When video and computer games make their ways to handheld platforms, it's hardly a surprise that drastic changes have to be made. More often than not, Game Boy Advance games with a console or computer counterpart bear little or no resemblance to the other versions of the game. But that's starting to change. Games like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 for the GBA showed that it's possible to keep the same basic gameplay and level design intact. All it really did was present the same action from a different perspective. And that's precisely what Mobius and Rockstar have done with Max Payne for the GBA. The same basic action and level structure are intact from the original PC version, but it's all seen from an isometric perspective. Unfortunately, this Max Payne serves better as an incredibly neat idea than as a full-fledged game.
This is the original Max Payne, not a handheld rendition of the recently released Max Payne 2, so it follows the plot of the original game. Max is a New York cop whose wife and baby daughter were brutally murdered by junkies. He's since gone undercover to try to get to the bottom of the city's organized crime problem, but thanks to being at the wrong place at the wrong time, Max's cover is blown, and he's been framed for murder. What follows is Max's violent trek through the criminal underworld. He's still trying to solve the same crime, but with his true identity out in the open and every cop in New York after him, his tactics have changed to "shoot first, ask questions later."
Max Payne's story is told in a comic book-style format that runs through a series of still images. The images are subtitled with story text, but they're also spoken. There's a lot of dialogue in Max Payne's cutscenes, and the GBA plays it all. The original game also used a lot of voice during the game itself, but this speech has been replaced by onscreen text. Either way, Max Payne's story is an interesting one. It's well-told and contains a good amount of twists and turns. This helps make up for the game's rather short length. The GBA version is even shorter than the original, as a couple of levels have been cut. For example, the game skips the intro gameplay sequence, where Max discovers that his family has been slain. The dream sequences have also been cut. In both cases, the cutscenes that originally surrounded the missing sequences simply move the story along, so you don't really notice any holes where there used to be gameplay.
Max Payne is, essentially, a pretty regular third-person isometric shooter. The basic gameplay has you simply walking from room to room and blasting anyone who gets in your way. To eliminate your enemies, you'll have a pretty good arsenal to work with. You'll start with a pistol, but you'll work your way up to a Desert Eagle, submachine guns, an assault rifle, a pair of shotguns, Molotov cocktails, and grenades. But your biggest, most useful weapon against NYC's scumbags is a little feature known as bullet time.
Bullet time is a reflex-enhanced state that Max can enter at will. It's essentially slow motion, though you can move around a bit faster than your enemies when things slow down. It's best used in conjunction with a "shootdodge," which is a John Woo-like dive that lets you avoid enemy fire while dishing out some hot lead for your foes. Your use of bullet time is governed by an onscreen hourglass that drains as you use it, but each time you kill someone the meter gets a little more juice. Bullet time and constant diving are essential tactics in Max Payne, as your enemies don't miss very often when you're standing up.
While Max Payne is a pretty faithful conversion of the PC original, it isn't entirely without problems. The most crippling problem is that you'll often get shot--immediately upon entering a room--by enemies who aren't even onscreen. This happens quite a lot over the course of the game, and it makes the basic strategy for success one of diving the second you enter a room and busting off some random shots in all directions, hoping you can hit what you can't even see. This gets annoying pretty quickly and really drops a wet blanket on the proceedings. Even so, expect to cruise through the game in around four hours or so, once you've become accustomed to the controls. Finally, the isometric perspective makes it difficult to judge where you are in relation to the objects and enemies of your world. So you'll sometimes appear to be safely hidden behind a pillar only to suddenly catch a gauge blast to the face from an enemy that, from the looks of things, shouldn't even be able to see you.
Graphically, Max Payne is fairly impressive. The characters in the game appear to be polygonal, and they're set against a decently detailed prerendered background. You'll see some blood splatter against walls when you take out enemies, but it's the same pattern every time. The game tends to be a bit on the dark side, even on a GBA SP, though an in-game brightness setting helps a bit here. Either way, playing on a Game Boy Player is highly recommended, as it can be easy to miss things like doorways and important items when playing on real GBA hardware. The game usually moves pretty well, but it bogs down a bit in large areas or in areas with lots of enemies, both living and dead. This means that you'll get used to one run speed, and then you'll move into a smaller room and see Max running noticeably faster.
Max Payne GBA sounds roughly the same as the bigger versions. You'll hear the familiar sound effects for explosions, gunfire, painkillers being used, and so on. The game has an impressive amount of speech in its cutscenes, and the voice work is expertly done. The game's music, however, isn't very good. The game basically bounces between two tunes: one for when there are enemies in the room with you, and one for when the area is clear. The weird, bongo-laden music is catchy, but the repetition gets annoying fast. In a nice touch, everything slows down and lowers in pitch when you hit bullet time.
All in all, the GBA version of Max Payne is technically impressive, but its gameplay flaws really get in the way of the excitement. It's a good shooter, and it's neat to see a pint-sized Max Payne that manages to squeeze in so much of the original game. Unfortunately, the game's problems make it more of a curiosity than a game worthy of the Max Payne name.