#475 Max Payne

Posted: 26th October 2011 by Jeroen in Games
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95th game played so far

Genre: Shoot ‘Em Up
Platform: PC
Year of Release: 2001
Developer: 3D Realms
Publisher: Rockstar Games

Now for another game chosen in part because of our memories of it. In this case, seeing friends play this game a lot, while I was intrigued with the gameplay, options and style. I’ve been wanting to get back and properly try it for some time now.

Max Payne tells the story of an undercover agent (Max Payne) who gets framed for the murder of his boss while simultaneously being entangled in the maffia dealings of a large drugs syndicate he has infiltrated. He gets found out and we end up in a game where the whole world seems against him… except for some mysterious strangers on the other side of the phone.

What follows is a noir-style shooter that tells part of its stories through graphical novel style images, word balloons and all, as you dive deeper into the mystery and kill off all the gangsters that approach you.

(In the interest of full disclosure, we played the PS2 version, as we already owned it.)

Our Thoughts

Let’s get this out of the way first… Max Payne is up there with Jerry Fireball Mudflap when it comes to action heroes. Who? Then again such a name does fit the noir graphic novel feel of the game and as such, once you start playing it, the terrible name is somewhat forgivable. The name really is just a small part of the atmosphere of this game, which beyond this doesn’t rely as much on what would be a bigger pun in other games. Despite the occasional lighter moment, on the whole this game takes itself serious, and you are taken along with it when playing.

The game itself is set in the present day and shows a great deal of inspiration from neo-noir works like those of Frank Miller (300, Sin City) and Alan Moore (V For Vendetta, Watchmen). Just like how Rockstar recently pilfered noir film classics to make the acclaimed L.A. Noire, Remedy Entertainment and 3D Realms have been able to perfectly create the feel of a seedy crime-riddled city with a seedy underbelly.

In fact, I could have seen Batman jumping across the rafters every now and then. Except that, of course, the game takes place in New York, with seedy subway stations and dark back alleys. You won’t feel like there’s a clean spot anywhere in sight. This is further emphasised by the fact that gun-toting drug addicts can be found around many corners. Quietly sobbing to themselves until they realise you’re around (which can take a while). A modern day game would create a karma-based achievement on whether or not you choose to shoot them in the head… needless to say they scream rather loudly. Even so – and it’ll sound strange now – but these encounters are just background flavour; a simple fact of life in this world, rather than another actual encounter.

Anyway, junkie-sadism aside whilst this game is obviously very stylish there is a lot to recommend the gameplay. As with many shooter games you can choose from a nice variety of traditional weapons in your bottomless pockets but you will find yourself leaning more towards the pump shotgun for the sheer finesse of the one shot kill blood spatter. You could always charge headlong with a lead pipe… but I wouldn’t recommend it to be perfectly honest. On the other hand, I can say players with a more… refined style preferring a berretta revolver or sniper rifle, which comes in during later parts of the game.

Although it is, obviously, very graphically dated (since your ‘photorealistic’ character always appears to be grinning inanely) the thing that really makes this seem old is the incredibly linear way that the levels are constructed. Game reviewers talk of a watershed in gaming that can be pinpointed around the release of Grand Theft Auto III which really raised the bar when creating an open world feel and Max Payne sadly resides on the more closed off side of things. Casing point, an early level is set in a hotel yet many of the doors are not only locked (which is fair enough) but actually bricked over. I don’t know what sort of establishment these gangsters frequent but you would think that with their drug money they would be renting rooms in a place without the bricked over doors. Then again there was an abundance of vibrating beds so nobody’s perfect.

I’d say this is more a feature of the game itself rather than a sign of the times. While other similar games of this era aren’t wide open, without any real levels, as sandbox games create, at the same time they provided more side areas and side treks – in fact, many earlier games that kept track of a score included a count of the number of secrets you’ve found in a level when you finished it. One example of this is 3D Realms’ earlier Duke Nukem 3D title. In Max Payne, at least, it stands out as an example of level design that stands out a bit. It happens in other games as well (more recent shooters having been described as ‘follow the story’ instead of ‘explore to find the way’), but this is the most clear example of it that I’ve seen. What does help here is that it helps set up the AI. You move, in a way, from encounter to encounter, where each is set up with its own scripting and options. Sometimes you want to burst in early, to make sure the enemies aren’t prepared for you, while at others if you wait a bit, they mess up and kill off each other before you do anything.

Or you can burst in using a feature from one of the games other major drawing points; The Matrix style bullet-time. This is the thing that makes the game really unique. It probably isn’t the only game that does it, but Max Payne pulls it off well, and it’s what makes you feel like you’re in the middle of a movie. It is pulled off so well that when Enter The Matrix was released 2 years later it was described by some as Max Payne written by Hollywood. Whenever you want (as long as you have the time), you can slow down the time and take more time doing your aiming. You still move slowly, but react faster. When you shoot your enemies, sometimes time slows down and you seem him fly back from impact before he collapses. You can also jump around taking shots like Trinity herself. It’s a pity the bullet-time is so limited as it is tremendous fun. Yeah, the most frustrating part is how limited the bullet time is. You have only limited time (at most 10-20 seconds), and the only way to recharge it is to kill enemies. This doesn’t help if you want to execute some larger epic jumps and rolls.

Just be careful not to fall of a ledge as this causes immediate death even when the distance is about 2 metres; yeah, this lead to possibly our biggest frustration with the game. About halfway through the first part of the game, jumping puzzles suddenly become part of the game, often after you’ve already ventured out some distance from the last save point. The jumping puzzles jar with the general shooter feel of the game, and feel fairly arbitrary – you make it or you don’t, but you don’t get much of a chance to experiment and see what the rules are. Because it takes you two minutes before you go between attempts, you forget why you failed.

The pacing also breaks – from a fast-paced shooter where you want to slow down time to make it, you go slowly and be careful to make sure you can actually pull off the jump. Like when you have to make a leap of faith and jump onto the roof of a passing train, if you do not get it right there are many ways to die… it took me an annoying number of attempts to pull it off. And it took a while before you even see what would go wrong – in the end we needed a running jump and to also carry a light enough gun to make it, apparently.

If you can deal with the light restrictions and annoying jumping physics this game is a joy to play and an absolute classic. I am glad my friend lent us the second entry so that we had to prioritise this and I know I’m looking forward to playing the sequel.

Final Thoughts

As we mentioned, this game is showing its age – as was to be expected. But for me, this game was as good as I remembered it, and I’m glad it’ll continue to be in our gaming pile so we can play it later.

If you want a good shooter, which favours style and story, and don’t mind the flaws we mention – and honestly, most of the time they don’t intrude – then you could do far worse than this game. All I can hope now is that the second game in the series, which we’ll cover in a few weeks, will work out to fix at least some of these flaws.

  1. […] the previous installment of this series, we learned that Max Payne became an undercover agent, was accused of a murder he didn’t commit (although in the course […]