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Max Payne (Xbox) artwork

Max Payne (Xbox) review

"Plenty of games borrow from pop culture, but few do it heavily without insulting intelligence. Many games base their gameplay on a single gimmick, but a scant minority of these flesh the gimmick out or prop it up enough to be anything but annoying. Every other game these days wants to be hyper-realistic, but not many achieve realism without that very aspect being a huge fault. Quality humor is another screw that too often comes loose in video games. Max Payne, however, manages to be hip, funny, ..."

Plenty of games borrow from pop culture, but few do it heavily without insulting intelligence. Many games base their gameplay on a single gimmick, but a scant minority of these flesh the gimmick out or prop it up enough to be anything but annoying. Every other game these days wants to be hyper-realistic, but not many achieve realism without that very aspect being a huge fault. Quality humor is another screw that too often comes loose in video games. Max Payne, however, manages to be hip, funny, and believable without feeling like a stereotype or a kick in the groin from Generation X, or leaving the gameplay in the back seat.

Borrowing from the likes of Tarantino, McFarlane, and the film “The Matrix”, developer Remedy paints a mosaic of modern violent popular media onto the background of a corny gumshoe grocery store paperback in Max Payne. Max, an undercover cop who is simultaneously the protagonist and the narrator of our modern Dick Tracey, is stuck in a spiral of despair after his wife and infant child are gunned down by gangsters in his own house. His life becomes a quest for revenge, and his biggest clue is a designer drug called Valkyr. Thus begins our adventure, gunning down street thugs, mobsters, and drug lords like there’s no tomorrow. Playing like an FPS with a behind-the-player view (I know that’s an oxymoron, but it’s a standard option in FPS’s these days), Max Payne serves as the aspirin for console gamers who are tired of deep thinking in action games. In fact, in a way it harkens back even to the likes of Doom in its unabashed reliance on pure, uninterrupted action. No puzzles, no keycards, no multiple paths. Just shoot everyone in the head, deliver the smart-ass one-liner, and move on.

No description of Max Payne could be complete without a mention of “Bullet Time”, the cornerstone of the gameplay, so let’s just begin with that. Bullet Time is simply the ability to slow down time in the game and experience everything in slow motion. Why would we want to do this? As Max jovially suggests, it “shows off my moves”, but the reason it is so crucial to the gameplay is that is allows your reflexes to keep up with lightning fast firefights. Time is even slow enough for you to dodge bullets, but you can aim in real time, making you into an unstoppable force. There is a spin-off of vanilla Bullet Time available as well called “shootdodging”, in which you can dive in any direction while slowing down time for the duration of the dive, but this maneuver just isn’t very appealing on a console. Aiming while flying through the air, even in super-slow motion, just doesn’t work very well without a mouse and keyboard or equivalent. Also, after your dive you’re forced to stand back up in normal time, making you an easy target for any enemy you missed in the course of your dive. Of course, each time you activate any type of Bullet Time, a meter gauging how much you have left starts to deplete. If you use it inefficiently or on every single enemy, you’ll find yourself fresh out and overwhelmed in no time. On the other hand, learning to switch into and out of Bullet Time with graceful timing while dashing around your foes allows you to clear a room with a surgeon’s precision, and that’s the idea.

Bullet Time is a novel trick, but there’s not much else up Remedy’s sleeve in Max Payne, which is a shame. There is some juvenile interaction with the environment such as Max flushing a toilet or turning on a water facet, and that’s about as dymanic as the game world gets. A few times you pull a switch to open a door or lead a helpful NPC to a destination, and there are a couple of platformer-like sequences that don’t work very well with the play engine and that most seem to find extremely annoying (although I was indifferent to them), but this is all superficial. Max Payne is about gunfights. Reflex comes before strategy, and ducking behind a pillar to get the drop on advancing bad guys is about as close as you’ll come to stealth for ninety-five percent of the game. There’s not much bad to point out about the core gameplay though, and that’s precisely the game’s weakness - there’s nothing at all. You don’t do anything but shoot humans from the start to the finish.

It’s worth noting that Max Payne is technically unpolished and downright glitchy. Case in point: save a game while something is falling to the ground (a spent magazine, for example), and load said save to see the object suspended in air, unmoving. Those naturally inclined to be bug testers as well as the simply curious can easily get Max down into places the developers never intended him to be and from which he cannot escape, causing confusion to those who don’t realize it’s a glitch (and if they happen to save, they can say goodbye to their progress). The sounds and action frequently skip (and they always skip multiple times in cut-scenes), and if you stand Max on an in-level “tripwire” that changes the background music, you can cause the audio to go haywire and the screen to start flickering. The list goes on. Suffice to say, the testers for this game rate somewhere between “grossly incompetent” and “aborted in first trimester”.

The graphics don’t fare much better in terms of being polished. They might have been standard for a mid-range PC or Playstation 2 at the time, but among a wave of first-generation graphical wonders like Halo, the bland graphics are at best just “doing their job”, and not up to snuff by any stretch. Blocky characters with unnatural animation roam about in their rectangular world with nothing but static lights to guide them. The slow-motion effects are really cool, but mediocrity presented with a stylish camera angle is still mediocrity. It seems obvious that Remedy, a team of guys with enough lines and dots over the vowels in their names to suggest a country not exactly known for game development (no offense, I’m the ignorant one) didn’t have a large budget when making the original Max Payne for the PC. And Neo, the team that brought the game to the Xbox, doesn’t seem to have done much more than a straight port of the graphics engine, making for a poor but passable showing in terms of the in-game visuals. The cut-scenes, however, presented in the form of a comic book full of colorful paintings (they’re actually photos made to look like paintings with graphics filters, by the way) and dialogue bubbles add a nice visual flair, though they’re nothing to marvel at, nor anything a Photoshop hobbyist couldn’t accomplish in a week’s time.

Assuming you can tolerate action games, the game motivates you with a great (if slightly cliché) storyline with a unique style via this comic book. Sometimes pretentious and overwritten (but then how couldn’t it be if we are to stay in line with the gumshoe novel comparison made earlier?) but always dramatic, the story of Max Payne unfolds as he reads it to you in the past tense. Walk over some papers and Max will narrate, “The papers were scattered on the floor like blades of white, papery death” or something to that effect. Then a “graphic novel” (comic book) scene will be triggered and the story progressed even more deeply. If you don’t pay attention to these you may find yourself lost near the end of the game, after moving up the mobster food chain in a story that starts to feel link a meaningless jumble of stereotypical Italian family names. Luckily, you can review the graphic novel in its entirety at any time, at your leisure. A few other bits of story unfold inside the game engine, and the antics of the numbskull mob grunts are of particular interest. Like Tarantino, Remedy mixes gruesome violence with almost slapstick comedy, and game humor is actually funny for a change. Sneak up on a gangster watching a European soap opera on a couch, wait for him to stand up and remark on the sadness of the unrequited lovers in the program, and then bust a cap in his ass. These hilarious little details are ingenious bits that break up the action with just the right frequency, and go to show that there are some things a huge budget just can’t buy.

Max and most of the rest of the cast are voiced brilliantly, with Max’s cold, emotionless voice of endless urban poetry and philosophy taking the spotlight. Even the bad actors have a kooky B-movie quality to them that fits right in with the rest of the corny mob war theme. The sound effects aren’t quite as noteworthy, and don’t play a very vital role in the game. One awful oversight is that the enemies don’t even make audible footsteps, leaving you in the dark as to their proximity once they’ve spotted you and shouted their “It’s Payne! Get ‘em!” lines. On a higher note, the sounds fading in and out of the slow-mo mode is fantastic, and the spent shells falling to the ground constantly provide the perfect accent to this effect. The background music (which borrows its various styles from the films and artists mentioned above) usually takes a back seat to the cool and ominous wind and echoing footsteps, stepping in as a crescendo to the action only when necessary.

If guiding Max Payne on his quest for personal vengeance through a violent romp of a game sounds appealing, this game should entertain you thoroughly. It has a style not quite like anything before it, modeled heavily after modern film culture and never trying to pretend it isn’t, but still manages to feel unique. More importantly, it houses one of the more intense action experiences available on the Xbox. If, however, you prefer a subdued game of chess to a twitch shooter, you won’t find much deep substance here, although I’d still recommend a casual rental if only to absorb the game’s original and endearing character.

Overall: 7 (But a high and enthusiastic 7, with grand expectations for a sequel.)

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Community review by richorosai (March 21, 2003)

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