Max Payne Review

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Publisher: Gathering of Developers
Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 450 MHz, 96 MB RAM, 16 MB Direct3D video card

Max Payne combines a film-noir sensibility and the style of Hong Kong Blood Opera with computer game shoot-'em-up conventions. While Max was a New York City policeman, his baby and wife Michelle were killed three years earlier by addicts of a drug that would soon become a revered name on the street – Valkyr. Max joined the DEA afterwards as an undercover agent, and became part of the all-out effort to stop Valkyr from spreading. As the game begins, Max attends a rendezvous that goes hideously wrong. A blizzard is shutting the city down, and Max has been framed with the murder of his fellow agent. In his pursuit of the gangster that set him up, Max meets up with members of the Italian and Russian Mafia, corporate magnates, ex-Army project scientists, occult enthusiasts and a mysterious conspiracy. Mafia crime drama, conspiracy theory and Norse mythology all compete for Max's attention. When Max discovers the connection between his set-up and the deaths of his loved ones, he becomes determined to enact his revenge upon the woman who began his nightmare three years before.

Film noir is a genre in which the world is dark and nihilistic, with an unheroic, all-too-human hero, a setting filled with cold, darkness and shadows, and a narrative with frequent use of flashbacks and voiceovers. Hong Kong Blood Opera is exemplified by John Woo's films, and has done much to popularize the slow motion action sequences in which characters leap from the paths of flying bullets, spraying automatic gunfire as they dive. In these films, bullets trace paths through the air and shell casings trace lazy arcs from guns to bounce on concrete floors with an obscenely loud clang. Max Payne takes some of the better elements of each, and weaves them into a game that takes a standard shooter in some new directions. Max Payne's film-noir aspects come from the cut-scenes that take the form of panels in a graphic novel and voiceovers that permeate the action. The game begins with a flashback to the death of his loved ones, a scene he revisits throughout the game. Shoot-dodge and Bullet Time functions let Max execute Hong Kong Blood Opera style moves. Max can hurl himself sideways while blasting away with duel automatic weapons, and can slow time to a crawl, giving him an edge over the underworld he is determined to purge.

Kyle Ackerman

Max Payne makes some tremendous leaps forward in graphics and gameplay. In most areas, the graphics are detailed and lush making the game nearly as much fun to watch as it is to play. Max has two abilities that set him apart from conventional action movie heroes: Bullet Time and Quick Save. Bullet Time adds tremendously to the game. While experienced gamers may find Bullet Time unnecessary, it does allow the novice gamer more time to get a grasp of the surroundings and identify hostile targets. In conjunction with the quick save function, allowing the player to quickly restart failed action sequences, Max Payne is a good introduction to the action genre. More importantly, Bullet Time is fun – it allows the player to enjoy bullets that trace paths above Max as he unleashes his dual Ingrams, shattering every weapon on the bar and eliminating a hired thug with a shotgun. The pleasure of leaping sideways around a corner in slow motion is much of the fun you'll find in Max Payne.

The soundtrack is excellent, and voiceovers are usually well acted. Even the overheard banter between hired guns as Max stealthily approaches is well done. The camera is unobtrusive, and tracks Max's movements without user input, consistently providing a useful third-person view of Max's world. The graphic novel sequences are mostly well done, and give a sense of plot to a game in which the hero's only responsibility is to shoot everything that moves. Max Payne does a tremendous job of compelling the player's involvement during certain action sequences. A rooftop pursuit, an exploding Italian restaurant and especially a chase through a parking garage are hard to step away from without completing. The game is very linear, and requires few decisions and no backtracking. Max has one answer – a bullet. He doesn't care what the question may be. Everyone you run into is hostile or can be killed without penalty. There is a lot of incentive to throw grenades around blind corners, just in case something lurks out of sight, and no innocents to endanger.

Max Payne is, however, not without faults. The graphics engine often runs into problems. Max Payne's head tended to disappear into walls when he dove sideways with Shootdodge moves. Enemies occasionally appeared without heads or hands. When this happened in the occult segments of Ragnarock, it seemed that I was being assaulted by invisible thugs in club clothing. Transitions in and out of graphic novel sequences are sometimes jarring, and difficult when followed immediately by attacking enemies. Certain graphic novel story elements fail to further the plot, but may serve to alienate some gamers (such as Part One, Chapter Four). While the characters are rendered in near-photorealistic detail, some scenery elements are jarringly blocky. Bathrooms were particularly chunky, and it was disappointing that not a single mirror in the game was functional. While mirrors require effort to execute, they add substantially to the immersive feel of gameplay. The worst elements of Max Payne are the maze puzzles. At the beginning of Parts Two and Three, Max must navigate mazes of hallways or lines suspended in space. These sequences are painful to play, and sometimes difficult to complete. There is no justification for including these sequences in the game. Lastly, the game is short. The game could easily be completed in a full day of dedicated play. Depending on skill and stealth, Max Payne is around ten to twelve hours of entertainment, some of which is mind-numbing maze puzzles.

Rob de los Reyes

As a former director of theatrical productions, I'm going to indulge a bit, let Mr. Ackerman focus on gameplay, and focus my comments on aesthetics. I have read much dissatisfaction with the allegedly dreadful writing and voice acting in Max Payne. I would suggest that this criticism is misplaced.

Max Payne does an excellent job of capturing the essential elements of the film noir genre. As noted in our summary, the game is dark and cold. We see the end of the story first, and the game unfolds before us through flashbacks and voice-over narration. The despair is heavy (and, heavy-handed) in the air. The dialogue itself reflects the old film style, with vocabulary and syntax choices befitting a black and white movie about some down-and-out "private dick." The rhythm of noir dialogue hints at the future history of beat poetry. It is quite one thing not to be a fan of the genre, quite another thing altogether to glibly lump it all as "crappy dialogue."

Here's the problem. Every element of Max Payne screams 1930s or 40s America (or the Finnish vision thereof)... all except the setting, which is modern day New York. The disjunction between the two is clearly unsettling to some. The theater has a long (and mixed) history of success with such projects. I have seen an extremely enjoyable production of Oedipus Rex costumed in modern coat-and-tails tuxedos. I have seen and enjoyed more "alternative settings" for Shakespeare plays than I can count or remember. I have also seen some real stinkers. There are a plethora of good and not so good reasons to make such a striking artistic choice. Sometimes the choice is made in order to preserve the text as written but modernize the setting in order to forge some sort of bridge between an author and an audience hundreds of years removed from the time of the play's creation. Other times the choice is made for the same reason bell-bottoms come back in style – because the juxtaposition of time frames is a giant fun game of play-pretend. But adaptations like this turn on a single device, and if it fails, it taints the entire production.

I can only speculate as to why the developers opted for film noir style in a modern setting. Perhaps to make sure the player could use a fuller array of weaponry (rather important in a shooter). Perhaps they're just fans of the style (such fans are legion) and wanted to see whether it had any legs in the year 2001. For some, Max Payne is going to come off just as jarring and unpleasant as The Terminator as written by Jane Austen. I, on the hand, enjoy the style and what the Max Payne team has done to update it. In the first instance, I must confess that I would rather, in fact, fire twin Ingrams than twin six shooters. And while it's hard to beat the classic beige trench coat, Max does look pretty cool in his hip, three-quarter length leather coat. It is not, of course, enough merely to hold up "film noir" as some sort of talisman. Some noir is better than others, and other noir is better than what's on offer here. That said, I'm not looking to a shooter game to expand the depths of my soul or confront me with the deep futility of living.

There are many real and valid complaints one may make about Max Payne, and I don't entirely disagree with what Mr. Ackerman has written. Outside a few tedious "puzzles", the combination of spectacular graphic and sound design, easy interface, (usually) swift pacing, and, oh yes, the Bullet Time offer an ample good time. This game feels like we're at the start of something very, very good, and, for me, playing it here at the beginning provides enough additional fun to make the game worth an early purchase.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on August 11, 2001 5:36 PM.

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