The late nineties saw the coming of a particular brand of hyper stylized action. Directors like the Wachowskis and John Woo made films that presented sweeping, heavily choreographed, action set pieces that experimented with cinematography in new and interesting ways. Some of these movies, like The Matrix, became cultural touchstones, whose effects are still felt to this day, while others, like Face/Off, were too ridiculous to be ignored.
Gaming was also advancing at this time and the next generation of consoles was on the way. Sony’s Playstation 2, Microsoft’s XBox, and Nintendo’s Gamecube were all capable of cutting edge graphics, comparable to what PCs could do at the time. Many projects originally planned for the PS1 and N64 were moved to the new hardware, and a small Finnish company, Remedy Entertainment, reconfigured their upcoming third person shooter to take full advantage of the new hardware.
Although it was in development back in 1996, the influence of films like the Matrix was clear in the final product when it debuted in 2001 as Max Payne. Remedy took heavily stylized action mixed with heady mind bending story telling and put it in the hands of players two years before the Matrix sequels would have their chance.
Max Payne is a New York police detective at the top of his game. He’s had a successful career in the NYPD, he has a loving wife who is a prominent assistant to the district attorney, they have a nice home in Queens, and a baby daughter. Naturally, things this nice can’t last. Coming home one night, Max finds his home in shambles. A gang of maniacs, hopped up on a designer drug, known as Valkyr, have broken in and murdered Max’s wife and child. Max then dedicates himself to eliminating Valkyr and avenging the death of his family. He joins the DEA and after three years of investigation, goes undercover into the Punchinello crime family, the gang that appears to be the main dealers in the drug.
One night, Max’s contact in the DEA tells him to meet with his partner in the NYPD, his close friend Alex Baulder. on his way to the meeting Max inadvertently interrupts a bank heist being carried out by one of the Punchinello lieutenants, Jack Lupino. Lupino’s men open fire on Max, making it clear that his cover has been blown, and upon reaching Alex, he is framed for his partner’s murder. Now, with the mafia and the police after him, Max wages a one man crusade against the Punchinello mafia, to once and for all stamp out the source of Valkyr and avenge his loved ones. But nothing is what is seems and this mission takes him down a dark path of murder, betrayal, and conspiracy.
On the whole, the story in this game is like a pulpy crime novel. It is not very nuanced, or loaded with social commentary, but it sets out a series of entertaining, page turning twists and set pieces that keep you invested. Weather or not you know how a scene is going to turn out, playing through and seeing how it unfolds is engaging and leaves you wanting to see what happens next. It’s satisfying when the villains get what’s coming to them, and you can easily root for the hero.
It’s reminiscent of 70s exploitation titles like the original Death Wish or Dirty Harry, where the issue in question, like vigilantism, corruption, or drug addiction, is super complex and morally grey, but is handled with a self righteous certainty that satisfies a primal desire to see evil be punished. Be it right or wrong, it satisfies. There’s a lot of clever writing and dark humor in the game that give the story character and distinguish it from similar action shooter of the time.
This is a third person shooter. You control Max as he moves from location to location shooting out every mobster and criminal you come across before they kill you. Although shooters at the time like Halo and Call of Duty restricted the number of weapons you could carry, Max Payne lets you build a Doom-like arsenal of weapons as you play. Almost anything the bad guys can use can be picked up and used against them. You cannot draw yourself to cover in this game so staying in motion is key to staying alive What makes this game stand out though, is it’s core mechanic, Bullet Time.
Yes the late 90’s/early 00’s phenomenon of slow motion gun fights is your greatest weapon in Max Payne. When you’re in a jam and are over run by bad guys, or if you want to get the drop on some goons, you can slow down the action. When in bullet time, enemy fire is easier to avoid, and it gives you a chance to take aim. However, simply slowing down time is not quite enough. The real weapon is the shot dodge. With the push of a button, you can have Max dive through the air in slow motion. You are almost guaranteed to avoid all damage, and you have ample time to take out the bad guys.
While you can get a lot of mileage from these slow-mo moves, they are not foolproof. You only have so much bullet time to use, and the only way to get more is to take out enemies, so if you use it too often, or dive too much, you’ll find yourself in a jam when a major gunfight breaks out. That said though the game does try to give you a fighting chance. When you run out of bullet time, a small amount will recharge, enough for a dive or two, to get you by.
There is a similar situation for your health. Max is not a super soldier with power armor, or a particularly tenacious infantryman in World War II, he is a man from the Duke Nukem school of combat. Your health does not recharge and if too many guys gang up on you at once, you can be taken down fast. The only recourse to continue your fight against these drug dealers? Why, drugs of course! To recover health, you have to use high grade painkillers you find throughout the levels. These mobsters must have a lot of chronic back pain, because, depending on your difficulty setting, these things can be everywhere. Despite this, you may regularly find yourself in desperate need of some pain pills with none to be found. When you have none left you will have to play it very cautiously. The only reprieve from enemy fire you will get is a tiny amount of health that recovers when you are almost dead
Items found throughout the levels will trigger short cutscenes that flesh out the characters and set pieces. These snippets of info help to explain major plot points, making it a bit of a shame that they can be easily missed in some cases, though they are usually pointed out by Max when passing by.
Although you can find yourself simply plowing through some levels very quickly, you have keep in mind that this game does not auto-save. Often times when you die, you go back the the start of a level or to your last save. To help with this, both the console and PC versions have a quick save feature as well as let you save your game at any time.
As an early 00’s PS2/Xbox game. the character animation and environments were revolutionary, but time has not been kind to some aspects. Although the environments look good, the character models have aged about as gracefully as as a glass of milk. Rather than drawing faces on the models, the devs chose to place photos directly onto the characters. This can look okay from head on, but once you’re see them from the side, it gets goofy fast.
On top of this, a lot of the movements and animations are stiff and a little wonky. Enemies tend to move robotically and rag-doll into heaps at all angles after death. However most of these issues were pretty much unavoidable given the capabilities of the time and a pretty easy to forgive. Although some of his movements are just as stiff, Max has some superior animation. He moves with what looks like real weight, and his leather jacket is animated separately from his character model, giving it a freeform movement that looks pretty real even now. Regardless, things could only look so good,
The limitations are also why the game does not use in-game or pre-rendered cutscenes to tell the story.
The game opts to show major events through graphic novel style comic panels. These do a good job telling the story and have a pretty good voice cast. All the images are real actors, mainly the development staff at Remedy in costumes, acting out the scenes with stylistic filters. The speech bubbles can be a little unnecessary, and at times, the text is justified in a very awkward way that stretches out the lines.
Max is voiced by James McCaffrey, who gives a good over the top serious and gravely performance, but in an interesting move, his in-game and comic face is that of head writer Sam Lake. While McCaffrey gives pathos to the story, Lake’s writing and mugging maintain the enjoyably over the top mood, and give a sort of unreality to the dark plot.
The music was composed by Peter Hajba. It perfectly fits the atmosphere the game is going for. Much of it is dark and ethereal, putting you in Max’s head space, that of a man pushed to the edge. The action scenes have a variety of styles depending on where you are in the story. Downtown New York and the night club scenes have a fast paced techno score with an industrial twist. The slum crack houses and mafia hangouts use heavy bass guitar riffs and snappy percussion. You could hardly ask for better sound design, though admittedly only a few tracks will really stick with you after playing.
Now there is one more twist in store that I was certainly not expecting when revisiting this game.
Bonus Level: Nintendo Gets A Taste
The Nintendo GameCube would come to have a fantastic library of titles, but was left to the wayside by many third party developers. What is more, even though it would have some excellent M rated titles such as Resident Evil and Metal Gear Solid, Nintendo missed out on many great cross platform titles, and Max Payne was one they did not get.
However, Rockstar did not entirely abandon Nintendo, and in a rather unorthodox move, released a home version of Max Payne on Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance. And what is more amazing? It’s actually a pretty good facsimile of the console version.
Max Payne on GBA is a top down, isometric shooter. Almost all the levels form the original are here, though some are removed or trimmed down, but they are still almost one to one in terms of layout.
The top down gameplay is a good compromise for the third person camera. Because you cannot see very far down long rooms, the hit detection is very forgiving. It also wouldn’t really be Max Payne without bullet time, and it is here. It’s not a cinematic, but it’s functional and still a pretty fun mechanic.
The levels are static and kind of look the same, but they are also pretty linear so getting lost isn’t an issue. The in-game characters are 3D models placed on top of the scenes like in Resident Evil. The company that made the port, Mobius Games, would use this same engine in other GBA titles like Bionicle the Game and A Sound of Thunder.Small as this touch is, it runs very well.
Probably the most impressive part of this game is the cut scenes. A large number of the graphic novel cutscenes are present in the Gameboy version with all the voice acting intact. It would have been so easy for them to have just left in the speech bubbles, but they did one better and kept the voices. A real oddity on the system.
Coming in just before the ubiquity of the edgelord aesthetic, Max Payne was a stellar example of the advancements games were making at the turn of the century. More realistic design, but still tied to crazy, fun action.
Using a unique mechanic that keeps you on your toes and an interesting story that drives you to see things through to the end, Remedy pulled off a hit for Rockstar that deserves a place with any self respecting Xbox, PlayStation 2, or classic PC collection, and while not the greatest Gameboy Advance title, the novelty of the portable version makes it well worth checking out for Payne fans.