Max Payne

Blast from the past: originally published August 28th 2001.

After a week of furious mouse and keyboard movement I’ve finished Max Payne. If you have any interest in PC gaming, you’ve heard it mentioned. Amazing visuals wrapped around a compelling story and straight forward action. I tried to contain myself, but this title is a sensational asset to any first person shooter’s library. Let me break it down by gameplay, graphics and environment.

You are Max Payne, tough as nails cop who is pursuing the killers of his family. I don’t want to reveal too much of the story, but you can get that much from the web site. Two aspects give this title compelling gameplay: a real storyline and “bullet time”.

After playing so many shooters with a threadbare story, I was completely drawn into this new and exciting style. The story is portrayed two ways; via graphic novel style stills and in game animation. Max narrates the story and through comic book panels reveals pieces of the story. This occurs as new pieces of information or character involvement come to light. The in game animation is done with the game engine and normally places you in a difficult situation, such as meeting a key enemy and being surrounded by goons. You become involved in the plot twists and are driven to see what new development will occur. The story isn’t an afterthought; it’s part and parcel with the action.

A shiny new feature to the third person shooter genre is bullet time, a John Woo style slow motion action sequence you control. Bullet time takes the game into slow motion, allowing you to aim your shots and give yourself an edge when there’s no way you could normally win. A small hourglass shows how much bullet time you have; it’s accumulated by killing enemies, but is used up quickly. Two ways to take advantage of it; you can use a small portion by using a bullet time dive, or you can activate bullet time and move through the scenario. The dives are useful for an enemy in a tough location, but it’s only good for one or two shots. For a room with three or four goons, you engage it and hope you kill everyone before your hourglass runs out. Either way it’s great to use and very helpful in difficult situations.

Gameplay, aside from bullet time, is like all other third person shooters. The camera hovers over your right shoulder as you run, crouch, jump and shoot your way through a multitude of enemies. It’s a proven formula and works here as well. A short tutorial gives you the basics needed to play, and you’re off. A fairly large selection of real world weapons, ranging from pistols though shotguns and rifles to grenades and Molotov cocktails. Some puzzles are mixed in, but nothing too tricky to distract from the “elimination” of the enemy.

Graphics are top notch; one look at the screenshots and you know quality abounds. Faces have been carefully modeled and really add to the overall experience. I found the bodies to be a bit blocky, but it didn’t detract. Drifting snow, flames, bullet riddled walls, everywhere you turn a beautiful environment to run amok. Lots of graphic options available to scale with the power of your computer; I played through at 1024x768x32 with trilinear filtering. The only problem is the fast pace of the game doesn’t give you time to stop and admire the virtual world.

Which leads up to environment, or how sound and vision come together to give us a sense of immersion. Sound in the game is excellent, from chatting guards to explosions and gunshots. I played with a four speaker set up and found the ambient sounds really put me into the game. Max Payne’s gritty monologue throughout was great, as were the other characters. There are two levels where you’ve been drugged and must face your nightmares; the weird graphics and screams spooked me completely. That’ll teach me to play at night.

This brings me to the weak points. Max Payne is played through one night, so the environment is dark; so dark I couldn’t play during the day. I didn’t mind playing at night since it added to the ambiance, but it does detract. There has been a lot of talk on the net regarding the short play time, but I found it took around 20 hours to go at a reasonable pace and get the full effect. Once you finish the game two different modes are revealed: New York Minute and Hard Boiled. New York minute gives a time limit per level, while Hard Boiled makes the enemies more difficult. I don’t want to instantly replay the game, but in a few weeks I’ll go back and try these on for size. Of course there’s no multiplayer option, since Max Payne is driven by the story and wouldn’t fit with net play ala Counter Strike.  Wait and see where Remedy next uses the engine.

All in all an excellent shooter with a fantastic story and thrilling environment. Run, don’t walk, and buy this game.  Those less trusting can check out the demo and see for themselves.