More noise than signal

Max Payne — Pc, Playstation 2, Xbox

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Since the engine’s inclusion in a Matrix-aping section of the 3DMark benchmark, gamers everywhere were drooling for a game to be based on it. It took approximately forever, but when it arrived few were disappointed. You may think the bullet-time feature little more than a gimmick but it’s effective and enjoyable with a solid plot to link the action. Beautifully presented, Max Payne is an absorbing bullet fest from beginning to it’s unfortunately all too soon end.

About four years in the making, this third person shooter is notable in that it delivers one of the most cinematic gaming experiences yet seen. Unlike Metal Gear Solid 2, merely taking the approach of having a thumb-twiddling gamer sit through cut-scene after cut-scene, Max Payne feels like you’re in the middle of a cross between Se7en and Hard Boiled. Level transitions and important in-game plot points are relayed in the form of a mock-graphic novel, with grandiosely overblown prose and a suitably gravely voice over provided by Mr. Payne himself (voiced by James McCaffrey with story and screenplay writer Sam Lake providing the body). The developers go for a pulp fiction dime novel feel to the story and it’s certainly absorbing and atmospheric, which makes it possible to invest far more emotion in the character than some nameless action figure normally seen in this type of game.

Presentation is meaningless unless the game is any good, but thankfully Max Payne delivers more than enough bang for your buck. The third person perspective is generally seen in platform games, which may or may not have shooting elements bolted on a la Tomb Raider. It’s comparatively rare to see it in what is at heart an out and out kill fest, and there’s a solid argument to be made that this might have worked better as a first person shooter. Of course, were that the case it would both feel less cinematic, the third person camera giving it a look a little more reminiscent of a movie, and also would render the real point of the bullet-time feature null and void – showing off.

Despite it’s solid game play mechanics, this game is about looking cool. It’s about drawing dual Berettas from your scuffed leather jacket, diving in flo mo round a corner and shooting a bunch of goons through the eye. It’s about taking some henchman out with a shotgun and watching him slowly be blown away as the camera pans round his jerking body. It’s about shooting a Molotov cocktail out of a gangsters hand just before he’s about to lob it and watching him burn. It’s about being attacked by a goon standing on a flight of stairs beneath you and shootdodging over him, shooting him in the front, top and back of his head as you gracefully glide over him doling out the cranial perforations. It’s about being in a movie. A very blood-soaked, violent movie.

As so often happens in videogames, Max in on a quest for revenge. A prologue has you arriving home one night to your beautiful wife and bouncing baby to find them slaughtered by a bunch of junkies all hopped up on the new designer drug, Valkyr. Wanting to get the bastards behind this drug, Max transfers to the DEA, now reporting to his best friend, Alex. He goes undercover into the mafia under the tender mercy of Jack Lupino, until a call from Alex brings him to Rosco Street subway station for a rendezvous. The place is crawling with mobsters and as Max rightly ascertains Death hung in the air. He reaches Alex just in time to see him killed.

Framed for his murder after being placed at the scene of the bank heist the mobsters were undertaking, Max goes on a one man mission to discover who’s trying to dispose of him, working his way up the henchman chain of command killing them as he goes. He’s on the run from the police, staying one step ahead of Deputy Chief Jim Bravura. The media starts talking him up as some kind of heroic vigilante, much to his distaste. As he say in typically cheese laden fashion, “I hadn’t asked for any of this. Trouble came to me in big dark swarms. The good and the just were like gold dust in this city. I had no illusions. I was not one of them. I was no hero.”

The first chapter of the story is a work of art. Missions, such as they are, flow gracefully from one to the next with few if any sudden jumps in location. The plot is revealed slowly as Max find leads and hounds them down with dogged inevitability. Dealing with the smaller fish make uncovers minor details about Lupino that make the lead up to the episode’s final showdown with the Satan-obsessed mob boss inside his gothic nightclub all the more creepy. It’s usual to actually be shooting anyone with a defined personality in a video game, as they tend to fall back on Hellspawn or some such nonsense.

It’s a great shame that the other two chapters can’t quite match this narrative continuity. Presumably with publishers snapping to get this game out, finally, time that might have been devoted to the plotting and structure was diverted elsewhere. It hits all the plot points necessary, but they don’t have the flow of the first chapter, they don’t mesh in quite the same fashion. A lot more location jumping and less detail in some areas of the story leave much of the rationale for the third chapter seeming tacked on, as though hints were meant to be more integrated in the first chapter but never added. It’s worthwhile pointing out that it’s only (marginally) failing by it’s own high standards.

The gameplay mechanics remain as sound throughout the course of the game however, so we can probably forgive this. The mechanics are much the same on any version, with the usual forward/back, strafe right/left controls with direction and aiming dealt with via mouse / analogue stick. Ducking is only of much use for steadying yourself when sniping, and don’t expect to get a tremendous amount of use from Max’s jumping skills – this isn’t Super Mario Brothers, we have guns for dispatching enemies.

A tap on the jump button along with a strafe key results in a useful rolling dodge, but it’s liable to be passed over in favour of his bullet-time shootdodge. This has a clear advantage in that you can happily blast away while avoiding whatever flavour of lead is being dispensed your way. And it looks damn nifty diving away from an exploding grenade. throughout the game you’ll pick up a number of nifty weapons, from the Berettas, Desert Eagles and pump action shotguns of the early sections to the high powered sniper rifles and Colt Commando machine guns gained from your Russian ally of sorts Boris Dime. Oh, and never forget the dual Ingrams. Tasty.

Tap the bullet-time button while standing and you’ll enter bullet-time until either cancelled or your time meter runs out. Time is earned back by killing enemies in the method of your choosing. Basically, your enemies and their bullets slow down, as does your actual motion but crucially you can spin your viewpoint and hence aim and shoot those nasty goons no matter how outnumbered you are. Gimmick? Of course, but it’s an effective one. It’s impact may have been diminished somewhat by the multitude of other games bolting similar systems on but Max Payne still has the best integrated and useful system, even including the recently released Enter The Matrix, in a strange circle of inspiration / rip-offs.

It’s a simplification to say that you run through a linear level shooting goons until you reach the next level, but that makes it no less true. There’s no branching storylines, no puzzles to speak of, even few of the fps mainstay ‘find a red keycard’ variety. This game pretty much bypasses your higher level brain functions, relying on reaction times and reflexes more than analytical logic. It’s no less engaging because of it though, and that’s the point. Max Payne is fun, pure and simple. From the ballistics to the overblown dialogue it’s a great, utterly enjoyable bullet fest.

The graphics still hold up to scrutiny today. More recent shooters may have move detailed models and slightly more fluid motion, but there’s nothing at all wrong with the explosions and detail in the game. The locations are a tad barren but that’s only to be expected given the nature of the places Max finds himself in, so we’ll let that slide. The sounds are suitable meaty with deep, rumbly bass explosions and satisfying gunfire effects. for a videogame the score is suitable haunting and cinematic which is still rarely seen in video games.

The only problems the game has are the somehow less detailed and less well integrated plots for chapter two, pitting Max against the mafia again, but a higher authority, and chapter three with Max uncovering dirty government secrets and black operations relating to his wife and child’s death and the Valkyr drug. These chapters are over too quickly as well, and for any competent gamer won’t present much of a challenge to fly through in the default and only difficulty setting available. Once completed, it unlocks two more modes, Hard Boiled which is exactly the same but with more resilient guards, and New York Minute, which is exactly the same but with a tight time limit that’s only extended by killing goons. I’d have appreciated the opportunity to try the Hard Boiled mode from the off to extend the games longevity but there’s little to encourage you to immediately play the game through again. New York Minute is interesting but bloody difficult.

A very few of the levels are a shade annoying. The last level of chapter one and the prologues for chapter two and three rely at points on walking over narrow beams and paths. While the control system works perfectly for frantic gunplay it’s less effective for tight manoeuvring, resulting in a few frustrating falls from grace. This is largely dependant on the version you’re playing as well, the PC version suffering a little less than the console ports. This alone is enough to take the gloss off the experience, and the exceptionally irritating level in Jack Lupino’s restaurant that’s being torched as a trap is a masterpiece of scripted event annoyance and random death, with no real hints given as to which way to go. This leads to multiple reloads after trying a path, burning to death, trying another way, getting a bit further, burning to death, lather, rinse, repeat. Frustrating in the extreme.

Versions exist for the PC, Playstation 2 and the Xbox. The original PC version is the best and the standard the all others must be judged by, but they do a good job matching up to it. The keyboard/mouse combo is unquestionably the best way to control it but the analogue nature of today’s joypads mean it’s possible to retain much of the accuracy in movement and aiming. There’s a very slight jerkiness on some of the PS2 levels but it’s never intrusive, and some of the textures have succumbed to it’s memory limitations and it’s a little less detailed as a result. Again, nothing major. The only real difference is that a few of the additional ‘dead end’ corridors that Max can explore in the PC version that generally only house a few more bad guys to off are mysteriously blocked off in the console versions due to memory limitations, presumably.

The PS2 version is therefore a very good conversion given the machines age. The Xbox port shares all of the PS2’s minor flaws, but it’s a little harder to forgive it. After all, the Xbox is arguably more powerful than the PC’s many played Max Payne on on its release, so there’s certainly no excuse for fobbing off Xbox users with a (even very slightly) cut down port when they could have had the full-fat Max Payne experience.

Niggles aside, Max Payne remains one of the most memorable and enjoyable games you’ll complete, and it’s just a shame that there isn’t more of it. Still, given it’s age and the impending release of Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne (strangely subtitled a ‘noir love story’, presumably with added bullets) you’ll be able to pick this up for somewhere in the region of twenty quid at the absolute most, and around a tenner if you shop around.

As an aside, here’s a few more of my favourite Payneisms…

“The sun went down with practiced bravado. Twilight crawled across the sky, laden with foreboding.”

“He was trying to buy more sand for his hour glass. I wasn’t selling any.”

“I was so far past the point of no return, I couldn’t even remember what it looked like as I passed it.”

“Valkyr had been meant to be a white-winged maiden that would lift you to a warrior’s heaven. But it turned out to be a one-way demon ride to hell. The devil was in the drug. I knew. I had met him.”

“Collecting evidence had gotten old a few hundred bullets back.”

and the attention grabbing opener…

“They were all dead. The final bullet was an exclamation point on everything that had lead up to this moment. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over.”