Written by  :  Dr. M. "Schadenfreude" Von Katze (589)
Written on  :  Nov 15, 2003
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars3.14 Stars

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The first of a kind. Max Payne is just a must-have.

The Good

The worst snow storm of the century punishes the city of New York.
Suddenly, sirens start to howl in the night. Police cars, vans, choppers; every last law enforcement resource seems to have been summoned to attend an emergency at the Aesir Corp. magnificent headquarters building.
At the top of the building, a man stands with a heavy piece of weapon in his hands. His eyes stare into the sky. He looks like the man who finally reached his long-searched goal.
It's over. They are all dead.
*** Three years ago, Max Payne was an example of a detective in the NYPD. His life was good. He had a job he was proud of, a good group of tuesday poker friends, a beautiful recently-born baby girl, a lovingly caring wife... He even decided to quit smoking. "It's bad for the baby" he said to his best friend, Alex.
Max Payne was a happy man. His life was the American Dream come true.
But dreams tend to get ruined when you less expect it.
*** One day, Max came back home, as usual, only to be greeted by a haunting silence. On the wall at the receiver, a foul graffitti, the icon of the junkies to the latest designer drug, Valkyr.
The house looked like a tornado just went over it.
The phone rang. Max picked up. A woman asked "Max Payne?". Max desperately asked for help, but the woman hung up.
Max rifled upstairs, hearing his wife screaming. He entered the baby bedroom —she was laying on the ground, covered with a bloodstained sheet... dead.
Two junkies attacked him, he got rid of them, and bursted into his bedroom. One more junkie he quickly disposed of... and then he saw her. His wife. On the bed. Dead.
Everything shattered in a New York minute.
*** Max left the NYPD and joined the DEA. He went undercover inside one of the biggest mafia families of New York.
His goal: to uncover the ones behind the Valkyr drug manufacturing and dealing.
His only motivation: revenge.

So, what's the good about Max Payne, you ask? Well, let me think... —EVERYTHING!!

Hum. OK, let's bring it down a notch.

In the first place, I will have to say: the GAMEPLAY.
Max Payne is a 3rd-person perspective shooter. This is just like a FPS (namely, DOOM, QUAKE, HALF-LIFE, et cetera), but you get to see your own character on-screen too, which allows you to have a much more complete control over your character's actions.
I've been involved in endless arguements with friends after playing Max Payne, and I just keep stating that FPS's are dead: Max Payne is the first of a kind, as WOLFENSTEIN 3D was in its time. To me, Max Payne represents the logical evolution of the FPS. Period.

If not for the bullet-time feature (which I'll get to in a second, stay on me), the game develops a whole new level in character control interface. Getting into a crossfire won't be the same after having the Max Payne shootdodge feature. Regular FPS's will just give you the sad and obsolete strafe move, which seems to be stone-age old , now I've seen —and played— Max throwing himself to the ground in slow-motion, dodging enemy fire while still able to shoot, and even turn in any direction.
I remember I played NO ONE LIVES FOREVER after playing Max Payne, and every time I saw an enemy rolling on the floor dodging my bullets, and I was bound to the stupid strafe and nothing more, I couldn´t help but thinking 'Hey! I want to do that thing too! I was able to do it in Max Payne!!'

Now, bullet-time.
This is one of those cool features one could call gameplay-candy
While it's not strictly necessary to master it in order to beat the game, bullet-time adds a lot to the gameplay, making an otherwise quite linear experience into something full of possibilities.
But what IS bullet-time?
OK. Did you ever see the movie The Matrix? Or any recent John Woo movie? Or any action movies released after 1999?
If so, you might be familiar with that thing where the pace in action sequences is slowed down, and the camera makes a lot of fancy pans all over the place... Well, that's it. When you activate bullet-time, the world is slowed down, and you get to play the whole scene in slow motion, becoming able to perform all kinds of fancy acrobacies, including dodging bullets.
No matter how many fights I got into, I just wouldn't get tired of getting surrounded by these thugs and experimenting new ways of performing groovy action scenes with the help of the shootdodging and bullet-time.

The STORY of the game is very good. It doesn't exactly innovate, or surprise (come on, we all saw those plot twists coming), or anything for the like, but it makes its job fine. It could become an action-driven-police-thriller movie any day of the week.
The main events of the story are told through comic strips which fill the space between stages, and by short interventions of Max himself as a V.O. during gameplay, a la film noir. The drawings in the comic strips are great, and dialogues are cleverly written, with lots of beautiful film noir cliches including dark metaphors and some black humor.
One thing to note —in case you didn't notice it with that intro above— is how CRUDE the story is. From the intro sequence where you know this can't end up in anything good, to the shocking murder of Max's family and his best friend, the developers won't save resources to make sure you'll fell so desperate and impotent, that you will want revenge as much as Max does.
Some of the stages are actually nightmare sequences, full of dark surrealism, adding even more interest to the storytelling, and making sure not even asleep will Max have a moment of rest.

The GRAPHICS have a fairly surprising quality, considering the age of the game. This makes sense once you learn this game was based in the MAX-FX engine, which is the same in which most of the DirectX 8-class 3DMark 2001 benchmarking utility is based. A game based on a benchmarking engine by definition has the potential to stress the current generation video cards to the max.
You can raise the details level in order to bring on bump-mapped background textures, complex particles, lighting effects, and what all not. If you have a powerful video card, Max Payne's visual are nothing short of stunning.

The SOUND of the game doesn't exactly shine, but it tags along fine. You will need a surround system to fully enjoy some of the amusing dialogues that your enemies are constantly having before they notice your presence, because those kind of distant sounds just don't show up in normal speakers.

Regarding REPLAYABILITY VALUE, Max Payne uses a pretty old yet totally valid trick: once you beat the game, several new difficulty modes are unlocked. Instead of just making the exact same ride a little harder, gameplay itself is slightly modified. There is one mode called "Dead On Arrival", in which shots are as lethal as in real life, meaning that one single gunshot takes down a person, even the player. Another mode is called "New York Minute", and it requires every stage to be completed in one minute top, otherwise it's instant Game Over. One more mode, sets Max in a fancy looking lobby, under a constant un-limited bullet-time mode, and with a shitload of weapons and ammunition to pick up. Then a lot —and I mean A LOT— of badguys enter the scene. Guess what comes next.

Finally, even though the game is a linear ride, there are a number of easter eggs scattered throughout the game which add just a little more to a really well rounded up package, and might make worth paying attention to the details. I loved the TV announcement of this 'Adress Unknown' show with a weird dream-like monologue involving a flamingo, a doppelganger, and clear references to the TV series Twin Peaks.

The Bad

I find it hard to say something bad about this one, I just LOVE the game. But let's see.

We could point to the linearity thing.
The game is kind of linear...
OK, it's INSANELY linear. It's as linear as a game can be. It's as linear as a ruler. All you're going to do throughout the whole game is enter a room, kill every last thug you find there, go through the only door that opens, which will get you into another room, where —you guessed it already— you'll need to kill every last thug, so one and only one door opens...

As hungry for revenge as Max (and us) are, one could for sure thank a little more of options. Maybe some adventure, maybe some choose the way, some kind of non-violent interaction with NPCs, maybe at least some secret areas...

The Bottom Line

As simple as the formula is, Max Payne is just two steps from PERFECT. Even its linearity isn't much of an issue with the whole new world that the shootdodging and the bullet-time mean. I just kept asking for more rounds of thugs to come in, just for the sake of reaching new levels in action-packed crossfire scenes.

Max Payne is not only a great game, but a step to note in the developing of action games. I just can't stand another shooting scene without being able to shootdodge a la Max Payne. To my eye, FPS's are dead: Max Payne paved the way to a new era.

In a special note: if you liked the game, be sure to get the Kung Fu mod by Kenneth Yeung ( http://kungfu.maxpayneheadquarters.com/ - [email protected] ); a small 5 MB baby which turns the game into a WHOLE new experience. Like its name implies, Max gets close-hand combat kung-fu abilities —including wall-walking.
Another must.