Looking back at Max Payne is an unusual experience. Despite having come out a little over a decade ago, the game remains remarkably fresh in terms of gameplay and graphics, but that’s not what’s odd about it. What is odd is that it is perhaps the best example of a game taking cues from films, without forgetting what it means to be a game. From the cinematic intro sequence, to the good direction in cut-scenes, the entire affair screams Hollywood movie. Then the game begins, and it plays brilliantly well without losing the feeling that you’re in a Bruce Willis movie. Perhaps the reason this feels so odd is that, other than its’ also brilliant sequel, no other game as so far managed such an experience.
The rest of the games industry has a lot to thank Max Payne for. First of all, it was the first game to popularise the use of ‘bullet time’, or slo mo, in such a way that it was copied countless times and indeed still is today (the slow motion deaths in Brothers In Arms: Hells Highway, for example, are extremely reminiscent of the same sort of thing in Max Payne). While one could claim that Max Payne simply takes what The Matrix did and put it into a video game, I doubt that without Max Payne we would have half as much slow motion elements in games today, and indeed if we did they would be far less well implemented. However, although it is pretty much what everyone remembers, Max Payne was much more than a game based around going into slow motion. The entire game was made up of fantastic ideas such as bullet time, woven closely together.
One such idea, the use of graphics novel-type cut-scenes, was an inspired way to tell more of the story without having to rely on what would later be dated graphics and animations. By doing this, instead of getting a stiff model waving it’s arms around while the voice actors do their thing, you get well-drawn panels of a graphic novel telling you the story with the voice actors speaking the lines over the top. While to someone not used to graphic novels this technique might fall flat, to those players who were familiar with the format it was a rare treat, and just as effective as telling the story through an animated cut-scene.
One of the most important aspects of Max Payne is the mood it creates through these graphic novels, as well as other techniques – an atmosphere of Film Noir pervades the entire game, and indeed was capitalised on for the second game, which included it in its’ tagline. Film Noir is perhaps one of the most cruelly overlooked genres in video games, but is pitched perfectly in this game. The internal narration as you play through the levels, the overly stylistic levels where Max is injected with the drug Valkyr, the way the game is presented in acts and scenes all adds to the feeling that this game belongs in a theater just as much as it does on your PC.
This all ties in to a little theory of mine – get the atmosphere right, and the story will follow. It is my belief that games that try to construct a story around a genre of video game (for example FPS) will fail more regularly than if they based it on an established genre of film. Silent Hill, for example, didn’t exactly have the best story in the world, but it nailed the atmosphere of a horror film so well that people filled in the gaps for it. This is not to say that Max Payne doesn’t have a good story – as video game stories go, it’s fairly affecting and definitely above par – but it is, perhaps, not as good as it appears. Atmosphere plays such a huge part of the game, it becomes difficult to tell what you’re being impressed by.
In terms of gameplay, things are fairly standard. You run and gun, with the bullet time available for whenever you feel like breaking up the action, through the levels without much diversity. Saying that, the gameplay may be simple but it definitely works well. There is little that beats the feeling of bursting round the corner with double berettas blazing in slow motion, and dropping every enemy before they get a shot off. Similarly, there are fantastic moments that you can create where you can (for example) slow-motion dive through a skylight into the room below, your M4 spraying bullets into the enemies.
Max Payne remains a brilliant game today, and were it to have updated graphics and released today, I’m fairly confident that it would receive the same amount of praise that it achieved upon its’ original release. The mix of Film Noir atmosphere with the straightforward shoot ’em up gameplay creates a kind of balance between plot and gameplay that is rarely found in other games. We just have to hope the the recently announced Max Payne 3 can keep it going.