Retro Game Wednesday #3 – Max Payne

Every week, Retro Game Wednesday reviews a well-aged game available for digital download on Steam. — Title: Max Payne Genre:  Third Person Shooter Developer:  Remedy Entertainment Release Date: Jul 23, 2001 Price (at time […]

Every week, Retro Game Wednesday reviews a well-aged game available for digital download on Steam.

Title: Max Payne
Genre:  Third Person Shooter
Developer:  Remedy Entertainment
Release Date: Jul 23, 2001
Price (at time of review): $9.99

There was a time before anybody knew what ‘bullet-time’ was. It was called ‘1998’ and The Matrix hadn’t happened yet. Ridiculous dual-handgunned firefights were then mostly the realm of Hong-Kong action flicks. After The Matrix came out, suddenly every action scene had to incorporate slow motion effects and involve at least as many guns as the people using them had hands, even when there was no excuse for this. In The Matrix, the characters were inside a computer program whose rules they could bend at will. With all the things copying The Matrix, you were lucky if you even got half that amount of justification. For example, in this game, Max Payne, released close to the height of the craze (though in development before The Matrix was even a film), you are not inside a computer program whose rules you can bend at will, except in a very meta sense. No. You’re just really good at murder.

SUMMARY

You’re Max Payne, an undercover cop with nothing to lose and who is about to stop playing by the rules after some junkies hopped up on the new drug ‘Valkyr’ killed your wife and child a couple years ago. You’ve been after the source of the drug ever since. Your partner and friend gets killed as part of this investigation and you kind of go off the deep end after that. Dual wielding of automatic weapons is involved. And drug abuse.

THE GOOD

  • Fast paced shooting with a button to slow it down into ‘bullet-time’ for when things get a little too fast paced, or when you just want to dive at a guy in slow motion while unloading a pair of handguns into his face.
  • Did I mention you can dive around in slow motion while firing two guns?
  • Seriously, this thing is like ‘John Woo, The Game‘. Intentionally. They make references.
  • High to decent quality noir-themed voice acting.
  • Graphic novel cutscenes between and during levels build up the story.
  • All of which combines to build an incredible atmosphere.

THE BAD

  • If you find the basic difficulty level too easy, well, too bad. You have to beat the easy difficulty to unlock harder ones.
  • Or cheat. You could always cheat.
  • The in game models are the result of an early attempt at putting real faces on 3d models, and as a result they have only two or three facial expressions per ‘person’ which can be a little weird if you manage to see it flip between them.
  • ‘Boss fights’ are, with one minor exception, just ordinary guys with more health and a better gun.
  • There’s a couple of dream sequence levels. They’re really annoying. Atmospheric, but annoying.

THE VERDICT

This is one hell of an action-packed game, and the atmosphere it manages to create is unlike anything else before or since, except possibly its sequel. And with Max Payne 3 on the way, why not grab the two-pack on Steam and get caught up? It’s worth the ride if you buy them together.  7/10

THE IN-DEPTH

Don’t come in here expecting things like ‘story branches’ or ‘RPG elements’ or any of the things they like to stick in games nowadays. Max Payne is a game about shooting lots of people with lots of guns, and it does what it sets out to do with a certain kind of flair and style that make it really unique.

The first thing you’ll notice about the game is its atmosphere – an oppressive, dark, over the top film noir feeling aided by grim narration and comic-book cutscenes in and between levels. Every cutscene and graphic novel sequence is punctuated with Max’s metaphor-rich monologuing, and it very much sets the tone for the game. I know – before I fixed the game’s sound issues on 64 bit Windows, I had to play without it, and it just wasn’t the same at all.

Of course, the second thing you’ll notice about the game is the fact that if you right click everything goes into slow motion. If the noir feeling is what makes the story and atmosphere unique, this button is what makes the gameplay unique. By default, (though you can set both these functions to different functions) right clicking will either send you into slow-motion “bullet-time” or, if you hit it while moving, it will make you perform a “shootdodge“, or in layman’s terms, it will make you dive through the air in slow motion, while still allowing you to shoot at things and see the bullets fly out of your guns. In a real gun-fight, this maneuver is stupid and wrong, but in Max Payne it is more or less mandatory – the game tracks every single bullet fired individually and with bullet-time on you can see them flying through the air. You could probably play without it, I mean, without it the game would be a pretty basic third person shooter of the era. But why would you? It makes everything better.

The graphics you’ll see as you dive gracefully around them in slow motion are pretty basic, but they get the job done well enough that you, the retro-game enthusiast, won’t notice because you’re having too much fun shooting stuff. The faces on Max, other characters and the enemies are from an early attempt at scanning real faces and putting them on 3d models, so they look a little strange from time to time, but eventually it’ll just become part of the background ‘feel’ of the game. The whole thing feels a little surreal, with its graphic novel interludes and atmospheric narration, and in retrospect the occasionally odd feeling graphics probably helped with that. You are, after all, seeing the world through the hazy eyes of a man who habitually downs entire bottles of painkillers to overcome bullet wounds.

And there will be a lot of bullet wounds to overcome – the game wants you to go through it three times on each succeedingly unlocked difficulty – when you beat the game on its highest difficulty, you get to see the ‘true’ ending. And it does get harder to survive, and you will occasionally find yourself cursing the day someone designed a level with guys with shotguns behind doors, and all for a slightly different cutscene at the end. Is it worth it? Probably not.

But there are worse games to have to play three times.

TECHNICAL NOTES

The sound doesn’t work on some 64-bit systems, but luckily someone with more technical knowledge than me already designed a fix for that – you can download it here.

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