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I finally saw the movie Hard Boiled. Great stuff. And it got me thinking about games that try to copy the style of action seen in John Woo films or movies like the Matrix. Naturally, Max Payne was the first game that came to mind. And I haven’t played it in a while so I figured now was a good time to fire it up again. Developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Gathering of Developers, Max Payne was released for PC in July, 2001 and PlayStation 2 and Xbox in December of that same year. It was released for Game Boy Advance in December, 2003 and iOS and Android in 2012. For this review, I played the PC version. I did install the Complete FixPack which combines multiple fixes to get the game running properly on modern systems.
The story is set in New York City during a blizzard. Two years prior, NYPD officer Max Payne comes home to find his wife and baby murdered. Fast forward to present day and Max is an undercover operative inside the Punchinello Mafia family responsible for the trafficking of a drug called Valkyr. After his handler and friend and is assassinated, Max is framed for the murder and his cover is blown. Max becomes a one-man army and sets out to find out what’s really going on. I’m a sucker for crime dramas and all this Mafia shit so I easily got invested into the story. I think it’s engaging and is accompanied by some phenomenal voice acting, primarily from James McCaffrey who voices Max. Max’s dialouge and inner-monologues are often melodramatic resulting in humorous and memorable lines. It’s a neo-noir style story with graphic novel panels accompanied by narration instead of traditional cut scenes. It’s a very atmospheric game with intense action-packed gameplay. It’s a great mix that makes the game stand out and remain memorable.
Max Payne is a third-person shooter. You can run, crouch, jump, roll around, and interact with things in the environments. But what makes the game unique is bullet time. At the press of a button, you can enter bullet time which means time is slowed down. You can also perform a shootdodge where Max dives in slow motion. When in bullet time, you’ll drain your bullet time meter which can be replenished by killing enemies. The bullet time mechanic can help you survive firefights and is a nice nod to the films that inspired the game like Hard Boiled for example. Bullet time can be very helpful but you should learn how to use it properly. Just activating it willy nilly will only waste it and you want to make your shots count when in bullet time. It’s neat diving through the air while shooting an enemy but if you don’t kill him before you hit the ground, there’s a good chance you’ll die before you can get back up. You can’t shoot while getting up which is kind of annoying actually so you should always be aware of your surroundings.
There’s multiple difficulty modes and most of them need to be unlocked. Even on the easiest difficulty, Fugitive, the game is extremely challenging. New York Minute is more of a game mode than a difficulty mode. You have to complete each level within a time limit. No matter what difficulty you play on, this game will kick your ass. You’ll want to quicksave often because most encounters are trial and error. You can find painkillers in the environments and taking these replenishes some health but they’re not lying around everywhere so you’ll have to rely on quicksaving and quickloading and learning how to use bullet time effectively. However, the game can feel cheap at times, especially later on in the campaign. You can easily get blown away the moment you enter a room. Enemies can pop out from around corners or behind walls and objects and put you down before you can even get a shot off. You need to be quick to react, have good aim, not miss, and do your best to not get hit. Quicksaving at the wrong time can be a bitch so it’s wise to make sure an area is cleared out of enemies before you save. Most of the time, you’ll be outnumbered and even with full health, it doesn’t take many shots to kill you. It often feels like you need to know where enemies are before you can actually see them. You can use objects in the environments as cover and you’ll always want to be moving during a firefight. Run, shoot, serpentine, and enter bullet time if you’re in a tight spot. Entering bullet time can make an encounter much easier but you need to use it wisely otherwise you’ll just waste it.
You’ll get your hands on numerous weapons throughout the game including a lead pipe and baseball bat but melee weapons are not going to get you far. You’ll want to rely on firearms and try not to get too close to enemies. You can dual wield some like the Berettas, you can use a sniper rifle to take out enemies from long distance, you can blow them up with a grenade launcher, and lobbing grenades and molotovs is a good way to clear out a room full of enemies. Weapons and ammo can be found in the environments and will be dropped by fallen enemies, most of which aren’t very bright but can be accurate. If you’re just standing around, they usually don’t miss. Once they spot you, they start shooting, some throw grenades, and they run around. It’s good to know where all of the enemies are because there’s nothing worse than surviving an encounter with multiple dudes before getting shot in the back and killed by a guy you never saw, forcing you to load the last save and try again. You’ll go up against mob thugs and mercenaries and almost every firefight will feel extremely intense.
The story plays out in parts with multiple chapters per part and you’ll get to blow enemies away in a good variety of locations including a hotel, riverfront, restaurant, manor, factory, and parking garage, among others. You’ll be able to interact with all kinds of things like vibrating beds, toilets, televisions, and some other stuff which helps add to the immersion. You can open cabinets and break boxes scattered around, many of which house resources like painkillers and ammo. There are some scenarios where it’s not always obvious how to proceed but figuring out the solutions is never really that difficult and you will have to watch out for environmental hazards like laser trip bombs, explosive barrels, and fire. My least favorite areas are the dream or hallucination sequences where you’re in Max’s head and need to figure out where to go. There’s no action, they drag on, and they’re tedious.
I think Max Payne looked pretty good for the time it released. It obviously looks dated now but even today, the visual presentation is part of why the game is so atmospheric. The texture work is solid and the environments are filled with little details that help add to the immersion. For example, the Mafia-controlled buildings look run down, rats are running around, water is dripping from the ceilings, and junkies are scattered about. The streets are covered in snow, graffiti can be seen on walls and on the sides of buildings, and the world of Max Payne is a very gritty place. I should mention that if you play this on Windows 10 with everything maxed out, the seams in the textures are very noticeable but disabling some settings should eliminate that according to the game’s PCGamingWiki page. The character models look a bit blocky now but I still like how the developers used what look like photos or pictures of actual people’s faces. For example, Max Payne’s face is that of the game’s writer, Sam Lake, and as far as I’m concerned, his expression makes him look constipated. The combat in the game looks cool thanks to all the visual effects. Muzzle flashes look good, sparks will fly, objects will break, and particles will fill the air during firefights. Blood puffs appear when characters get shot and blood will splatter on surfaces. I do kind of wish you could blow off body parts and turn enemies into gibs but oh, well. Most of the soundtrack consists of dramatic and intense sounding stuff that ramps up during firefights and the main theme is very fitting and memorable. The entire audiovisual presentation gives the game a neat cinematic feel. The sound effects are great with powerful sounding weapons-fire, loud explosions, enemies let out a scream as they die, and you’ll sometimes hear sirens in the distance. On the technical side, I did notice that some dialogue would get cut off from time to time and I think the widescreen fix is cutting off the bottom portion of the graphic novel panels, where the stop and play controls are. There might be a setting or something you need to configure to fix this but I didn’t even realize the issue until after I beat the game.
I love the Max Payne series and this is probably the most atmospheric game of them all. I really enjoyed the story and the game is filled with plenty of memorable quotes thanks to all the melodramatic dialogue. One of the things I really like about the game is how it plays out like an over-the-top action film and goes from crazy to ridiculous. You go from shooting mob thugs in the slums of New York to taking on armies of mercenaries in high-tech facilities. It’s pretty cool. I am disappointed that there’s no other game modes besides New York Minute because once you complete the story, that’s really it. You can attempt the higher difficulties if you’re looking for a more challenging experience, but there’s no multiplayer, combat maps, or anything like that.
I would absolutely recommend Max Payne to fans of action games and/or Hong Kong action films. However, you need to be prepared for a challenging experience because Max Payne is unforgiving and does not hold your hand. Even on the easiest difficulty, the game will put up a fight. But it’s a fight worth having in my opinion and it’s easily one of the most atmospheric shooters I’ve ever played. Definitely check out Max Payne.