Max Payne Preview

We dropped by the 3D Realms offices to take a look at a nearly complete version of this gritty game.

Max Payne fans who have been anticipating the game's release have been waiting for a very long time--nearly four years! To make matters worse, everyone involved in the game's development--Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment, the consulting designers at 3D Realms, the distributors at Take-Two, and the publishers at Gathering of Developers--have kept a watertight seal on details about the game for the last two years. Well, the good news is that the wait is over. As you read this, the game is entering the final stages of its development, and it should be on store shelves no later than the end of July. In anticipation of Max Payne's completion, 3D Realms recently invited us down to its Garland, Texas-based offices to spend a day with the imminent third-person action game.

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The game takes place three years after the brutal death of Max Payne's wife and child. This rather disturbing sequence is displayed during the game's opening scene, which uses a mixture of in-game engine cinematic and stylized storyboards that are drawn in a very dark and gritty manner. The entire game is actually narrated through the use of quality voice-overs and more than 200 of these storyboards, which, as 3D Realms' Scott Miller pointed out, took Remedy Entertainment longer to put together than prerendered animation would have. During the first few minutes of the game, these storyboards paint a picture of Max's descent from a happy robbery detective to a bitter and angry undercover narcotics detective, due to his family's incident, in the three years since. To make matters worse, Max soon finds himself framed for the death of Alex, his partner in the NYPD. It becomes clear that both Alex's and Max's family's deaths were drug-related mob hits meant to get Max into hot water. Max suspects that Punchinello, a mafia boss who traffics a new designer drug called Valkyr, is responsible for all his recent troubles. With both the mob and the cops after Max, he decides that he has nothing to lose and starts a rampage of violence to avenge the death of his family and his partner.

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After having the game demonstrated to us by Project Lead Petri Jarvilehto in May during E3, we were surprised to discover how simple it is to play Max Payne. Anyone who's familiar with Max Payne will know that it uses a healthy dosage of "bullet time," an effect much like the slow-motion scenes in The Matrix, throughout the game. This effect causes the entire game to slow down significantly in a dramatic effect that is designed to give Max a lethal advantage over his enemies. Jarvilehto was able to pull off these slow-motion moves with ease, but we automatically attributed this to his four years' worth of experience in designing the game. But after playing the game for only a few minutes, controlling Max and executing his bullet-time maneuvers to their fullest potential quickly became second nature to us. The mechanic behind this unique effect (unique to a computer game, anyway) is actually quite simple. The game has an action that you can map to any key, which, when depressed, will activate Max's bullet time. Initially, you'll start out the game without the ability to pull off any slow-mo moves, but once you kill your first enemy, you'll gain a small amount of bullet-time "credits." The more enemies you kill, the more credits you receive--your total amount is indicated by an hourglass-shaped bar in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. Clicking on your bullet-time key once will activate this slow-motion effect, and clicking on it again will deactivate it. You'll have only a few precious seconds to make use of your bullet time, because at its fullest, the hourglass meter will drop to empty in no time at all.

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Max Payne also has a second, slightly different bullet-time mode called "shootdodging". If you use the action key while moving in any one of the eight directions along the x-plane, Max will dive in that direction using bullet time for a very short period of time--the effect automatically deactivates itself once Max completes his diving leap. However, while you're airborne, you're free to mouse-look and aim in any direction ahead, to the side, above, and even behind you, and Max will twist and contort in midair to pull off that shot. You'll undoubtedly find this to be the preferred of Max Payne's two bullet-time modes, as it not only provides you with eight great evasive maneuvers, but also consumes only a fraction of the bullet-time credits that the standard mode does. For those who prefer to do so, this action can be mapped to a separate button.

Max Payne's bullet-time mode is truly something to behold. While activated, the game moves so slow that you can actually see each individual bullet that you (or your enemies) fire as its exits the barrel of its gun and makes it way toward its intended target. Particularly hairy situations are almost artistic in their beauty--it's as if Max and his enemies are engaged in a graceful dance as each person ducks for cover or recoils from impacts in super slow-mo. The developer's artistic flair can be seen throughout Max Payne as well. In most scenarios, you'll encounter enemies in groups, not one person at a time. During your gun battles, the last person that you kill in the group will have a dramatic death. Some of these finales include something as cliché as the action freezing and the camera panning around your last target before resuming his fall, or at times, the camera will switch to any entirely different angle altogether. One of our favorite moments in the game is when we walked in on a poker game and started blasting away, only to have the camera quickly switch to an overhead perspective of the card table and then switch back before the last of the bad guys' bodies hit the ground. Sometimes, these sequences will vary depending on the weapon that you use during the kill. For instance, if you blast a certain enemy (who you'll run into early on in the game) with a pistol, he'll merely collapse on the ground. However, if you nail him with a shotgun, he'll fly backward and drop through a trapdoor in the ground.

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And to uncover all of his enemies' death animations, Max will have a bevy of weapons available to him, including a baseball bat, a pipe, a Desert Eagle, a Baretta, a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, a sawed-off shotgun, a Jackhammer full-auto shotgun, an Ingram assault pistol, a Colt M4A1, a sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, frag grenades, and Molotov cocktails. Almost all of these weapons will affect the surrounding environment in some way. A brick wall, for example, will make more noise but fragment fewer pieces when fired upon than a wooden post will. Like 3D Realms' last hit, Duke Nukem 3D, Max Payne will stress the importance of environmental interactivity to keep the player as immersed as possible. This suspension of disbelief also carries over to the game's health system. Instead of finding bandages or first-aid kits, you'll need to pop painkillers to regain health, and these bottles will be found only in logical places like medicine cabinets or kitchen counters. Like the health potions in Diablo, painkillers will take a few seconds to fully heal Max.

You'll need as many painkillers and as wide a variety of weapons as you can find, because this game employs a unique AI that will constantly auto-adjust to keep you on your toes. The game has seven "invisible" difficulty settings--initially, you will start the game on the third setting, and as you progress through Max Payne's levels, the game will track your average health, the number of times you've died, and the time it took you to complete each mission (not counting idle time) to determine whether it should increase or decrease difficulty. And as an added challenge, once you finish the game, you'll unlock a mode called the New York minute. Like Namco's Time Crisis series of shooters, you'll start out on the first level with 60 seconds to compete each mission. For every person you kill, another 15 seconds will be tacked onto your total remaining time. This should certainly add a frantic element to the game.

From our time with Max Payne, the most disappointing part was when we were forced to leave. Fortunately for us, it'll be only a few more weeks before we'll be able to once again get our hands on this thoroughly enjoyable game. We'll have more Max Payne coverage next week in the form of a video trailer. Until then, be sure to take a look at the screen index for some amazing shots of this game.

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