A great many critics heralded Max Payne as the best thing to happen to PC shooters in a long, long while. Its inimitable style and innovative play mechanics were the subject of much acclaim long before the game was ever released, almost solidifying its status as a modern classic well before the fact. Given its success, console ports were inevitable. The Xbox will be the first system to be so blessed, and Rockstar--the game's publisher--recently brought a nearly complete version by for us to play with.
For those unfamiliar with the game's premise, it's essentially a linear, story-driven third-person shooter, heavily influenced by Hong Kong's best action cinema. You assume the role of Max Payne, an ex-cop framed for murder and out to avenge the death of his family at the hands of a vast criminal organization. Throughout the course of your gritty quest, you'll uncover the roots of the group behind your recent misfortunes. Resolving all this, as you'd imagine, involves huge amounts of gunplay, enacted with a level of style that's quite rare in the realm of gaming.
Max Payne's most notable contribution to the canon of modern shooting games is its bullet-time mechanic. Highly reminiscent of the slow-motion sequences in The Matrix, bullet time causes every element in the environments--from enemies to the bullets they fire--to go into slow motion. You yourself, however, are still able to aim as quickly as you were before, and this allows you to aim more precisely, and thus down several foes with a single volley of rounds, provided your skills are up to par. While in bullet time, depending on your movement inputs, you'll be able to dive from side to side, leap backward, or simply stroll through the thickest of firefights. Remedy Entertainment--Max Payne's developer--calls this "shootdodging." While the use of bullet time is limited by an onscreen meter, that meter is replenished a little bit every time you kill a foe. And as you'll be killing a whole lot of people, you can bet that you'll seldom want for bullet time, even if you practice the least amount of restraint in its use. This brutal economy works very, very well.
Inventive mechanics aside, Max Payne is jaw-dropping in many ways. Sans the minor limitations imposed by the TV-set resolution, the game looks just as stunning as the PC original, thanks to the Xbox's mighty GPU. The game's texture quality is amazing, and its art direction is spot on. Remedy's hypergritty take on New York City is the home of dilapidated tenements, frostbitten alleyways, and humbling neon, and you'll feel like you're right there. The audio is usually pretty sparse--you'll hear thugs chattering idly or plotting your demise, along with the various intestinal sounds that old, dilapidated buildings make, and the effect conveys the game's mood more effectively, perhaps, than music could have. Various appliances--radiators, TV sets, and the like--add to the ambient symphony, and the effect is as convincing as every other aspect of the game's presentation.
The Xbox port, in any event, seems to be coming along nicely. The mouse-and-keyboard control scheme carries over quite well to the Xbox controller. Basically, you move and aim with the left and right sticks, respectively, and you shoot with the right trigger. Bullet time is activated by the left trigger, and your host of auxiliary abilities--opening doors, jumping, and popping painkillers (which is what you heal with)--are mapped to the face buttons. You toggle weapons, finally, with the D-pad. The aim function's default level of sensitivity was a bit hyperresponsive, but this can surely be remedied by messing with the setting. Though we'll maintain that the Xbox controller can't hold a candle to a mouse-and-keyboard setup when it comes to FPS precision, it's admittedly adequate, and we became accustomed to control the setup almost instantaneously.
At this point, all that Max Payne needs is a little bit of optimization. The frame rate was very satisfactory when we played the game, only experiencing minor chugs in performance during certain sequences. While we won't speak too soon, we have a very good feeling that the final game will turn out very nicely in that respect.
Max Payne was one of this year's best games. Console gamers should thank their lucky stars that they'll be able to play a completely faithful version of it. For more info on it, check out our Q&A we've conducted with Rockstar and Remedy. Max Payne is due to hit the Xbox this December.