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by Rockstar

shot-03b-copy.jpg (6795 bytes)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 hadn’t seen coming out of Hong Kong at the time. And Mr. Reeves ain’t 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 don’t know the difference between the two, then it probably doesn’t matter anyway. Let’s 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 you’ll 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 you squeal.

shot-08a-copy.jpg (7415 bytes)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 (he’s 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 family’s 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, I’d 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.

Baseball-bat-2.jpg (9065 bytes)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. It’s an odd decision – why not animate the scenes? But for many gamers it isn’t the comic style of storytelling that bugs them; it’s Max Payne’s 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 there’s more to it.

Beretta-1.jpg (6928 bytes)Max 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 Wasn’t There. Hong Kong action films, especially John Woo’s films, are film noir. Max Payne is a noir videogame. In fact, he’s 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.

Beretta-2.jpg (5914 bytes)Had 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 it’s 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 we’ve seen come out of Hollywood, even John Woo’s Hollywood films.

Colt-Commando-1.jpg (7601 bytes)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 you’ll know about what you’re 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 you’re 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, you’ll find yourself using the Shoot/Dodge several times in a row, creating a truly impressive scene of destruction.

Colt-Commando-2.jpg (6105 bytes)And that’s 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 security console.

Desert-Eagle-2.jpg (7390 bytes)Like I said before, the controls are excellent. The FPS style of movement and camera control works beautifully and accentuates the Bullet Time effect. I’ve 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.

Dual-Beretta-4.jpg (7247 bytes)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 don’t want to see him fall through a table; I want that table to break apart. Likewise, it’s 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 don’t think a multiplayer mode would have been nearly as good as the single player story, so I don’t 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, it’s not enough to get through a level – you want to get through it in style.

shot-13a-copy.jpg (6240 bytes)Max Payne is definitely a killer app. It’s 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 what’s 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 isn’t limited by the constraints of Hollywood, which has even watered down John Woo. If you’ve ever loved a Hong Kong action film, if you’ve ever wanted a cinematic gaming experience, if you really dig action and gunfights, you will love Max Payne.

Shawn Rider   (01/07/2002)


Ups: Amazing cinematic gameplay; great story; nice graphics.

Downs: Some small audio issues.

Platform: Xbox