Please allow me to put to rest any suspicions you may have had about how this site is run – with the exception of Halloween, there is absolutely no plan. Which brings us to our article today – about a popular game that hardly needs another review, written entirely because I was playing Max Payne 3 and decided to revisit the beginnings of the series, under the guise of “content” for JGR. I know you had no illusions we had dignity or standards, but it helps to just lay it out sometimes.
The Melancholy Tale of Maximilian Paynesworth (working title) follows our titular hero as he shoots his way up and down an only moderately fictionalized New York City, circa 2000. Max is a former New York cop whose wife and baby daughter were murdered by trespassing junkies. The crooks were cracked out on a new drug called Valkyr, which turns its users into violent, animalistic psychopaths (much like the infamous “bath salts” of today). Swearing revenge, Max joins the Drug Enforcement Agency as an undercover agent. Planted within a prominent New York mafia family, he hopes to discover the source of Valkyr by working backward from its distribution.
The first level has Max heading out to meet his DEA contact, when he stumbles upon a bank heist in progress. After some light encounters meant to familiarize you with the controls, Max’s DEA pal is mysteriously assassinated. With the only man who knew he was actually an undercover cop now dead (the oldest of crime drama cliches!), Max is now hunted by the police and an enraged mafia tipped off regarding his true affiliation. Clearly someone wants Max dead, but who? Is there anyone in the city he can trust? And what is the sinister truth behind Valkyr? Nifty comic book-style panels between missions and at key points in the levels will keep this continuing story updated.
Gameplay can be succinctly described as a love letter to Hong Kong “blood operas.” If the film has guns and choreographed, slow-motion shootouts where bodies and debris fly, then it was an influence on this game. As I was a teenaged male who loved action movies when this was released, I was under contractual obligation to think said game was the dopest shit ever put to code. Forget The Matrix – if you wanted to dive sideways through the air whilst firing off akimbo Beretta pistols into clueless mooks, Max Payne made all these action film fantasies come to life in interactive form.
That concept alone was surely enough to move copies, but the nearly-flawless execution didn’t hurt either. For starters, the graphics were astounding. Everyone remembers this promo shot splashed across every PC mag of the day, but seeing it live and in motion was a different story. Interestingly, there really aren’t any particular graphical tricks (bump mapping, normal maps, etc) going on here, it’s just that every texture comes from a source photograph. The staggering challenges of trying to collect that many photos and size them correctly and consistently probably explains why no one had really tried before, but Remedy took the time (and the trips to actual New York locations, cameras in hand) to pull it off. It’s the rare time the term “photorealistic” can quite literally apply.
Second, it’s the first game engine that actually renders traveling bullets. Most shooters work on a concept called “hitscan” – when you press the fire button, an invisible line marks out to the point of impact and instantly renders the effect of the bullet, without rendering the actual bullet. Since the shot is virtually instantaneous anyway, modeling the shell flying through the air would be an excessive waste of resources. It happens so fast that no one would see the difference.
Of course, super-slow motion changes all this, and so, Max Payne renders those bullets. You can actually see them sailing through the air, past Max’s dodging frame, and into walls or enemies. Blood mists from the point of impact and splatters onto nearby surfaces. Plaster particles trickle from bullet holes knocked into walls. Debris, like paper or wood splinters, gets kicked up into the air. The guns themselves actually have moving slides modeled, with spent casings flung out and sent clattering around the environment. The ability to slow time gives you the chance to see all these details, and it doesn’t feel like there’s a single effect they forgot to put in. I simply don’t see how anyone could have done it better with the available tech at the time (probably why “Max Payne clone” didn’t become a genre).
The time-slowing mechanic isn’t meant to just look great – it’s a critical part to how Max overcomes the outrageous odds of a typical shooter. You can engage slow-mo in two ways: clicking the right mouse while standing still toggles it, and hitting the same button while moving launches Max into a dive. Time is slowed by a preset rate, with the exception of your ability to look around and aim. So while Max heaves his body through a doorway, you can be finding and targeting goons in real-time – even to the point of being able to flip Max around in mid-air and shoot guys behind him. There’s a lag, of course, as Max’s body and his guns also move in slow-motion, but the time you gain to line up a shot gives you a distinct advantage.
You also literally cannot die while diving through the air. This is crucial, as there are no easier difficulty levels and bullets are extremely damaging. Max can take only three or four pistol shots and only one close-range shotgun blast, so you’re very vulnerable. You have a limited ability to crouch and no real option for taking cover – not to mention most encounters take place in relatively cramped hallways or rooms – so diving around becomes as useful in an emergency as it does in trying to get the drop on someone. Your health only regenerates to about 10%, and the rest you’ll need to heal with painkillers found throughout the world. These are not instant-effect, however, so you’ll have to use them between battles where they can have the time to fully heal you. An adaptive difficulty system subtly stocks cabinets with more painkillers depending on your current damage.
Enemies put up a decent challenge as well, though almost entirely through heavy use of scripting. There are plenty of ambushes, grenades tossed around corners, and even a few skillful retreats. Luckily, the fact that these don’t happen on their own only becomes noticeable with multiple playthroughs. One downside is that while enemies limp around after being hit, they otherwise show no reaction to or fear of getting shot. You’ll need to be accurate, as there is apparently no intimidation factor to a grown-ass man diving through a door while shooting two handguns at once. Some enemies and bosses also have their stats artificially inflated, so be prepared to shoot a few goons far more times than the others.
There’s clearly a lot to love here, but complaints aren’t too hard to find. For one, it’s as repetitive as any shooter – perhaps more so because your fragile health and limited combat options mean there’s only a few ways to be effective. One of the highlights of any John Woo film is how varied and tightly choreographed those gun battles are. The limitations of a computer game with only a handful of animations mean you won’t see anything close to gun ballet here. Instead, it will be one awkward dive after another, dropping enemies with the same, stiff, pre-coded death falls.
I also personally had a problem with the guns. They’re all balanced well among each other, but also all on the weak side. The twin pistols are probably the most fun, but also wildly inaccurate. The shotgun and Desert Eagle are the most powerful, but too slow to use in larger groups. The SMGs increase your chances of landing a critical headshot, but chew through ammo like popcorn. The result is that I was constantly rotating through the arsenal. It’s good for variety, I suppose, but I never felt like I had a “default” weapon I knew I could always rely on. Each gun is so situational that plenty of reloads resulted when one of the frequent ambushes found me holding a weapon suddenly not up to the task.
I’ve also heard criticism of the noir aspects. Some people took issue with Payne’s flowery internal monologue (they never read Dashiell Hammett, I suspect), and the constant, gravely self-narration by James McCaffery. Bluntly, they seemed to think the game had its head stuck up its own ass. After playing Max Payne 3, and seeing what that really looked like, I have a new appreciation for the self-awareness displayed in this first game. It never seems to take itself too seriously. It’s not quite a parody, but its winking references aren’t exactly subtle – from goons named Rico Muerte and the Finito Brothers, to the pure-cheese Twin Peaks and soap opera mockeries on the televisions. Even the name Max Payne should be a clue that we’re not being completely intense here. In that light, the writing feels like a perfect fit.
What I personally despised was the plot twist. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, the stakes get raised in a way that is absurd and frankly unnecessary. I was totally on board with Max’s tale of revenge against the mafia, and the early acts are great fun. But by the time you’re fighting government agents, there’s a shark in the rear-view mirror and it’s turned into every other game plot there ever was. Oh, and the platform-hopping dream sequence levels. Fuck those.
The final complaint was a valid one – limited replay value. There’s about a 10-12 hour campaign here, so heavily-reliant on scripting that there’s not much left once you know all the surprises. The game attempts to pad this with extra modes unlocked on completion, but it’s still runs through the same content. “Dead on Arrival” mode challenges you with limited saves, and “New York Minute” is an arcade-style mode with a running time limit, slightly replenished with each bad guy you kill. There’s also no multiplayer in a time when this was starting to become the de facto standard. I’m sure everyone went gonzo over the idea of killing each other in slow-motion deathmatch, but not having it here is totally irrelevant now that the game is nowhere near full price.
Surprisingly, Max Payne still holds up. In some ways, it’s even better than the recent third title. Its photo-based graphics manage to look gritty and sharp even without any advanced engine effects, and the particle system is so impressive that it drove those 3DMark video card benchmarks for a time. However, shooting enemies in slow motion actually does get old, mostly due to a lack of variety. Max Payne 2 addresses this somewhat. The sequel doesn’t have the first game’s same self-aware tone though, and while the plot here unravels a bit toward the end, this is still the best of Max Payne’s tales. Great graphics, great shooting, great presentation, all make a great choice for an action game to play if you haven’t already.
Excellent photo-based graphics sell the gritty, noir style. Advanced particle effects and bullet modelling make the shooting the visual feast it needs to be. Controls well and tests you with some fun challenges.
Dream sequences suddenly require precision jumping. All animations, including enemy deaths, are canned and lack needed variety. Guns are okay, but rarely feel truly powerful. Limited replay value. Locked to a 4:3 aspect ratio, so you’ll need the appropriate setting if you don’t want Max stretched.
“Okay, listen up. Any minute now, Payne’s gonna bust through that door with murder in his eyes. Now I, for one, am gonna pump that S.O.B. so fulla lead, they’ll need a forklift to carry his coffin!” – some fool that did not kill Max Payne.