Most of the readers who read this article will be those who played Max
Payne on the PC last year and will be looking forward to the Xbox
version from that point of view. My vantage point is completely
reverse. I played through the Xbox version first and then quickly
looked at the execution of the PC edition afterwards. Film critics and
artists of the film industry are known to sit together and do shot by
shot analyses of old films. Sometimes, these are compared to newly
assembled editions, like director's cut versions or special edition
releases. I'm sure one day, someone will do a shot by shot analysis
between Max Payne for the Xbox and the PC. There are, indeed, some
minor changes in the Xbox version but generally, everything has
translated flawlessly to the Xbox. Max Payne is undoubtedly linked to
the first person shooter genre on the PC but in essence, it is really a
third person shooter. Perhaps it's the markings of 3D Realms or perhaps
it's the emphasis on cutting edge 3D technology that first person
shooters are known for, but Max Payne has become etched in many as one of
the most riveting action games of 2001 (except for Xbox owners, who have
the near impossible choice between this and Bungie's immaculate Halo).
The premise of the title puts you in the shoes of a police detective
aptly named Max Payne. During a seemingly random break-in, drug addicts
manage to murder Payne's infant child and his wife. With nothing to
lose, Payne quickly transfers to do deep undercover work in tracking
down the drug that resulted, indirectly, in the death of his family:
Valkyr. A few years pass and Payne works his way up a local faction of
the New York Mafia doing undercover work for the DEA. When a DEA agent
is mysteriously killed, Payne is wrongly framed for it and, to quote the
19th century writer Elbert Hubbard, life for Payne becomes "one damned
thing after another".
The most innovative and well-known feature of Max Payne is its influence
from John Woo style films. Max Payne features a lot of slow motion
action in dramatic sequences that create a sense of style that heightens
the drama of the game. The spinning camera is not unlike the landmark
film, The Matrix. I was always of the John Frankenheimer camp before
because I thought action should be shown quick and realistic. But the
slow motion exhibited in Max Payne is an interesting spin and adds an
artistic touch to the title. What's more interesting is the ability for
the user to control this through a feature known as 'bullet time'.
Bullet time lets you slow down everything, including Payne's movements
and guns. Combined with acrobatic leaps, it is called 'shootdodge'.
Payne's aiming still moves in real time during this and it allows you to
handily clear out a roomful of enemies. This isn't an overt advantage
but a significant one that an expert can capitalize on. It also is a
neat trick to help you dodge the myriad of bullets that will be hurled
at you. Bullet time is limited but killing enemies will help you
replenish it so budgeting the use of this dramatic effect becomes an art
in and of itself. Ultimately, it is an innovative feature executed in a
very clever fashion.
Another clever thing the developers of Max Payne did was to make the
game first person. It is not a first person shooter but it is first
person in the literary sense that you assume the character of Payne.
Many people will make the comparison of Payne's typical revenge plot to
a movie like Mel Gibson's Payback. Gibson's character was very simple
and through the use of comic book style narrative, Payne invites you
into his psyche and his life. He is, at once, almost invincible but he
has a soft spot for women, like the lingering femme fatale Mona Sax.
Since she is to Payne what kryptonite is to Superman, this makes him
fallible and thus, human enough for us to connect to. The other
characters that surround Payne are colorful and memorable too.
Cinematic montage is a device where a verbal or physical feature manages
to represent the whole. These 'tags' are applied to characters like the
cultist Jack Lupino, the annoying Vinnie Gognitti and the typical mob
boss, Don Punchinello. Some characters like Frankie "The Bat" Niagara
with his infatuation of violent comics, becomes all but
self-explanatory. Great voice acting is required to reinforce this
atmosphere and Max Payne delivers that in spades as well.
It is interesting how Remedy Entertainment, a Finnish developer, could
be so in tune with the New York motif. Payne's voice, in particular, is
delivered at just the right tone traversing the delicate balance between
earnestness and sarcasm. The writers had a field day with puns on
Payne's name. The Finito brothers (a sarcastic name in itself) would
say "Payne to the max!" And even Payne recognizes this when he uses it
in "No Payne, no gain". Some critics have chided this as shallow but I
thought it only illustrated what an ear the developers had for dialogue.
These same critics also chided Payne's narration as too cliché.
Throughout the course of the story, Payne would use highly descriptive
imagery. The wail of sirens is described as a crescendo. The last
bullet he fires is an exclamation mark on his story. At one point, he
dodges bullets like raindrops. I personally liked it and the evocative
imagery goes along with the comic book motif. It also mirrors the plot
itself: where things simply keep building on top of each other.
Moreover, it gives a heightened, hyper-real sense of his surroundings
not unlike the slow motion effects included in the game.
Max Payne is an inherently dialectic title. On the one hand, its
graphical prowess is exercised in its gritty realistic portrayal of New
York City. On the other, Payne can survive an insane amount of bullet
holes. The use of painkillers to miraculously help Payne recover from
mortal wounds as well as bullet time, juxtapose realism with fantasy.
This balance is what creates the fun in the game. Furthermore, Max
Payne features some excellent level design. Ammunition and painkillers
are placed before or after large sites of conflict. Much of the story
is advanced through the use of radio or television broadcasts that are
played out in comic book style. Failing that, the developers have
manipulated the in-game engine to create cinematic sequences that are
compelling and exciting. Action games of this genre usually do not have
much of a storyline but in this case, the plot plays an integral role in
the actual gameplay. The levels are arranged such that you never are at
a loss where you need to go next. This, combined with the good pacing,
keeps you interested when you are not on your whistle-stop tour of the
Max Payne story.
Another point of criticism people have lodged against Max Payne are the
dream sequences or non-violent levels. On the Xbox, these may even be
more challenging because of the sensitive nature of the controller.
However, from an artistic point of view, the dream sequences are stylish
additions. They help develop Payne's character and literally draw you
into Payne's mind as he fights off conflicting feelings about the death
of his wife, child and friends. So from that vantage point, the dream
sequences are absolutely integral to the title.
Aside from its excellent voice acting, Max Payne puts home theatre audio
to good use. Separation between the audio channels is extremely
noticeable. You'll get a heightened surround effect because of the
camera movements in slow motion and bullet time modes. Sound becomes
subdued in bullet time, which gives a distinct temporal feel. Ricochets
that bounce off behind Payne are pronounced and these help drum up a
gripping cinematic experience. Max Payne also features an equally
admirable soundtrack that chimes in at the correct times to enhance the
many moods treated by the storyline.
The lack of multiplayer is significant since action games like these are
always pegged with expectations of a multiplayer component. The title
itself is also fairly short although at the end, you come away extremely
satisfied with the experience. The developers have added some features
to persuade you in replaying the game. For example, the New York Minute
mode forces you to complete each level within a certain amount of time.
Killing opponents will increase the amount of time left.
There are more loading times with the Xbox edition of Max Payne. They
aren't instantaneous like Halo but certainly, they are more numerous
than the PC counterpart. There are three parts or acts to Max Payne.
These are subdivided into specific chapters. The PC version loads only
once per chapter but the Xbox edition subdivides chapters into even more
loading points. On the controller side, I had trouble with the inverted
aiming reticule at first and found the controls were malleable enough to
fit any style. The Xbox controller is wonderfully up to the task. It's
not as accurate as the PC mouse but measures have been included to make
aiming slightly easier on the Xbox. However, even these aids can be
One thing carries over nicely from the PC copy of Max Payne and that is
the ability to save anywhere you want. Although it's not as handy as
hitting a function key, you can quick save easily on the Xbox. There's
a minimal load time to restore from a quick save. And upon death, you
can quickly press the A button to skip all the death sequences and the
game instinctively loads your last save point; a very clever thing.
Ultimately, Max Payne is not so much a game as it is a cinematic
experience. The move to the Xbox with television and home theatre
hardware only enhances the cinematic elements more. Things like the
mysterious helpful phone calls, the rampant drug Valkyr and the
mafia-infested New York setting assist in merging film and gaming
together. On a side note, the revisionists have made an impact on this
work of art. Any notion of the World Trade Center has been erased from
the Manhattan skyline. I think this is rather disgusting considering
the fact that this title was originally released on the PC. I'm sure if
one day brunette hair disappeared, these revisionists would go recolor
the Mona Lisa blond. Payne's character and the unlikely humor are other
positive aspects that manage to stand out. At one point in the game,
someone phones Payne to mock him by telling him that his life is playing
out as a graphic novel, like the ones you see. In another phone call,
Payne says he can see weapons at the top of his view and sometimes
things mysteriously slow down for him like bullet time. One of the
mafia gangsters' cell phone has a mafia ringer tone to it. These
satirical references are subtle but illustrate the kind of polish put
into the game itself. If Halo were not out for the Xbox, Max Payne
would easily have been the most impressive game for the Xbox. As it
stands now, it plays second fiddle to no other title on this platform.
If you're a serious Xbox gamer, there is no way you want to 'shootdodge'