Reviewed on PC
I sat down, gazing at the evidence in front of me. Was I a crack PI, following the last few breadcrumbs from the trail? Maybe an ex-cop revisiting the case I never solved? No. I was a twenty-something loser, hoping to escape the dullness of the world by playing early 2000s bullet time shooter Max Payne. Sinatra’s baritone danced in the background as I clicked play.
In Max Payne, you take on endless waves of mobsters to avenge the murder of Payne’s wife. A pretty straightforward revenge plot, but it’s delivered in a unique way. The story is mostly advanced via graphic novel panels with voice-overs. These panels feature many of the developers and their friends as the characters, since this was a project with budget and resource limitations, and the result of this is they often look goofy no matter how dark the dialogue is. Payne himself is played by the game’s writer, Sam Lake, who pulls some of the weirdest faces I’ve ever seen. The contrast in writing and visuals can be a little jarring, but there is an obvious element of self-awareness and a meta narrative running through the game, so the sometimes inconsistent tone is eased with humour. As for the writing itself, it establishes a strong noir atmosphere, drawing heavily from staples of the genre. I am also reminded of Die Hard, with Payne’s squinting expression, final level reminiscent of Nakatomi Plaza and knife-edge shootouts. Max is voiced by James McCaffrey, who has a fitting monotone and his long metaphor-heavy monologues are always a pleasure to listen to. The other actors are more on the cheesy side, as was common around this era, but the main villain also turns in quite a good performance.
Max Payne is notable for being the game that popularised bullet time. Press the right mouse button with a direction and Max will fling himself in a direction in slow motion, allowing for a cinematic streak of headshots as you dive into a wall. It never gets old, which is good because the majority of the game will be spent popping through doorways to surprise mobsters. I think tactical shooters would be a lot more amusing if you could breach a room by having a whole squad dive in with dual SMGs. The bullet time doesn’t feel overpowered, since bullets move like projectiles in this mode, meaning you have to lead your shots. The game is also very difficult and you can be killed easily, which ties in with the idea of Max going up against ridiculous odds. This is fine, since the game accommodates fuck-ups by snapping you instantaneously back to your last save with a button press. The running and gunning is great, but like many games of its time, it has awkward platforming elements. The worst examples are in the ‘dream sequence’ levels, which include running along and jumping between rails thinner than the character model. Another gameplay issue which tripped me up was the fact you have to click after selecting a weapon to equip it, which might not seem like much, but often meant I would get confused for a second before being blown away by a goon’s shotgun.
As expected, it is not the most visually arresting game on the market. Max Payne’s character model in particular is slightly scary, featuring Sam Lake’s face screwed up and then reproduced with the technology of the day. Animations are clumsy, my favourite being the weapon drawing one, where a character will hold as little of a pistol as possible, like it’s covered in faeces. The game also includes clunky in-engine cutscenes, which stand out even more when they are contrasted with the elegant graphic novel scenes.
The soundtrack is generally good. The theme song is an appropriate slow jazz track and the graphic novel cutscenes feature a variation on it that mixes very well with the voice-overs. Elsewhere, the music seems to draw from a rather eclectic range of film score influences: ‘60s spy guitar riffs, late ‘70s horror ambience and the synthesisers and electric drums of ‘80s action films. In many settings such a variety might feel uneven, but these inspirations fit well with the content of the game. The soundtrack is let down a little in the combat encounters that feature high tempo metal tracks, which make the game smell of cheese a bit too much along with reminding you of the game’s release year.
On the bug front, the most serious issue I encountered was a point where a cutscene focused on the enemies ahead of me, but then returned to gameplay with the camera still fixed on them. This is potentially gamebreaking, and the only way I could get around it was memorising the path backwards and keep moving until the camera returned to me. When I initially launched the game, I found there was no sound other than an occasional bitcrushed fart when rapidly firing a weapon. This is apparently an issue with the Steam version of game running on newer operating systems, which can be fixed with a download from the Max Payne community guide page.
Max Payne is still a lot of fun sixteen years on. The bullet time mechanic thrown into a frenetic and relentless shooter makes for engaging gameplay, and wrapping the experience in a strong narrative and thematic focus makes it easy to overlook the issues caused by its age and budget limitations.