Max Payne Still Holds Up

Yesterday, I started playing through Max Payne on Kotaku US’ Twitch channel. Returning to the 2001 game after so many years reveals a smart and surprisingly funny game full of experimentation. And, of course, kickarse bullet-time gunfights.

I first played Max Payne in junior high when my friend Dan brought the CD-ROMs over to my house in the summer. It’s hard to explain how shocking the game was; I’d never seen anything so dirty or gleefully violent.

Max Payne’s New York was a caricatured shanty city of crumbling row houses, snaking underground tunnels and secretive gangster bars. Everyone slept on grimy mattresses and had several guns under their pillows. Max Payne handed you a Desert Eagle, some John Woo magic, and let you to dive right in.

Replaying it yesterday, I was struck by how much that feeling has endured. Max’s one-man crusade against the mob is as teeth-grittingly awesome as I remembered.

A lot of that has to do with the combat. It’s tempting to look back at bullet-time, the game’s special slow motion ability, as a gimmick that led to far too many imitators. But it’s the centre around which the rest of the game revolves. It isn’t just a power-up; it’s an incredibly smart tool for managing the game’s pace.

Much of this has to do with how fragile Max is. This is a punishing game, even on the default difficulty. Playing it like a normal shooter is a recipe for disaster — Max dies in three to four hits, and enemies come in deadly groups.

Bullet-time is an equaliser, an on-demand state of demi-goodhood that turns the most unfair encounters into brilliant puzzles.

The average Max Payne gunfight lasts about 10 seconds; smart application of bullet-time expands those sudden encounters into miniature blood operas. It feels like running a stunt crew, practising over and over until you finally get the perfect shot.

It creates a dramatic mood that’s complement by the cheesy story. Max’s overly verbose inner monologues — replete with mythological allusions and musings on the American Dream — come hand in hand with overacted scenes full of childish gangsters. The villains are dopes, silly criminals in oversized suits and horrible New York accents. Every mafioso feels like a rejected Dick Tracy stooge.

The contrast is spectacular; Max’s lyrical ramblings clashing with nasally taunts that would make my extended Italian relatives roll their eyeballs right out of their skulls. Max Payne’s mixture of neo-noir slapstick is unique and refreshing even now.

The first game offers a strong roadmap for the rest of the series. The rest of the series shifts from Max Payne 2’s playful deconstruction to Max Payne 3’s self-serious character study. It works because Max’s tough guy persona can be moulded to fit nearly any story type and narrative need.

Hard-boiled sane man, self aware video game protagonist and redemption-seeking madman. He can be all of these things in equal measure and it never seems strange. His excessive gun battles fit into nearly any video game frame, manifestations of a frustrated soul wandering from genre to genre. He’s fantastic.

I hope to play through the entire series by the end of the year, and I couldn’t be more excited. Max Payne’s high-pulp embrace of video game cliches is unique and worth remembering. I don’t think there’s been anything else like it. At the very least, no one’s done it this right.


Comments

    Great write up. One of my favourite games of all time. Sure it's cheesy... but it's so clever with it.

    And then 2 kicks it out of the park. I look forward to when you revisit chapter 2.

    I've never played 3. Maybe it's time.

      The first game is a classic still and the second is brilliant.

      3 is very a good game, but it's not a Remedy game. There's something special about the way Remedy writes their stuff which is just absent from Max Payne 3. Rockstar made it a very competent action game with basically the plot of Man on Fire.

      The PC version had some very annoying online-activation DRM that never worked right for me too, not sure if that's been fixed.

    Only ever played the first one and it was impressive. Nice long game too, awesome graphics at the time, great sound and the fun little easter eggs all over. Little things like listening to guards talking about this cool movie with bullet time (The Matrix) etc.

      Actually Max Payne 1 and 2 aren't that long (especially 2) but that's also what makes them great, they have the right amount of pacing without filler that overstays it's welcome.

        It's been years since I played it but there were a lot of areas. The ratty apartments, the nightclub, the steel forge, the ship, the train station/underground, some city hall mobster place. I remember it taking me quite some time to go through it. Friends playing number 2 said it was a lot shorter by comparison.

    I remember the Matrix mod for Max Payne, good memories.

    It confuses me as to why they made a movie based on Max Payne and removed the gunfight bullet time lol.

    I tried replaying Max Payne a few years back, it was fine but didn't grab me.

    I recently replayed Max Payne 3, that definitely holds up.

    It was the closest thing to a playble John Woo movie at the time. Pity the graphics look so chunky now. Could do with a higher poly count remaster.

    The whole series was spectacular! I remember when games mags (that's printed websites for you li'l punks) were over-wowed by the way his Italian leather jacket swayed about when he ran and dived in Max Payne 2.

    And 3! What a pleasant surprise that was! I had no idea it was coming out until about a week beforehand and I have to say Rockstar really carried the torch.

    If any series deserved a spiritual successor, it's this one. God I miss this game.

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