Game Over Online ~ Max Payne

GameOver Game Reviews - Max Payne (c) Rockstar Games, Reviewed by - Fwiffo

Game & Publisher Max Payne (c) Rockstar Games
System Requirements Xbox
Overall Rating 93%
Date Published Tuesday, November 30th, 1999 at 12:00 AM

Divider Left By: Fwiffo Divider Right

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 toggled off.

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' this one.


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