“They were all dead. The final gunshot was an exclamation mark to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and then it was over.”
The first thing spoken by Max Payne marks the begging of the game and the start of an unforgettable journey. Developed by Remedy Entertainment, it was actually the second game that they developed (the first one was Death Rally), and a game that made them a powerhouse that they are today. Released in 2001 and published by Gathering of Developers (ports published by Rockstar Games), Max Payne quickly became a fan favorite.
Development first started back in 1996 and was inspired by games such as Loaded, and the success of Tomb Raider (but, they wanted to avoid the “horrid camera”). The story was inspired by archetypes of hard-boiled detectives and private eyes, and according to the writer Sam Lake, he wanted to use it to create a “deeper, more psychological story”.
The working titles were Dark Justice and Max Heat (referenced in later games) before the developers finally settled on the name, Max Payne.
The plot starts in 1998 and follows Max Payne, then an NYPD detective who returns home from work to find his wife and baby daughter murdered by junkies. The junkies were high on a new drug, Valkyr or V.
Shortly after, on the suggestion of his friend Alex, Max joined the DEA and started investigating the new drug, and trying to get to the source of the drug. His colleague B.B. tells him to meet with Alex, his partner, and best friend at Roscoe Street Subway Station. Upon the arrival, Max stumbles upon a bank robbery, by mobsters working for Jack Lupino. After stopping the robbery, he meets up with Alex, who is shortly after killed. Max becomes the prime suspect in Alex’s murder because he’s undercover and fled the crime scene. To make matters worse, the mafia also found out that he’s a cop and wants him dead.
With nothing left to lose, Max starts his path of revenge and figuring out the source of the drug.
Max Payne has smooth gameplay, and true to their intentions handles better than Tomb Raider. The movement is fast and easy, and the crosshair is represented by the single dot on the screen. One of the biggest features of the game (and a selling point), is the bullet-time mechanic. During each shoot out, you have the option of activating bullet-time, which slows down time allowing you to see and dodge bullets and also improve your aim. In fact, without bullet-time, he is like any other character in the game, vulnerable and easy to kill.
To restore health Max will use pain killers, which are scattered throughout the level. The painkillers, fit surprisingly well into the theme of the game but is the only health item in the game.
The levels are mostly linear, and will occasionally feature platforming sections and minor puzzles. AI in the game is scripted, but smart enough to follow orders, take covers, and toss grenades. Low-level enemies while not that well-armed, can still kill you pretty quickly if you’re not careful.
To avoid becoming dull, since you’re constantly battling human enemies, the game will get progressively harder and test your skill. On your first playthrough, you can only play on one difficulty, Fugitive. Other difficulty levels, will be unlocked as you finish the game, adding more challenges.
The other most memorable thing about the game besides bullet-time is the story and its presentation. Since Remedy didn’t have a large budget, they made a genius decision to present the story in comic panels, which costed less than cutscenes (there are small in-game cutscenes, but nothing major) and could be rearranged quite easily. Narrated by Max, this allowed the player to connect to the character more easily, and become more invested in the story. Each panel has small details and nuances, whether its the expressions or the details in the background. While the story is told usually at the begging or the end of the chapter, you can also interact with the environment to discover more details. In each level, you will stumble upon a plot-relevant object, and an exclamation mark will appear. Pressing the “use key”, you will get a new comic panel, which explains the smaller details in the story and encourages the exploration of the otherwise linear levels.
The comic panels aren’t actually drawn (in a classical way), they’re more of a mixture between oil paintings and photos. Max is modeled after the game’s writer Sam Lake, while other characters are modeled after employees and friends. However, all of the voice actings are done by professionals, especially the voice of Max Payne, James McCaffrey. His narration of the game events will keep you drawn in the story, and want it to see it through. It also shows what happens when quality voice actors are hired.
The presentation of the game is also excellent. The UI and graphics are nice and clean, and the game still looks good, despite being a 2001 title. The silhouette represents the health bar, and the hourglass represents bullet time.
The music is composed by Kärtsy Hatakka, and he managed to capture that noir, depressed feel for the game. The arsenal at Max’s disposal is good with a lot of variety. There are pistols, shotguns, SMGs, Assualt Rifles, Sniper, and even a Grenade Launcher. You also have the option of dual wielding certain weapons, for more damage and coolness. Also, when firing a sniper rifle, you will see a “bullet camera”, which will follow the bullet until it hits its target.
The game, however, has a minor flaw. During certain levels, there are platform elements, which can get annoying as Max can’t always stick the landing just right. Fortunately, these sections are far and few between, and are only a minor nuisance.
Max Payne was a commercial success, and was the 19th best selling computer game in 2001 in the US, with 300, 782 units sold. It was ported to Playstation 2, XBOX, and GameCube, and selling around 1,6 million copies by 2006. The PC version is by far the best one, and it also offers the implementation of mods, and the ability to create your own levels. The Sega Dreamcast port was planned, but it was dropped due to consoles discontinuation.
Due to its success the game received two sequels, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (2003), and Max Payne 3 (2012). It also received a featured film in 2008, which was received with mixed reviews, and was panned by the fans.
If you’re looking for a good action game, give Max Payne a try. It’s a bullet-time mechanic and an interesting story will keep you hooked for hours. The game is easily available on Steam, for cheap.
Max Payne stood the test of time and will give you hours of fun. It’s a recommendation, even if you aren’t a fan of action games.