More noise than signal

Max Payne — Gameboy Advance

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

Perhaps the only frustration in owning a Gameboy Advance is the number of ports released for the system. Indeed, it’s something I’ve felt compelled to comment on every time I’m moved to write about Ninty’s little baby. While most of the ports are simply conversions of the similarly powered SNES or Megadrive, jaws dropped and sanities were questioned after a port of PC/PS2/XBOX Max Payne was announced. How could the nifty but far less powerful GBA cope with Remedy’s hi-caliber bullet-time shooty shooty bang bangs?

The answer was to turn the game into an isometric shooter, a forced third person perspective that’s been happily utilised since the ZX Spectrum was a jumpin’ and a jivin’ around with Batman. After falling out of favour for a while it seems to be enjoying a mini revival of late, also used in the recent resoundingly average GBA version of Terminator 3. While the developers Mobius have managed to achieve level layouts that are at time scarily reminiscent of the original PC versions, they’re ultimately hamstrung and defeated by a sheer lack of horsepower.

Unsurprisingly taking the same plotline as the original version, the broad details concern undercover cop Max Payne avenging his murdered wife and child by infiltrating the local Mafia outfit, cracking the case of new designer drug Valkyr with extreme prejudice. Seeing as I’ve already regurgitated the storyline in excruciating detail in my previous review I think I’ll spare those gory details this time through, but rest assured that despite a trimming to fit the cartridge space the story is as noir-riffic and enjoyable as the previous versions.

Dealing with the first thing that’ll strike you on flipping the power switch first, the presentation remains exceptional and frankly astonishing given the space limitations. The glorious graphic novel artwork that made the games’ name remains albeit in slightly less resplendent form, and the overblown gravelly voiceovers are in full effect. Well, as long as you can take ‘full effect’ to mean ‘raspily overcompressed’, but this is still an impressive and largely audible addition to the atmosphere. It’s the presentation of this game’s bigger brother more than anything else that made it one of the most talked about and fondly remembered games of recent times and Mobius deserve great credit in translating as much of this as possible to the handheld version.

The palpable atmosphere ported over allows the player to perhaps be a little more forgiving of the actual gameplay mechanics, which while maintaining a certain amount of fun are flawed enough to prove exceptionally irritating on occasions. On stepping off the train at Roscoe Street station in the games first level, it’s quite likely you’ll be perforated by bullet holes rather quickly. The reason for this is simple, your Mafioso enemies can see you well before you can see them. Being shot at (and more often than not hit) by ne’erdowells that lie somewhere three screen lengths ahead of you and certainly not in your field of vision isn’t exactly an optimal gaming experience.

It’s the best the graphic engine could hope to do, really, as it already struggles when the bodies start piling up. The polygonal mini-Max runs and dives around with commendable fluidity while dispatching lead salads, and somehow Mobius have contrived to have fistful of slowdowns only after the action has subsided so I’m inclined to let it off on this charge, although it does knock some of the polish off the game.

There’s a full range of weaponry to dispatch your enemies from the humble Beretta to the M4 assault rifle, although strangely the Ingram seems to have the best accuracy and firing rate, which is more than a little odd. Max seems to be a little more accurate in this version, auto-aim generally doing a good job of taking down your targets as long as you’re pointing in roughly the right direction that you’ve guessed those targets are in. I can only guess that he’s been doing some heavy lifting recently and Max has strained his arm muscles, because aiming at anything above waist height seems to cause the engine a few problems. Several times you’ll be attacked by bad guys upstairs from you, and several times your bullets will fly harmlessly into concrete resulting in your untimely demise.

It’s an extreme annoyance and perhaps unduly so, because for most of the game there’s a lot of fun to be had diving around shooting wildly. Shootdodging is certainly recommended, as it seems to render you more or less invulnerable. Perhaps it’s easier to forgive it its flaws given the presentation, the style making up for the substance. And certainly there’s not a lot of substance, the already short original being fairly drastically abridged in its newest form. Poor Vlad, dearest amongst all my friends, is almost excised from the story entirely and does nothing more than offer Max a lift. The essential plot progress remains, although how well it’s received by those not familiar with the original is a question I can’t answer.

Judged as a direct port of the original Max Payne fails on several points, but that’s hardly a fair comparison given the vast gulf in power between the formats. As an arcadey shooter it has far more success, although it still fails in several crucial areas. The presentation is solid as a rock, and by far the most accomplished on the GBA. It’s failing is a basic one, you just cannot see who’s shooting at you and this does mean you’ll spend most of your time shootdodging around firing test shots hoping to hit someone. Viewed as such it’s surprising that the game is any fun period, and Mobius really deserve a lot of plaudits for pushing the envelope of what’s possible for the now underpowered handheld. It’s just taking on a task too big for it, but hopes have to be high for the studios next release.

As long as it’s not a chopped down Max Payne 2.