In Depth Review: Max Payne [PC]
Needless to say, it kicked MUCH a$$.
Cue Remedy Software, a development house of of Finland bent on making a photo-realistic game that employed the ever-cool Bullet Time as its big gimmick. Because the Matrix would not come out in videogame form for another three years, Max Payne was indeed a remedy (yes, bad pun intended) for those who wanted to pretend they were Neo, bustin' gats in slow-mo. I was one of them. And after finally finding the balls to blast through the endless hordes of enemies that the game threw at you by the third and final part, I have to say that Max Payne is one of the coolest games I've ever played.
Remedy took a few unique approaches to the game overall, in gameplay and storytelling. Max Payne takes a decidedly "film noir" stance on things, with a grim storyline revolving around a guy whose life became an unhappy drag -- and is about to become a living hell. Death for the people he loves and trusts. Being framed and stuck in the most inescapable situations. Having showers of bullets rain on him from several gunmen at once.
Max takes a journey through New York's streets in the dead of winter, getting in between mob wars and government conspiracies. It's all captured in a mixture graphic novel style storyboards and real-time cutscenes as opposed to FMV's. The real-time cutscenes are standard fare, but the graphic novel panes are an interesting way to move the story along. If I'm not mistaken, all the "actors" for the graphic novel characters are Remedy staff members, with the story's writer, Sam Lake, starring as Max Payne and lending his lovely "constipated" face to the character's persona. The panes are stylized through some sort of grainy filter. Meanwhile all the speech in the speech bubbles, along with all the in-game quips, is fully voice-acted -- and extremely well I might add. It all just ends up looking and sounding cool -- there's no other (i.e. more intelligent) way to describe it.
But what I came to see was the Bullet Time moreso than the graphic novels. And boy was I in for a treat. Max Payne generally plays like a first person shooter, except you see Max's model. (So I guess it's a third person first person shooter. Whatever :P) Without considering the Bullet Time, Max Payne would be a very fun shooter in it's own right. The game throws so many enemies at you, and gives you such a plethora of weapons to choose from, that the sheer sight of bullets and buckshot (yes, you see the trails of bullets in the air even when not in bullet time) is enough to make an Action Jackson shriek with school-girlish delight. (Think Ned Flanders when he saw his purple drapes type shrieking.)
But Bullet Time slows the world around Max down -- in effect allowing him to aim much more effectively at his assailants. Max can activate Bullet Time at the press of a key, so that he can walk around the room in slo-mo and cap everything in sight, OR he can "shoot-dodge" -- that is, dive in a direction while activating Bullet Time for the duration of the dive. What results is that you can dive from cover to cover, ripping up dudes with Mac-10 spray during your dive. You can dive towards or from a gunman while pelting him with your shotgun blasts. And in case you start to think that this game is like survival-horror where you need to conserve ammo, Remedy makes sure that you keep firing by rewarding enemy deaths with more Bullet Time. (Bullet Time is finite, and is indicated by a meter next to your health.)
Of course Bullet Time is a cool concept from a gameplay perspective, but actually seeing the damn mechanic in action really gives you a videogaming high. Everything slows down -- you see Max and his enemies move as if in a vat of mud, pellets and bullets floating through the air, flames flickering slower and explosions blooming like flowers. Cooler still is the distortion of all the sound effects around you. Blasts become muffled and elongated as you hear every single bullet leaving the chamber of your semi-auto. It's a breathtaking audio-visual experience that must be experienced.
Thus, visually, screenshots wouldn't do Max Payne justice. However, even screenshots will show you how much effort Remedy put into making this game look superb. Environments look almost photorealistic, if not truly photorealistic. The texturing is exquisite -- even on Medium settings they look very sharp and convincing. Most of the environments are boxy but hey, this was 2000 and before DirectX 9's time. Also, every shot leaves marks on the walls. Try standing back and peppering a hotel room with machine-gun fire. Even more fun, try spelling your name in the wall. It's also always fun to watch the character models flail and fly through the air when a grenade tags them with a huge blast. The models could have been a bit less blocky, but they still moved and looked more convincing than say, Tommy Vercetti of GTA: Vice City fame. I started this game when it was first released and finished in October of 2003 -- it still looksamazing to me, even better than some PC games today (hands down better than a lot of console games).
I guess now it's time for the bad parts, but I can't honestly consider them bad. I'll tell you why in a second, but let me get started. Max Payne is incredibly linear. There are some side-rooms that you can venture into perhaps to pick up some extra ammo and pain killers (your main method of restoring health), but there's basically one way to beat the level -- and that's it. It's also not very versatile -- Max Payne is just pure shooting. No intense puzzle solving. No fetching, and no key cards (thank GOD for that, though). No character building -- the Max you start with is the Max you end with. In fact for all the glitter and polish put into the game's cinematic feel (it even includes dream sequences which involve no combat at all), people could just as easily declare this "game" an "interactive movie."
But hell. It's incredibly interactive. You shoot stuff. Lots of stuff. YOU SHOOT LOTS OF STUFF. Need I say it again? Max Payne is ABOUT SHOOTING LOTS AND LOTS OF STUFF. That's it, and that's all I needed from it! To me, Max Payne is an ode to games of old -- balls-out a$$ kicking I-don't-care-f***-you-a$$hole Terminator, Rambo, Bruce Lee and Jet Li Kung Fu, Contra, Ikaruga, Duke Nukem, Gunstar Heroes type of pure 100% non-stop action. Except they managed to craft a great story around it -- or at least add a great presentation style to tell a mediocre story (depends on who you ask) to this action. At its heart, Max Payne is just about the bullet and nothing else. For those few critics (and I mean few) who had to criticize it for being one-dimensional, get over it -- the bullet is the only freaking dimension this particular game needs. That's how fun it is. It can be finished in a weekend, and to me it didn't have that much replay value -- but just experiencing the game once is an overload of pleasure for the aural and visual senses that one play-through is enough have you drooling and gaping.
I guess what I'm trying to say is, this may not be the "best" game out there, but it's one of those games that if you haven't played... you're a loser. Just kidding. But you owe it to yourself -- if you are a fan of action games -- to play this game. Period. Then you owe it to yourself to go out and play the sequel, because that's also so kick a$$ that I almost peed my pants. Max Payne forever -- THANK YOU Remedy.