After Death Rally, Remedy Entertainment’s first game, they wanted to create a game with inspirations from Loaded, Tomb Raider and the works of Mickey Spillane. The product became known as Max Payne and it won a ton of awards, including: Best PC Game by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts, Best Graphics in a PC Game, and Best PC Action Game by The Electric Playground and Computer Game of the Year by The Augusta Chronicle, just to name a few. I was quite intrigued by its presentation, and since its many awards were for the PC-version, as well as it being a third person shooter, I got it for my laptop and was ready to give it a shot.
“I don’t know about angels, but it’s fear that gives men wings”
The story is told as a flashback, with our playable character, Max Payne, standing on the top of a building with a grin on his face and police-sirens echoing throughout the cold snowstorm. Three years before this, Max, who was an NYPD officer, found his home destroyed, and his wife and child murdered by junkies high on a drug called Valkyr. Having lost everything, Max started his job at the DEA and went as an undercover operative inside the Punchinello Mafia family, who was responsible for the trafficking of Valkyr. After this, there are twists, turns and characters that might be your ally or your enemy.
The entire story is told through monologues by our playable character and it is a grim and dark tale, with inspirations from detective-noir stories. It can come off as a bit corny for lack of better term, but not too much, giving it a serious tone with a lovely sense of dark humor. Our narrator has an amazing voice, which is deep and brooding, complimenting the tone of the story. The plot itself has many twists and turns, symbolism with some even connecting to Norse mythology, and quotable lines that are either, cheesy, inspiring or both. My personal favorite being “he was trying to buy sand for his hourglass. I wasn’t selling any”. Due to the main character monologuing the entire flashback, you get emotionally attached to him as he describes the world around him from his point of view, as well as his own life, dreams and situations, giving the title of the game more relevance.
There are also extra bit of story that can be discovered throughout the game, such as by watching news on TVs or read documents and diaries. All of them are told through monologues and maybe with a minor cutscene. The cutscenes themselves are shown as comic-strips, with gritty filters and all of them are voiced, making them easily a joy to watch. The enemies and general people will also chat, with some elaborating more about the events that are going on or even commenting on daily lives, such as movies or their families. With so much dedication and personality being given to the story, this crime-noir tale has a fantastic mix between cheesy and dark, like roquefort.
Story Score: 10/10
A bit more than just an average shooter
Max Payne is a third-person shooter, with traditional tank-controls, his back being turned to you the whole time, and using the mouse to aim and shoot. Unlike many of today’s-shooters, you have a huge selection of weapons you can acquire and carry with you at once, from handguns and baseball bats, to sniper rifles and grenades. What is a really neat part, is that all weapons are dedicated to hotkeys depending on what type they are. For example: melee weapons can be easily selected by pressing the 1-key, and guns with fast fire-rate, like the uzi, are on the 4-key. You can also use the scroller on the mouse to select the weapons.
While the melee-weapons won’t be a favorite due to everybody owning a gun of some sort, all firearms are useful. There is plenty of ammunition in the game, which is a good thing since the enemies come in packs and can be a dangerous threat due to their weapons, their AI being aggressive, only hiding when necessary, and if they have more defense than the average goon. None are really memorable however, and the couple of “bosses” are only distinguished by having more health to them.
So far, this is a standard setup and really: Max Payne is. It is solid on its own, but there are 3 elements that make the game more unique than the average shooter. First, is the bullet time. Due to having no cover-mechanic, the bullet time is a great idea since it makes everything go in slow-motion as you activate it by either at will or by dodging. This makes it easier to make precise shots, dodge bullets and it simply looks cool. It is not unlimited however, and must be refilled by killing enemies. Also: you have to keep yourself in motion for the most part to avoid enemy fire, since they will usually hunt you down. You can crouch to try to hide, but it was really more of a visual gag than helpful.
This is a great way to keep the action high, making bullet time not something you can rely upon, but definitely an important and helpful addition. The next element might seem minor, but is just about as important: the painkillers. Max can find them throughout the game and hold up to 8. Taking one will slowly heal Max and taking plenty, will heal him faster and more. It is however, hard to keep the amount of painkillers maxed out, due to the abundance of enemies, so you will have to either risk it and see if you can save some, or just take it, hoping it will make you last longer. You will automatically heal a minor portion if you have no health left, but this is not something to rely upon as you can easily die from one critical shot.
Finally: there is the level-design. While they are usually not platforming-heavy or diverse, they are well made and make every level feel realistic and interesting to traverse through. They are usually hallways with branching paths for hidden goodies and enemies to shoot, but all areas have something interesting to them. You can search for more letters, watch the TV for some news and so on. The game keeps a good focus on what Max Payne is about: running, shooting and occasionally finding story-elements. The tension is high in every corner due to how easily you can die and it is satisfying to get through a part by either strategizing with your weapons, stealthily use the sniper or grenades, or just jumping in slow-mo and shooting as precise as you can. There are some segments where you don’t run and gun, such as a couple of dream-segments and one brief part, where you don’t have any weapons, but these are few and only makes the game vary slightly. Even just about all of the minor “puzzles” in the game, demands you shooting at objects.
The only part I was unsure about was the saving. You can save pretty much anywhere in the game, have multiple save-files and you can load anytime. With the hordes of enemies, their aim being above average and death coming easy, I was questioning if this is similar to giving an extra-life before the next part of a game. Then I realized: I always saved when I was safe, reloading was easier to do if needed and there were no parts where I got a cheap shot. Easily killed for sure, but more due to my recklessness. Thanks to the saving-mechanic, it helped me think strategically and carefully, and it even autosaves after each chapter is over. It is definitely something to debate about, but I believe the game is well designed around this concept. One clear flaw however, is that the sniper-rifle can feel a bit sluggish. It works for the most part, but on more than one occasion, I swear that i did not hit the object slightly to the left or right of my target.
There are 3 parts to the story (and a separated tutorial-stage if you would need that), each varying in the amount of chapters and all starting with a prologue. This makes it a bit of a short game, clocking in about 7-8 hours. However, I had no down-time since if I wasn’t in a hectic gun-battle, I was enjoying the plot or small story-bits. It might not break new grounds and the reasons for saving anywhere can be questionable, but with bullet time and every area being intense, it makes for a good and unique ride from beginning to end, even if you have played plenty of third person shooters.
Gameplay Score: 7.5/10
Cold, unsettling and yet: solace
With urban areas being the main-locations to traverse through, Remedy did a great job making the most out of them. Max travels to factories, sketchy hotels, the streets of New York and subways just to name a few areas, and all are well done with gritty and grim tone. Some of my favorite details are the graffiti on the walls and commercials in the background, trying to make the familiar and realistic areas a bit more varied. Remedy Entertainment used their own game engine called MaxFX and it is a good one. Textures of blood and bullet holes are left on walls and floors, and enemies fly around depending on the weapons they got killed by and sometimes: it is even shown in slow-motion.
The character-models are unfortunately ugly and don’t hold up, with blocky models and facial-features that have poor textures. Although I will admit, I love that Sami Järvi (the game’s writer) is portrayed as Max Payne. Their costumes are well-designed, but that is all the praise I can give them.The use of comic-panels for cutscenes, was an interesting move. It works however, with more realistic presentation and still keeping to the style of the game. They also hold up much better compared to how CG or in-game cutscenes would, and they are all voiced with monologue, and occasional dialog.
Behind the soundtrack, we find Kärtsy Hatakka and Kimmo Kajasto. The music is often minimalist, with clear notes of piano, bass, and cymbals being often used, making the tracks more memorable. There is some hectic techno when there is a huge fight going on, but usually there are melancholic tracks that add to the setting, or simply nothing. This absence of music is well implemented, since it makes the quieter areas more suspicious and through this: it creates more tension. Perhaps the most important noise in a shooter, are the guns and they all feel and sound great. The same can be said for other sound-effects, from static radios to cars screeching on the icy roads. The voice-acting is very impressive. Some do give a more stereotypical performance, especially the Italian mafia, but it adds to the cheese and is overall well done, with James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne, stealing the show. You will also easily hear which direction the sounds are coming from, so a good set of headphones comes recommended.
Presentation Score: 9/10
Good reasons for another shot
One of my favorite extras in games, is the minor enjoyment found in cheat-codes to play around with and this game has plenty of them. They are usually only for adding more weapons, but some are more fun, like different character-models and showing frames per second. There are also unlockable difficulty-modes, such as one that is basically time-attack mode, secrets in the game and even extra endings. Due to the game being a joy to play as it is, it is easy to go back to it as well.
Extra Score: 8/10
Max Payne is a great example of style over substance done well. It has an enjoyable story, interesting world to journey through, satisfying weapons to play around with, bullet time and painkillers are good additions, and the action feels satisfying. I can definitely see why it won so many awards and while the gameplay might not be the most unique, it too has enough to be enjoyable and interesting on its own. This is a gem that should not be missed.