Sometimes I wonder if publishers meet up in a smoky room and divvy up the calendar. March will be the designated time for hack and slashers, they'd say. August will be reserved for "Madden NFL" and any other titles left in its wake.

As for this May, it must have been reserved for third-person shooters. In the past few weeks, three major releases in the genre have arrived. I already took a look at "Starhawk," and it was adequate but unsatisfying. But the other two releases -- "Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" and "Max Payne 3" -- fare better, raising the bar for shooters.

I played both titles back-to-back and discovered that neither dominates the other. One game's strength is the other's flaw, and visually, they're comparable. If I had to pick one, it would be a tough choice.

If narrative was the deciding factor, I'd toss my lot with "Max Payne 3." Rockstar resurrects this noir-style franchise and updates it to contemporary times. The team manages to capture the feel of the old PC games -- complete with Max's bad metaphors -- and tells his story with vibrant, visual flair.

It reflects the protagonist's new surroundings of São Paulo, Brazil. Players get inside Max's head as he narrates his descent from New York police officer to a bodyguard for a foreign tycoon's family. He's a hero who's seeking some kind of redemption, and Rockstar lets players care about the flawed character enough so they're invested and compelled to see him pull through.

While the plot draws fans in, the gameplay plays it safe. With a nine-year gap between sequels, it takes a while to adjust to the mechanics and figure out how aggressively to use Max's Bullet Time and Shootdodge ability that lets him slow reality and fire at foes in John Woo action-flick style.

But once players understand the necessity of cover and the offensive potential of Bullet Time, the game gets easier. Still, that's not enough to jump-start the old formula, especially when the cover system needs more work.

"Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" has the opposite problem. It's wonderfully fun to play as players take on the role of an elite fighting squad armed with cloaking devices, drones and powerful firearms.

Borrowing heavily from "Splinter Cell: Conviction," Ubisoft Paris and company bring the idea of stealth and mark and execute to squad play. The premise is simple: Players need to scout a level, formulate a plan to silently defeat the patrolling enemies and enact it. But that's easier said than done when patrol routes are unknown and hidden enemies may linger nearby.

It's more cerebral than "Max Payne 3's" approach, and it's infinitely more rewarding. Each mission is like a puzzle, and it's up to players to figure out the right combination of sneaking and firefights to get through a level.

Unfortunately, "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" falls on its face when it comes to the narrative. After a promising opening, the plot falls into the routine Tom Clancy plot involving ruthless Russian ultranationalists and dangerous weapons.

The story is convoluted and players never connect with 30K, Ghost Leader, Kozak or Pepper. They're just faceless commandos put in interesting positions. Although the narrative is mediocre, the game's level design shines through as "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" takes players to some unusual locales such as an African refugee camp and a protest in Moscow. In these scenarios, players have to adapt to the environment and the missions that always go awry.

The shooter relies a little too much on the something-goes-wrong plot twist, and when the developers use it for the umpteenth time, the 13-mission campaign overstays its welcome.

With all factors even, the tiebreaker has to be online play. "Ghost Recon: Future Soldier" takes the lead because of its gameplay in that mode and also the number of options and ways to play. Both titles have elaborate leveling systems and unlocks that improve the experience. But Ubisoft's are more robust, giving players more bang for their buck and the edge in this matchup.

Contact Gieson Cacho at 510-735-7076 or gcacho@bayareanews group.com. Read his blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei.

'max payne 3'

* * *

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Rating: Mature

'tom clancy's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier'

* * * ½

Platform: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Rating: Mature