general direction.

Without cover or Bullet Time to fall back on, Payne's last resort is to throw himself headlong to the side, a technique known as the "Bullet Dodge" which has been retained from the series' earlier games. Though briefly reprising a similar slowing-down effect this last-ditch evasive manoeuvre doesn't come without cost, for not only is Payne committed to a single direction while flying through the air, he also lands prone and therefore vulnerable as automatic-fire peppers his body.

After the boost of some of painkillers our hero rises like the proverbial phoenix and unloads in the direction of the final hostile and, subsequently healed, is off again, picking up a second pistol as he goes. "It's a combination of shooting and movement designed to invoke the feel of Hong Kong action movies," says Rob Nelson, summing up the game's ethos perfectly.

'Max Payne 3' is out on 18 May