Updated: September 12, 2009
Max Payne is definitely one of the more original games ever made. While it cannot steal away the coveted accolade of being the best First Person Shooter ever made from the fantastic and legendary Operation Flashpoint, it comes quite close in that regard.
Max Payne is a police detective who has lost faith in the system. One day, after returning home from work, he finds his family murdered. Three years later, he is in pursuit after the killers of his wife and child, a downtwisting spiral of violence and despair that takes him into the dark world of drug cartels.
As a man with little will left to live save for his revenge, Max Payne is a cold-blooded vigilante, with a eerie, dispassionate behavior bordering on nihilistic. The somber, depressive atmosphere is one of the key elements in the game, adding to the brutal quality of what Max Payne is all about. Not accidentally, Max Payne sounds the same as Max Pain.
|It's time for revenge ...
Despite the dark setting, Max Payne is an excellent game that will surely excite you with the precision of execution and attention to details. Following a flashback-like introduction into Max's terrible past, the game begins with Max prowling the deserted subway station in the late night hours where he encounters a horde of gun-toting junkies, bent on wanton violence. As you fire the first bullet, you know Max Payne is a game unlike any other you've played.
While Max Payne falls into the category of First Person Shooters, you actually see your character from somewhere behind and slightly up. A single white dot is your gun sights. As you start firing your weapon, you're wrapped in clever physics, smoke and accurate sounds. Most gunfights will ensue into confusing hails of bullets on both sides, you and the villains, as you both try to make your aim true. If you've ever seen, witnessed or participated in a genuine street gun duel, you will have noticed that participants usually try to avoid getting hurt, which is more or less the whole point of staying alive. As such, gunfights are embarrassing displays of cowardice, with weapons extended as far away from the body and bullets fired by the dozen.
|The atmosphere in the game is fantastic. The scenery is executed well with great attention to the smallest detail; the camera angles, the lighting, the colors, the timing, all help build an exhilarating yet harrowing experience.
This setting holds true for Max Payne, too. The behavior of AI characters is quite similar to that of your typical street Robin Hood. The enemy will dodge and leap about, roll and curse quite a lot, goading you. It helps. Even though you're tucked safely behind your keyboard, you'll feel a surge of bitter anger gushing up your gullet. You'll hate the little bots and wish them dead.
Simultaneously, you will have to do your best to keep alive. Another great thing about Max Payne is that your character is quite vulnerable, as well. You will go down as easily as the bots. To that end, your own part in gunfights will include a fair bit of cowardice as well. You'll do quite a lot of rolling of your own, sidestepping and shooting just round the corner, with those thick inches of concrete for cover. And you will definitely love it.
Despite your best acrobatics, you won't be able to evade every bullet fired at you. While you may die rather quickly, you will mostly be just severely wounded. A life meter in the left bottom corner of the screen will show you how much life you have left. The lower the bar, the slower you are - and easier to kill.
Luckily, you will be able to find painkillers at various places in each level, which will partially restore your lost health. Use them wisely and sparingly, as you may run out of them just when you need them. Your wounds won't deteriorate, so if you've just been lightly shredded by a few chance pellets from a shotgun blast, you'll manage without the pills for a while.
Max Payne emanates a rather realistic feel of improvised combat. Sounds are genuine. The behavior of the player is also quite authentic. And your anger and hate will also be real. Which probably makes Max Payne unsuitable for children, as they may get a wrong notion that junkie/bum/Norse-mythology-loving-fans/Goths are probably all one and the same. This is an unfortunate side effect of the game, deeply ingrained into the texture of almost every scene.
|As the last enemy goes down, the camera will switch into a third person view, rotating slowly. John Woo all the way!
In addition to fairly impressive stunts, Max Payne has another unique feature, unseen before in computer games. Bullet Time, John Woo style. When faced with multiple enemies, you'll be hard pressed to win the fights on your own, even if you storm into a room full of Aesir followers with dual Ingrams in your hands. This is where the Bullet Time comes into play.
Right click on your mouse and you'll enter a time bubble of your own. You'll be able to perform your move as you normally would, as the world around you stretches like an elastic band and the sound warps into a single muted tone of suspense. You'll have just a few seconds to do what you need, but usually it will be enough. And believe me, you'll be using your precious Bullet Time whenever you can, because the enemy is ruthless.
Likewise, whenever you finish off the last bot in a prolonged fight, you'll get a John Woo style camera shot. The action sequence will move from your first/third person view into a rolling 3D camera shot in slow motion, usually depicting your last kill.
Another great thing is the sniper action. You'll eventually come to own a sniper, especially on levels where you have to walk a rather long distance from one place to another, covered by enemy fire. Aim well, aim true, and when you depress the trigger, the view will switch into the bullet-time bullet mode.
The bullet will travel slowly at first, then accelerate until it hits the enemy. The camera will ride the bullet. You'll be the bullet in its flight to the target. Wicked, unique and fun. Take a look below! It's bullet time! The enemy does not even know what is about to hit him.
|It's cold out there ... Cold and lonely.
Violence in the game is quite real. Luckily, it's exaggerated, which helps convince you that what you're doing is not for real. Still, you'll be drawn into the circle of mindless violence, no matter how hard you try to stay aloof.
Even though you know you're just playing a computer game, a bit of your soul will rust in sympathy for Max's weariness. His stunned, constipated facial expression will sour the milk in your coffee. His nicotine-parched voice will make you reach for the box of Prozac you keep near the router. The muted colors, the smog-riddled, snow-cold feel of freezing New York nights will sap the energy from your bones. Even when you quit the game, you get a depressing farewell notice.
And against all these will come scores of tattooed Aesir followed, senseless zombies intent on killing. You'll feel like a lonely drop of soap about to glide into the city sewers.
There is no respite from the violence. The game is tight-packed with action. Your only moments of succor will be the cartoon-like trailers between chapters, which somewhat help you understand what is going on. Like the character itself, you're plunged into a world of confusion. You learn about your foes from casual clues left by the enemy as you wander from one rat hole to another, exterminating the vermin.
If there's one motif that's overplayed in the game, it's definitely the reliance on pseudo-modernistic Satanic/Gothic elements. As an adult, you will shrug these off as the necessary setting for the game. However, kids may get a wrong notion that burning pentagrams, heavy metal music and vague references to Norse mythology have anything to do with one another. For instance, Pentagrams are symbols of the grass-loving Wiccan communities of Old Britain and have nothing to do with Satan, except that the Church smartly coincided these symbols with Satan to help spread faith on the British island. Anyhow ...
|Don't even ask what you're seeing. Play the game and you'll discover for yourself. It's morbid, I know.
Some of the scenes in the game are rather surreal and even almost frightening. The recently released movie does not even scratch the surface of what the game accomplishes. Take the maze scenes, for example. If you've played the game, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Another thing that might be bit of a disappointment is that the enemy behavior is completely scripted, down to the last curse and side roll. This means that if you replay the game, you'll encounter the same scenes all over again. If you're easily bored, you won't like these hard-coded constraints. Max Payne has a plot to follow and you can't step away, like in, for instance, GTA Vice City.
The game does have different difficulty levels, which might incite you to try again. You cannot play the advanced levels of difficulty before completing the easier ones.
On higher difficulty settings, you will have less time to complete the episodes, less saves, you will be more vulnerable to enemy fire and there will be even more enemies. Even at the easiest level, you will find yourself replaying some of the scenes, as you stumble into a knot of Aesir henchmen armed with Jackhammer shotguns.
Max Payne was definitely a revolution in its time, when it was released back in 2001. Even today, Max Payne is a great title. The graphics is quite reasonable, but most importantly, the unique quality of the gameplay remains virtually unmatched. I play the game every now and then, fighting my way through yet another career as the bitter police detective Payne.
If you have the mental capacity to separate computer games from real life, Max Payne is an excellent pasttime activity, especially if it's stormy or rainy outside and you can't go for a nice little hike. Channel all that pent up frustration from sitting locked in a tight cubic all day hammering on the keyboard, into annihilating the New York underground. In that regard, Max Payne is the perfect stress relief.
A sequel was released in 2003, but it never really reached the fame of the original.