When the first screenshots of Max Payne popped up some years back, I was one of a small legion of skeptics who thought that the finished product would either never make it to retail, or be incredibly disappointing. Most games that spend so long in development end up falling short in some areas, and wind up as bargain bin specials no self respecting gamer would be caught dead with (Daikatana, anyone?). Fortunately, Max Payne turned out to be all it was promised to be, and has made a relatively smooth transition to both the PS2 and X-Box. While both versions are great, the X-Box version is superior to the PS2 port in terms of graphics and controls, and comes well recommended for anyone looking for a solid adult action game that pulls no punches.
The plot is right out of any number of Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Willis action movies from the late 80's/early 90's, with visceral action scenes lifted from John Woo and Sam Peckinpah movies. After junkies murder his wife and child, Max Payne, a New York City detective goes deep undercover and infiltrates the Mafia searching for answers. He gets a lot more than he expects when his cover is blown and he's framed for murder, and soon after, both the mob and police are after him - dead or alive (preferably dead). The game also borrows heavily from any number of graphic novels, and the majority of the plot is spelled out in panels complete with word balloons and sound effects. The main draw to many gamers is the use of slow motion "bullet time", which gives Max an edge over most of the enemies he'll face (and looks damn cool as well). It's overkill, and shouldn't work at all, but somehow Remedy managed to work this play mechanic seamlessly into the action, and it becomes a necessary survival tool in the later stages of the game.
The game is a third-person action game that controls like a first-person shooter, but Max Payne was made for a control pad, not a keyboard and mouse setup. The left stick makes Max move, crouch and strafe, the right stick aims and turns him, the D-pad toggles weapons and the triggers activate bullet time and shoot. The bulky X-Box pad is surprisingly perfect for all this (it almost feels like a gun in your hand after a minute or so), except for a few areas where moving in small increments is necessary. The game has a quick tutorial mode that's recommended, as not only will it help you get used to the control scheme, you can also spend as much time as you want blowing away enemies without the story advancing. Once you fire up the main game, things move very quickly, and there's no turning back…
The great thing about Max Payne is the way it's balanced - from the manner in which you accumulate crucial bullet time (by killing enemies), to the self-adjusting difficulty (subtle, but it's there), Max Payne gives the action genre a much-needed shot in the arm (and a few other places). For every concession to the fantastic, there's at least one tradeoff, which makes you play cautiously throughout the game. Max can carry about a dozen weapons, but you can run out of ammo and be forced to use a baseball bat or lead pipe if you're careless; he can take a few shots in non-lethal areas, but a shotgun blast to the head is instantly fatal. The enemy AI is fairly realistic- potential targets will run for cover, gather backup, or toss a Molotov or grenade in your direction as you round a corner. The first time the latter happened, I blinked and didn't notice until I got blown up and had to reload my game (thank goodness for autosaves!). Rushing into a room or new area with guns blazing is not a good idea in Max Payne, as there's usually an enemy or four waiting to pop out and put a few new caps in your teeth. The levels are fairly linear, but sometimes a bit of exploring will reveal a secret area or alternate path to take. You can also quick save anytime, so that when you successfully navigate an area (damn jumping sequences!), you don't have to try again should your fingers betray you (don't blame the controller).
If you're the impatient sort who rushes into rooms and dies a lot, at least you'll look good dying - Max Payne is one beautiful-looking game. The environments are amazingly lifelike, full of destructible items and gorgeous lighting. The entire game takes place either at night or indoors, but the environments are varied and generally expansive. By the time you reach the final boss, you'll have been through some of the grimiest areas of Remedy's fictional NYC. The X-Box version also runs at a higher resolution and a faster frame rate than the PS2 port, and keeps the same level structure as well (it's chopped up a bit on the PS2). The sound design is also great, with all the appropriate bangs, crashes, and screams you'd expect, plus atmospheric music that doesn't get in the way of the fast-paced action. The game lasts about 15 or so hours the first time you play, and you'll unlock a harder difficulty mode, as well as the hyper "New York Minute" mode, in which you have one minute to clear each area of the game! You gain a few seconds by killing enemies, but you still have to hoof it to the end of each stage.
The only drawbacks to this otherwise excellent game are the two "dream sequences" which are a total nightmare to control with the bulky X-controller. I got such a hand cramp nudging Max along that stupid blood trail that I didn't care about the emotional impact of the first scene, and the second one…well, let's just not go there. It's also hard to stay crouched with any of the control setups, making for some unnecessary bullet catching. Finally, while the storyline is excellent, the script and voiceovers come off as ridiculously hammy, adding way too much campy melodrama to the proceedings. Everyone sounds as if they're channeling Hammett, Tarantino and Shakespeare at the same time. But then again, this is a game where you can slow time and dive around a room while you unload hot lead into four or five guys at a time, so I guess I can deal with a little overacting.
In other words, if you have the X-Box, Max Payne is a no-brainer purchase, and an instant classic for mature gamers (not that there's a hell of a lot of good games to buy for the system at this point). Hopefully you're reading this on the subway or bus on the way to your favorite game shop to pick up one for yourself. Hopefully Remedy is working on a sequel, and maybe 3D realms will let them do a Duke Nukem game using this same engine - now that would really rock, no?
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