Max Payne: A Retrospective

Breaking away from the monotony of current generation games, especially first-person shooters, I picked myself up a copy of Max Payne. An action game presented entirely in third-person, Max Payne channels a gritty film noir feel that is heavily influenced by action cinema. The game also emulates the style of John Woo, whose name and work is referenced in the game.

The story is told as a flashback from the title character Max Payne, a former NYPD officer. The story is presented as a slick graphic novel by in-game story board sequences, complete with artwork, full text and audio. Three years prior to the ending of the game, Max returns home to find a group of junkies high on a designer drug, Valkyr, have broken into his house. He arrives too late, finding his wife and newborn daughter dead (a personal tragedy that you’ll be reminded of frequently). Prompted by their deaths, he transfers to the DEA to work undercover in order to track down those responsible for trafficking Valkyr.


Being one of the first games to incorporate it, the core of the game play revolves around "bullet time”, the ability slow time during combat. Players can use this ability in combination with dive in any direction, called Shootdodging, or as the standalone ability to slow combat. The real advantage with these abilities is that Max’s aiming speed remains unchanged as time slows. This allows you to make carefully planned shots or hose down a room full of lesser-endowed enemies. Max’s bullet time meter is replenished by making kills in and out of bullet time, making real-time combat a viable option after realizing that you only killed one enemy before you hit the floor.
The health system uses a Pain Bar to indicate the level of pain that Max is in at the time. If the pain gets close to the threshold, it will slowly decrease to slightly less vulnerable level, keeping the player from being stuck in an impossible “no health” situation. The player can heal Max by taking painkillers in quantities to put Rush Limbaugh to shame. Each dose reduces only a fraction of Max’s pain bar, and requires a few seconds to take full effect.
Max can wield a wide array of weapons from a lead pipe to an automatic shotgun (Oh, yeah!). When ammunition is plentiful, I can’t help but feel like I’m neglecting the other guns when I see the “ammo full” message. This, however, is a good thing, since each weapon has its advantages (except for the sniper rifle, which simply doesn’t fit with the fast-paced, close-quarters combat).
The player is directed through the levels by Max's narration, in which he points out items of interest or announces objectives. In fact, Max is convincing enough with his voice inflection that he can make it seem worthwhile to investigate the most mundane object. An exclamation point will appear over Max’s head, like an alerted genome soldier, when he nears an objective or item that furthers the plot. Upon interacting with objects, the player is presented a short cinematic accompanied by Max’s internal monologue.
Some levels do involve platforming, demanding more precision than is granted with the controls. Max has a bad habit of automatically walking forward without player input; a feature that I assume was intentional. During a drug-induced hallucination, Max must navigate a maze of rail-thin blood trails floating in a dark abyss. Sounds like a fitting allegory to Max’s despair and confusion? Well, no. It’s really just a pain (Payne?) in the ass jumping puzzle! The mood of a dark and frightening dreamscape is lost in Max’s screams as he plunges into the abyss for hundredth time.
The aforementioned torture aside, the game’s difficulty is surprisingly agreeable. It auto-adjusts based on the players performance, giving the player a reprieve after a particularly messy fight, or laying on the pain for those who seem to have more ammo than they know what to do with. Fortunately, the game allows the player to save or quicksave at any time. You’ll find yourself using this feature a lot due to limited autosaves and the inherent trial-and-error some sections.
The load times are relatively quick, but seem to pop up after every major sequence. Their frequency seems to break up the action too much, killing the flow of combat at some points.


The game boasts excellent sound quality with well done sound effects. Weapons sound powerful and distinctive even when muffled during bullet time. The background music, while intermittent, sets the appropriate mood. The voice acting is top-notch, where each character comes to life, whether it’s a nasally mafia goon or Max Payne’s gruff, melodramatic narration. Admittedly, the dialogue can sound rather heavy-handed at times, but this is purely intentional in order to fit the style of the game’s story.


Max Payne, while visually impressive, isn’t without fault in the looks department. The camera in Max Payne is surprisingly well behaved for a third-person game, with only a few issues in close quarters. The game will often cut to a cinematic shot of your bullets tearing through the last enemy in the room, mostly so they can show off the fact that each bullet is rendered in real-time. It also happens to show you just how much ammo you waste hitting the wall directly behind said bullet-riddled corpse.
This brings up a detail that might have been otherwise overlooked: character damage. While there’s plenty of blood from bullet impacts and messes to clean off of the walls, enemies’ remain unchanged after a face full of buckshot. Even Goldeneye has it beaten in this department. Environmental damage, on the other hand, is well rendered from the bullet casings on the floor to the walls decorated with bullet holes.
It’s probably for the best that the majority of the game is told using the graphic novel, considering the animation can look a bit awkward during cutscenes. Max’s in-game animations, however; are remarkably good with all of the jumping and dives he pulls off.

[Final Words…]

With slick combat, a wide array of weapons and a story that reads (quite literally) like a comic book, Max Payne delivers fast, satisfying action. Max’s quirky demeanor puts an enjoyable spin on the otherwise dark story, often missing from today’s action games. Like Max himself, the game is no saint, it does an excellent job of showing that an action title can balance gameplay and story and come out looking this good.

Recommended If: You’re a fan of action movies and enjoy a solid single player game that doesn’t sacrifice story.

Not Recommended If: You’re looking for a game packed with extras or a multiplayer experience.

1 comment:

  1. Well written. I hope I get a chance to check it out before the glut of new stuff this fall.


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