Snacking on unhealthy doses of painkillers and wielding an arsenal of guns for every occasion, Max Payne seamlessly blends neo-noir with visceral third-person shooting for a memorable and highly quotable action game. Set in the grim, ugly streets of New York’s seedy criminal underbelly, the titular undercover cop with nothing to lose dodges police, goons and bullets as he attempts to escape a web of violence and find the truth about the death of his loved ones.
Released in 2001 and developed by Remedy Entertainment, the game has aged remarkably well and remains a gritty and compelling shooter thanks to innovative gameplay and fantastic art direction. While some of the polygonal likenesses plastered onto the jaggy models don’t have quite the charm they did way back when, the photographs-as-textures still look good, along with the brilliant animations and particles that flash and pop throughout the game.
Muzzles flash, bolts twitch, hammers slam, bullets sear through the air and tear into walls that chip, wood that bursts, blood that splatters, and glass that shatters. Every weapon has a satisfying kick to it.
And, while the graphical prowess of the game has inevitably grown archaic, the real eye-catcher comes in the presentation of cutscenes.
Rather than risk their narrative through in-engine cinematics like Jedi Outcast and Grand Theft Auto III, Remedy saved time, money, and the story’s impact by presenting it in highly stylized graphic novel pages, riddled through with near-poetic and rock-hardboiled narration from the main character himself, as well as lovably grand and lovably bad voice acting provided by supporting cast.
Throughout the game, Max is cynical, sarcastic, and all human, his reactions and emotions the product of danger, desperation, and rage, his quips and comments constant and charming as his boon-of-a-voice ponders and meditates through his journey down dingy tenements, brothels, gothic nighclubs and mafia manors, a trait that heavily defines the character and tone of the game even outside exposition.
Unlike many other games that attempt a dark story, Max Payne accomplishes its attempt with extreme success, thanks to a mix of humor—like stumbling across mobsters sobbing over period soaps or discussing their favorite movie endings, hearing them hassle a malfunctioning soda machine, or whistling while using the toilet—and grimness. While captured, the man torturing Max introduces himself:
“Pleased to meet ya. I’m Frankie ‘the bat’ Niagara.”
“‘Niagara, as in you cry a lot?’ He had a baseball bat, and I was tied to a chair. Pissing him off was the smart thing to do.”
The following frames have Max receiving a few fierce blows to the head.
The game drips with character, understanding the subtle balance between noir and schlock, leveling in at a wonderful mix of both. It’s highly quotable, obviously cheesy, but also genuine in every way that counts. It’s homage and also bona fide, John Woo and noir’s journey to hell combined, with references galore and dramatic zooms, shots and angles that pepper the action. To punctuate encounters the camera will sometimes zone in on the last enemy killed, allowing the player to keep shooting as the body trickles blood and falls limp, and when using the sniper rifle the camera becomes a POV, following the bullet’s course as it hits.
Self aware, the game never backs away from being deadly serious, ponderous or funny. As Max puts it in one chapter:
“After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché. But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil out to right a grave injustice. Everything was subjective. There were only personal apocalypses. Nothing is a cliché when it’s happening to you.”
Story-wise, it also takes the player on a psychological ride through Max’s mind, an aforementioned personal apocalypse that dips and turns throughout each of the game’s chapters. His nightmares and hallucinations are creepy levels, his thoughts a whirling brew of trauma and depression.
His nature unfolds through simple interactions and observations of the environment around him. Amongst flippable switches, flushable toilets and useable soda machines, important news broadcasts, notes and books on tables, computer monitors, photographs, instruments, and corpses, each eliciting a unique reaction, can catch Max’s attention.
The gameplay is comprised of solid shooting—weapons follow some level of realism as bullets’ flight paths can be observed and dodged, prompting mobility during firefights. Max is fragile, but so are his enemies—a direct blast from a shotgun can insta-kill the hero, as well as a thug. Shots have to be led, forming a slight learning curve for players used to hitscan shooters or auto-aim, a curve highlighted by the lack of down-the-sights aiming and a single, pixel-wide white dot serving as a reticule.
However, to aid the player during impossibly hectic gunfights or sudden encounters, the player can slow down the action thanks to the game’s mechanical masterwork: bullet time, which allows the player to aim accurately or plan approaches, a power contained within a small hourglass near the player’s health that drains quickly and only refills with each enemy killed. Bullet time also allows Max to perform a “shoot dodge,” the classic side jump as guns blaze performed in many a classic shoot ‘em up movie.
Bullet time has to be saved and used wisely, though, prompting the player to react quickly and strategize, as the squishy Max and his inferiority in numbers makes each new area more dangerous than the last. He can eat some of the painkillers he finds along the way, but Max is in for a difficult quest.
The game’s a hard one; cover is everywhere, and weapons are always available, but enemies hold no punches, positioned anywhere they can and with the same guns you wield. To add to the chaos, the difficulty adjusts to the player’s skill, which can make certain situations unpredictable for the unprepared. Fast reactions, as well as clever use of audio cues and sound effects, are the bread and butter of Max Payne’s style, forcing the player to use everything they possibly can, especially their bullet time, to their advantage.
A few minor gripes do exist. The game’s weapons aren’t quite as balanced as they should be, and eventually the Colt rifle will practically replace every other gun in Max’s impossibly large collection. Occasionally, making jumps will be difficult during the odd platforming section, mostly due to Max’s proximity to the camera and his short, goofy hop. And, in some cases, patience will have to be learned by eager players who rush in blindly without checking corners or edges for sneakily placed enemies. However, the game is never unfair, and the gripes never rage-inducing, as the power of Max Payne is contained within its virtuoso execution of third-person action and its compelling story.
If you want a game that’s wholly unique, even in today’s market saturated with black and white war simulators and angsty heroes, one that’s also unrelentingly packed with thrills and character, Max Payne is one of the best choices available. It’s a challenging game, and the writing is spectacular, sleek and mean. It stands as a blood-crusted ride alongside an anemic mind on a one-way trip for revenge, one setpiece at a time, through graffiti filled streets in a snowed-in city to burning buildings and metallic skyscrapers. And it’s hilarious, in a morbid sort of way. Play it on PC—the console ports are awfully dark and their controls are obtuse, and the Game Boy Advance version (which does, in fact, exist), while cute, cultures many problems that make it only a light snack to satiate a serious Payne hunger. Look for the dirt-cheap trilogy bundle on Steam during the holidays—the sequels are equally good, if not better, so there’s nothing to regret.