I remember the first time I
heard about Max Payne it was described as being a lot like the Matrix. The Matrix
was an OK movie, but not much more. The visuals in the film were nice and all, but nothing
I hadnt seen coming out of Hong Kong at the time. And Mr. Reeves aint no Mr.
Yun-Fat. Many folks have described Max Payne as aspiring to be a Hollywood action movie,
which it is not. It would be more appropriately described as a Hong Kong action movie, and
if you dont know the difference between the two, then it probably doesnt
matter anyway. Lets just accept a priori that Hollywood action movies are about big
explosions. Max Payne has a few of those. But Hong Kong action movies are about
coreographed gunfights that last for a dozen minutes, waste hoardes of possibly innocent
bystanders, and give the same kind of effect as a really good kung fu fight. If you love
action movies starring people like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, then
youll probably be disappointed and confused with Max Payne. But if you look for
names like John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat on your action movie DVDs, then Max Payne will make
Max Payne is a narrative game. The action is amazing, and some
folks will find that enough to get through the game, but the whole thing is bound up in
story. The basic premise goes like this: Max Payne comes home one day (hes a cop) to
find his wife and baby being tortured and killed by homicidal junkies wigging out on a new
drug called Valkyr. Barely too late to stop the murders, Max (with you in command) takes
out the tweakers, and the rest of his life is spent consumed by sorrow and rage. He wants
revenge, so he begins working undercover as a narc, trying to figure out the who, what,
why of his familys murder. On the night of the largest blizzard in New York history,
Max is framed for the murder of a superior officer, and thus begins his reign of terror.
Having nothing left to lose, wanted by both the police and gangsters, Max goes on a
vigilante killing spree. His only hope is to take out the mafia and drug ring before the
authorities catch up to him. The story takes quite a few twists and turns, involving elite
inner circles, voodoo mafia dons, and military conspiracies. If some of the plot twists
seem out of place, Id suggest you take another look at some key John Woo films that
obviously inspired the story of Max Payne. The short list includes: A Better Tomorrow,
Hard Boiled, The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and To Hell With the Devil.
The story is delivered in comic book frames interspersed throughout the game.
Finish an objective and the screen will fade to a page out of a graphic novel and the
story is acted out. Its an odd decision why not animate the scenes? But for
many gamers it isnt the comic style of storytelling that bugs them; its Max
Paynes narration. Max is a New York City cop. His character is obviously very much
based on the roles played by Chow Yun Fat in the aforementioned John Woo films. This is
made obvious by repeated references to both Woo and Yun-Fat made by characters (usually
mafia thugs) in the game. Certainly the overblown dialogue can be attributed to the often
not-quite-right subtitles we find on Woo films, especially the older releases. But
theres more to it.
Payne is also a composite of the hard boiled detectives of American pulp fiction. John Woo
drew from these influences, and it makes sense that Max Payne would make even more use of
the style and phrases found the novels of Daschel Hammet or the private eye films of the
1950s. This is compelling stuff for a lot of Americans just look at the Coen
brothers fascination with the form, exhibited in films like The Big Lebowski
and The Man Who Wasnt There. Hong Kong action films, especially John
Woos films, are film noir. Max Payne is a noir videogame. In fact, hes
a hyperbolic representation of the noir detective, and the story he tells drips, oozes,
melodrama. His lines are overwrought, delivered with too much gravely passion, and gritty
beyond belief. At one point another character makes some inane comment about good and
evil, right and wrong. Max Payne replies, "I just shoot them as they come." He
describes snowflakes as "razor blades" and talks about blood as
"rust." This stuff is just way too out there to be taken seriously, but I for
one find a lot of entertainment in melodrama.
the developers at Remedy wanted to make an exact rip-off of a Hong Kong film, they could
have. And to do so they probably would have set it in Hong Kong. But I think its
obvious from the game that they wanted to somehow import the Hong Kong style to America
without adding the pseudo-philosophical sci-fi schlock of the Matrix or catering to
the watered down, offend no one at all costs, tastes of the Hollywood machine. In this
regard, they succeed completely. In fact, I would say that Max Payne is a more impressive
American adaptation of the Hong Kong style than anything weve seen come out of
Hollywood, even John Woos Hollywood films.
Of course, the most ubiquitous effect in Max Payne is the Bullet Time, and this
is what lends the game such a cinematic feel. Bullet Time allows you to create slow motion
scenes as you play the game that are straight out of a John Woo film just remember
Chow Yun-Fat sliding down the bannister blazing two pistols at a restaurant full of people
in Hard Boiled and youll know about what youre in for. You control Max
in the same style as a first person shooter, although this is a third person shooter. You
can often hear thugs in a room as you approach the door. Sometimes they are talking about
hilarious topics, such as where they would live if they were vampires, and often they are
discussing the joys and effects of action movies. Knowing youre in for a big gun
battle, you can enter slo-mo Bullet Time, dive through the door using the Shoot/Dodge
button, and mow down the thugs often before they even see you coming. Sometimes, in huge
gunfights, youll find yourself using the Shoot/Dodge several times in a row,
creating a truly impressive scene of destruction.
And thats pretty much the gist of Max Payne. Shoot, reload, repeat. As I
said, the story keeps you involved. There are three sections each with a bunch of
chapters, and the whole thing will take a good 12-20 hours to complete, depending on how
quickly you play. There are some cool sections where you get to play Max as he has a
nightmare or takes a wild hallucinatory trip on Valkyr, but other than that the action is
straightforward. There are no puzzles or key-finding scavenger hunts to deal with. It is a
very linear game that keeps you pretty well informed about what you should do next. Much
of the environment can be interacted with, which adds to the real world problem solving.
Of course, in the Max Payne real world, that might involve launching a grenade at a
Like I said before, the controls are excellent. The FPS style of movement and
camera control works beautifully and accentuates the Bullet Time effect. Ive never
seen such great gunfights in a videogame, and only in a few movies. The other basics are
all very sharp, too. The visuals are crisp and clean, and characters are well-modelled.
Movement is great. The audio is excellent, and even very useful when playing with a
surround sound setup audio cues tell you where enemies are located and make the
creepy dream/hallucination sequences that much creepier.
I only have two small gripes with the game. First, the audio levels need to be
ironed out. There is a big difference in the volume levels of the gameplay and the story
narration that I could not remedy by adjusting the audio properties. I was forced to just
turn the volume on my receiver up during the story segments and down during play. The
second gripe is that dead characters seem to lose their physical mass. What I mean is,
when I shoot a guy and he falls in slow motion to the ground, I dont want to see him
fall through a table; I want that table to break apart. Likewise, its disturbing to
see thugs fall into a wall and have their head go through it. This is a small thing, and
not uncommon in many videogames, but everything else in Max Payne is so perfectly rendered
and realistic that it calls attention to these slight deficiencies. Other folks have
criticized the replay value, and that could be valid. I dont think a multiplayer
mode would have been nearly as good as the single player story, so I dont miss it.
And I find myself compelled to replay various parts of the game at higher difficulties and
just to "get it right." In Max Payne, its not enough to get through a
level you want to get through it in style.
Max Payne is definitely a killer app. Its a strong contender for game of
the year, and another feather in the collective Rockstar cap. Rockstar has been building
up to become one of the major game publishers Grand Theft Auto 3 and Max Payne firm
that position. And whats really wonderful is that these guys are not afraid of a
little controversy. As I said above, Max Payne is in part able to be such a wonderful
Americanization of a Hong Kong action film because it isnt limited by the
constraints of Hollywood, which has even watered down John Woo. If youve ever loved
a Hong Kong action film, if youve ever wanted a cinematic gaming experience, if you
really dig action and gunfights, you will love Max Payne.