Max Payne (2001) Review
Max Payne is a 3rd person shooter for PC, Xbox, and PlayStation 2 developed by Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake, Quantum Break, Control). It is also available on the PlayStation Store.
The game takes place in a dark and brooding New York City during wintertime and begins at the end of the story, or rather the opening cutscene begins in the middle of things with a monologue as we see Max on top of a skyscraper armed with a sniper rifle and a massive police force converging on his location. We then rewind back three years to when Max was an NYPD detective. He comes home one day to find his wife and child murdered by a group of drug addicts high off a new drug called Valkyr or V for short. This leads max to go undercover in the mob to find the source of the drug, what follows is his one-man war against the mafia and a sinister conspiracy revolving around Valkyr.
The story is told through comic-style panels, often with Max himself providing narration. One of the game’s strong points is its gritty noir tone and narration with Max reflecting the world around him in an almost poetic fashion through cynical monologue. The comic-style slideshows themselves use a mix of real photographs and artwork, a quirky stylistic choice that sometimes come off as dull and goofy but gives the game an iconic look and shows off writer Sam Lake’s well constructed prose (and face, as his was used for Max’s character model).
The voice acting on the other hand sometimes diminishes the dark and gritty tone of the game somewhat as apart from Max’s voice (James McCaffrey), we have melodramatic villains and stereotypical “Ay I’m walkin’ ere” New York mobsters. These caricatures, as they are voiced, are quite silly and feel a bit too contrasted to the glum and serious musings of Max but luckily you can shoot most of them in the face.
Throughout the game you’ll blast your way through a variety of goon-filled locations such as a subway, hotel, apartments, rooftops, nightclubs, nightmares, and a selection of other backdrops for violence. These locations are delightfully dreary and morose and excellently capture the bleakness and scum of a crime ridden city.
The story really only exists to place Max in one veritable shooting gallery after another but it breaks up these transitions well with Max’s narration and gives the player something to look forward to after racking up their body count. It’s decently paced and has a few twists and turns, however it’s mostly forgettable as the emphasis here is more on gameplay.
The best part about this game is that it’s insanely fun to play. It’s a very simple premise, shoot the bad guys before they shoot you, however it is refined to such a point of fluidity that despite being released in 2001 the gameplay still holds up today and I would even go so far as to call it timeless. There isn’t much frill attached to the gameplay, you aim and shoot. There is no modifying weapons, levelling up, or upgrades. But don’t be fooled, the combat will have you clutching the controls as you manoeuvre through the environment dodging bullets and trying to get the drop on enemies.
In addition to dodging and rolling Max has the ability to enter bullet time, brief periods of slow motion where you can ramp up the cool factor and eliminate enemies in a more controlled manner. This ability is particularly useful for the many enemy surprise attacks throughout the game.
Weapon statistics hanging in the air, glimpsed out of the corner of your eye. Endless repetition of the act of shooting, time slowing down to show off your moves. You truly are in a computer game.
The combat in Max Payne is fast, unforgiving, and adrenaline fuelled. Throughout the game you will amass a decent selection of weaponry including pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and explosives, all of which Max conveniently keeps in his back pocket. The weapon handling is satisfying and fluid, the game seeks to make you feel like an action movie hero and you can dual-wield pistols and submachine guns as you dive around levels blasting away, sometimes a slow-motion kill camera will activate giving you a cinematic view of the carnage.
The difficulty can be gruelling at times, especially in the later levels. On PC the game has a quick save and quick load feature that you will be using a lot and there were a few instances where I inadvertently locked myself into an impossible situation as I was low on health and ammo and had to face a mob of enemies, there are no checkpoints and dying can mean you have to restart the level, this can take away from the overall enjoyment of the game as you’re constantly conscious of utilising the quick save function after most encounters. The enemy AI is pretty capable and often seek to overwhelm you in numbers if not tactics, there are numerous scripted ambushes and you will have to become very acquainted with the iconic clink of a hand grenade landing and the subsequent dash to safety as it is usually an instant death if you’re not quick enough.
The level design can be confusing at times, there is no map or on-screen indicator of where to go so if you get lost you will have to wander around until you find the correct path (usually indicated by more enemies). This was frustrating at times and the game could’ve used some sort of system for this rather than omit it altogether.
This original classic that spawned a further two sequels is an immensely fun 3rd person shooter whose action gameplay still holds up decades later. The dynamic gunplay and bullet time mechanic provide hours of mindless entertainment (it took me around 7 hours to complete on normal difficulty). The story and dark poetic musings of Max Payne are an added bonus to the core gameplay and are worth experiencing. I’d highly recommend this game to any fan of shooters or action in general.