Reviewed: June 12, 2002
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: December 11, 2001
Max Payne exploded onto the PC scene last July and became an instant smash hit. This state-of-the-art action shooter had some serious hardware requirements at the time which may have kept many gamers from enjoying this title. Thanks to the powerful Xbox, anyone who missed out on the adventures of this rogue cop can now experience a landmark achievement in action gaming.
As the box states, "Everything Ripped Apart in a New York Minute" and "A Man With Nothing to Lose". The interactive flashback - actually the entire game is a flashback, but in the first sequence you enter your home to find it full of junkies who have killed your wife and baby. You are even forced to listen to their screams and the final gunshots that end their life and yours (metaphorically speaking). Soon afterward, as you begin your journey of vengeance, your partner/best friend is also killed, and you are framed for his murder.
And thus the story begins, as you explore the dark and gritty New York underground as a one-man army bent on eliminating the crime syndicate responsible for the drugs/junkies that killed your family while trying to prove your innocence at the same time. The cops are never far behind, and they keep pushing you further into the sinister world of crime complete with prostitutes, drugs, murder, and even a crime lord who is heavily into the occult and is positive the end of the world is near.
Payne is a third-person shooter. This may turn off many first-person veterans, but the perspective was chosen for a very good reason - to show off the spectacular cinematic moves and amazing stunts available with "Bullet Time". Bullet Time and the ShootDodge derivative are the amazing new time-altering modes of gameplay that make Max Payne what it is and will probably be the most used and abused special effect in upcoming action games. I have to wonder how well the upcoming Matrix action game will fare now that we have already experience (and become jaded with) the special effects that made that movie special.
Bullet Time is the primary selling point or "gimmick" of Max Payne. It is as important to this title as the amazing 360-camera sweep effects were to the Matrix movie. Bullet Time is the ability to slow time, thus making you and all enemies move in slow motion. The trick is that you still have the ability to aim your weapons and fire in normal time. This allows you to dive into a room and target a group of gangsters before they even know what hit them. Bullet Time is limited and slowly depletes as you use it, but it is partially replenished with each new kill.
ShootDodge is a limited burst of Bullet Time that combines with a diving leap in any direction. Instead of side strafing into a room or passage you can do a slow-motion diving leap into the hall then twist your body and aim at the enemy. The burst only lasts for a few seconds but you can generally take down one or two bad guys with a single attack. This is a great evasive maneuver as well as the enemy seems to lose track of you when you are "in" Bullet Time. If you do a forward dive past an enemy and twist around so you are facing his back, when normal time resumes he will be facing and aiming where you were and not where you are giving you a clean back shot. You also have the ability to see every individual bullet coming at you and try to dodge them.
Payne plays much like any other third-person shooter out there, and if it weren't for Bullet Time this game would probably not be receiving the hype or instant popularity that it has over the past year since its initial release. Strip away this "gimmick" no matter how cool it is, and you are left with nothing more than a standard shooter.
The actual gameplay gets rather repetitive early on. The game consists of wandering around the levels, which are extremely linear. Locked doors, scripted explosions, cave-ins, etc. keep you going where the story dictates. You have no real freedom to explore the levels outside of the confines of the story. There are no "real puzzles" in this game. In fact, I can only remember three or four things in this game that even caused me to pause and "think" for a second. And when there is a potential brainteaser, the solution is always right there in plain sight.
Even if Max Payne is just another mindless shooter it is definitely king of its genre. The arsenal at your disposal is most impressive and features a variety of pistols, shotguns, machine guns, grenades, and of course everyone's favorite, the sniper rifle with scope. Ammo is plentiful if you are good about picking up the weapons and clips from fallen enemies. Knowing which weapon to use in certain situations is crucial to your success, but you often don't know the situation until you have already died.
Perhaps my only complaint about this game is the difficulty and the super-human detection abilities of the enemy AI. Don't get me wrong - I love a challenge, but the AI in this game literally has "eyes in the back of their heads". You will quickly learn that "if Max can see the enemy then they have already seen you". Note that I said "Max" and not "you". It is possible to get close to a corner and spin the camera around to recon the next area. But as soon as you peek Max's head around the corner the gangsters will instantly see you and attack with super-human reflexes. I recall opening a metal hatch on a cargo ship and no sooner was the door open and I had time to even see the guard at the bottom of the stairs he had lobbed a grenade at my feet. The explosion killed me before I could even utter "Oh Sh..."
This LOS (line of sight) activation of the enemy AI destroys any chance of using stealth tactics in this game. At one point in the game you only have a baseball bat and you must make your way past several guards. Max comments on how he is going to have to play some "hide and seek". Basically this consists of "not being in the same hall as any bad guys". You simply use the camera to watch and wait for the hall to empty before you enter. If you are found there is no chance of escape. You cannot run or hide as every gangster on the level will magically zero in on your location and kill you.
The sniper rifle is virtually worthless in this title. In order to use a scope you have to be able to see the enemy and slowly zoom in and make your shot. As soon as you have such a view the enemy (who can now see you too) begins shooting at you, so you either take your chances (and lots of damage) as you line-up your shot or you simply avoid using this stealth weapon. Granted, the very nature of the game begs you to kick down doors and pump lead into whoever waits on the other side, but if they are going to give me a sniper rifle then "let me use it!"
Third-person games are often plagued by difficult camera angles. Max Payne seems to have avoided this issue by offering some of the best and intuitive camera angles I have seen in the genre. While you have control over the camera for the most part, even when backed against a wall or hiding behind an object, your view is never obscured.
When I heard Max was coming to the Xbox I had some concerns over the control scheme. Max, and games like it really need to be played with a mouse and keyboard, yet this game manages to pull off a very nice control scheme that is intuitive and actually works.
Payne has a story to tell, and it's told through a series of unique comic strips that crop up between levels and at certain locations within the game. At first, the comics seemed intrusive and were popping up quite frequently taking me "out of the game". Imagine watching a movie and having to pause every 10-15 minutes and read two pages of a comic book before continuing. Further into the game the comic book interruptions grew further apart and I began to tolerate them and ultimately started to enjoy them. You can bring up the "graphic novel" at any time and page through it to review the story and refresh your memory as needed.
One thing that disturbed me was that Max never looks the same in any two pictures. His 3D model in the game doesn't look like the box cover art, and he never looks the same in any two panels of the comic strip. The images in the graphic novel are pictures of real people superimposed over backgrounds from the game. They are then digitally edited and distorted until Max begins to look more like the goofy rubber-faced Jim Carrey than a hardened NY detective. But I am only nitpicking and the artistic direction of this game in no way affects the gameplay or enjoyment you will have.
The levels are linear, yet well designed and full of interactive objects. Almost everything in the game can be used or manipulated in some way from the toilets, sinks, and water fountains to the phones, radios, and TV's. Key locations within the game are highlighted with an "!", and closer examination will often yield valuable information and another comic strip.
Everything in the game is photo realistic, which translates to dark, bland, and gritty textures. But you can't blame the designers for this. They have done an excellent job of capture the look and feel of the darker side of New York City. The lighting effects, muzzle flashes, explosions, and resulting fires are stunning. The fire in this game is the best I have ever seen and when you view the billowing explosions in Bullet Time you will be blown away (pun intended). If you remember the scene in the Matrix where the elevator door blows off in slow motion you can begin to imagine the fire and other special effects you will see in Max Payne.
In addition to the Bullet Time effect, the game will often toss in its own cinematic effects such as freeze frame with the famous Matrix 360-spin around an enemy as a bullet passes through his body; the bullet, its trail, and the splatter of blood all perfectly suspended in time and space as the camera spins around. While these effects are cool the first two or three hundred times you see them, they can wear thin after awhile and break up the fast-paced action of the game. Fortunately the designers were wise enough to allow you to adjust the frequency of these animations or eliminate them all together within the options menu.
There are plenty of other visual treats to keep you amazed throughout the game including a disturbing dream sequence with warping passages and haunting screams that echo through a seemingly endless maze of corridors. Another level has you racing through a booby-trapped building as explosions and fire pursue you with an intelligence of its own.
The first thing that came to mind as I listened to the introduction was the classic narrative style of an old detective movie. The voice acting ranges from excellent to downright silly. Max delivers a quality narration in the tried and true tradition of Mickey Spillane's, Mike Hammer. His smooth flowing monotone delivery is unwavering and ranks right up there with Jack Webb's portrayal of Joe Friday in Dragnet.
The supporting characters are ok, but some of the gangsters get kind of silly and annoying, almost crossing the Joe Pesci (Lethal Weapon) line. One of the big mobsters who is into the occult goes way over the top in the delivery of his lines, but I suppose it suited the moment. The game is already rated "M" for violence so I was surprised at the lack of cursing. I just have to wonder how many crime bosses really say, "freaking" instead of its R-rated counterpart.
The use of Dolby Digital surround audio is excellent and you can often tell the location of the enemies by their voices. In the above-mentioned dream sequence you actually find your way through the maze by following the screams of your dead wife. How creepy is that? While wandering through a maze of cargo containers on the dock you will hear voices that lead you to a secret door in one of the containers. The conversations you overhear seldom add to the plot, but they are humorous and worth staying out of sight long enough to listen in.
The background music fits perfectly with the game and helps set the mood and overall emotional tone and suspense of the game. The tempo rises and falls with the action and gives the game a very cinematic quality.
Since Max Payne is story-driven the overall game length is shorter than most people will like - around 10-12 hours, but there are plenty of reasons to go back and replay this game. Initially you can only play at the lowest difficulty setting, which is still quite challenging. There are additional levels of difficulty available once you complete the initial game, plus there is an amazing challenge mode called "New York Minute" where you play each level on a timer. You race through the levels as fast as you can and each person you kill adds valuable time to the clock. The timer does slow down when Bullet Time is invoked but then again, so do you.
Last year Deus Ex proved that a great game doesn't need multiplayer support and Max continues this tradition. There are no multiplayer options for Max Payne and this is not surprising considering the entire premise and success of this game is based on the concept of Bullet Time; a concept that would be virtually impossible to pull off in a multiplayer scenario.
Max Payne delivers a solid gaming experience with some stunning visuals that pushes the envelope of the Xbox platform. The introduction of the "Bullet Time" concept adds just enough innovation to make this game something more than "just another shooter". The story is involving and grabs you in the beginning and carries you throughout the game.
Of course, if your infatuation with slow-motion gunfights and "Matrix Special Effects" wavers before the end of the story you will realize this game is nothing more than a mindless and often repetitive shooter. Even so, it is still worth the price of admission and one of the best shooters you can get for the Xbox.