Max Payne is one of the pillars of third person shooters, along with Tomb Raider and Splinter Cell. Drawing inspiration from John Wu action flicks, Film Noir movies, and to some extent The Matrix, it makes for a unique and memorable game. But nearly 20 years later, how does it hold up?
The running gag is that video game reviewers are bad at video games and will complain at the slightest difficulty encountered. Therefore, I will describe the elements which make the game hard, and it will be up to you, the reader, whether or not Max Payne’s difficulty is fair. Recent, more modern video games have made players used to the auto save system. The player only has to focus on the game they’re playing, knowing that a death will only set them back a few minutes, if not seconds. Max Payne only automatically saves at the start of a new chapter, so it is important to frequently save and quick-save (a hard earned lesson). Weapons in this game are all projectile-based, so it’s possible to dodge enemy bullets, just as enemies can dodge the player’s. Despite that, enemies seem to be able to dish out more damage than the player character, Max. It is unknown whether it is because they are more accurate, have a tighter bullet spread, or simply deal more damage per bullet, but even one-on-one encounters with common enemies can send the player back to the last quick-save very quickly. The game features an aim-assist option, which is welcome since movement is a big part of the game. Despite aim-assist, all weapons appear to have the same spread, safe for the sniper rifle. No weapon is particularly better than another at long-medium range, so it’s recommended to simply choose a weapon that has lots of ammo, shoot at the enemy, and pray to the RNG gods that your bullets will hit, and the enemy’s won’t. Only the last 15% or so of the player’s health regenerates, the rest is healed by eating painkillers like they’re Tic Tacs. The early sections of the game have painkillers all over the place, whereas the later sections have less and less of them. With few healing options, die and retry becomes the name of the game. Getting into a fight, learning where the enemies spawn and what guns they have, dying, and repeating until the player memorizes the correct sequence of movements and actions to take. Rinse and repeat.
Rinse and repeat is an overgeneralization, as the gameplay has much more to offer. Roughly half of the cutscenes and story is delivered through radios, TVs, and letters which Max can interact with, or ignore. Taking time to explore the different levels can be rewarding, since boxes and certain rooms contain ammo and health which are crucial to progress. Although, not all boxes can be broken, leading to wasted ammo, and not all doors can be opened, leading to wasted time because there is no visual difference between unlocked and locked doors. As for combat, since this is a third person shooter after all, the spotlight is on Bullet Time and dodging. By pressing shift or right mouse, Max will leap in a given direction, trigger a short slow-motion sequence, giving the player time to analyse the situation and shoot specific targets. That mechanic is what makes enemy encounters feel like a scene from The Matrix or a non-descript John Wu movie, with the player seemingly flying through a room, shooting dual-wielded pistols, and visible vapor trails behind the bullets. Slow-motion is best used when breaching a room as, once again, it gives the player the element of surprise on the enemy. However, with enemies being bullet sponges, that mechanic quickly falls apart. Unlike in Max Payne 3, where the bullets go directly the crosshair allowing for quick, satisfying headshots, the bullets in Max Payne 1 simply fly in the general direction of the targets. So while the player spends their precious air time unloading a magazine center mass of a bad guy, three other henchmen are lining up their sights. Luckily, enemies go into a stagger state when hit, so it is wise to engage targets one by one, dwindling down enemy numbers before moving on to loot ammo and pain killers. On the subject of bullet sponges, bosses are just that. Bosses in Max Payne are not visually different from other NPCs, yet can take up to 6 magazines worth of ammo to go down.
Mamma Mia!: The game
Games, for the most part, are made up of two main components: gameplay and story. Certain games like Doom go all in with the gameplay, and the story exists mostly to string the levels together. Other games, like L.A Noire for example, focus on telling stories, and the gameplay is mostly there to allow interaction, freedom, and to keep the player engaged. Games can also successfully do both. Max Payne attempts to balance story and gameplay, and the result is.. unique, to say the least. The story and gameplay are so fundamentally different that they end up both feeling out of place. The story is one of a Noir film; Max had the perfect life, until his wife and baby got murdered. After that event, Max became an undercover cop in the heart of New York, living off painkiller, alcohol, and cynisism. When Max is framed for the murder of another undercover agent, he goes on a one man rampage against different crime families in New York amidst a record blizzard. The cutscenes take place in narrated comic strips, which the player can replay at any time. The story of an undercover cop who’s lost all hope, clashes, to say the least, with slow motion scenes of Max leaping through rooms shooting everything in sight with sub-machine guns. The cutscenes are also filled with obviously fakes Italian accents, and characters can be heard saying things like Fuggedaboutit! and I’m walkin’ here! It almost seems like the story wasn’t made to be taken seriously, but themes like substance abuse, grief, and PTSD don’t easily lend themselves to satire or parody. The story is a solid one, featuring serious and profound themes, but ends up feeling out of place when matched with over-the-top action scenes.
Max Payne dates from 2001, and it shows. The textures look good and even though the objects and furniture look very polygonal, they don’t detract from the overall game. The character models are nothing to write home about either, but are quite nice for a 2001 game. It is meant to run on older hardware, so a sound patch and a fps limiter were required. Overall, Max Payne definitely has its flaws. Even on easy, certain levels feel unfair, the die-and-retry technique gets old quick, and the story feels out of place. Despite those flaws, it may be worthwhile to re-visit the game every now and then, to appreciate it’s unique storytelling, and to remember the game that pioneered Bullet Time.