Max Payne is a third person shooter that tells the story of... Max Payne (duh), a New York cop who's living the American dream with his wife and baby daughter, until one day everything turns sour as Max arrives home to find them both brutally murdered. Max is not only left with the agonizing pain of the tragedy, but also with little clues about who committed the crime. As if that weren't enough, Max is also framed with a crime he didn't commit, and now his quest will focus not only on finding those responsible for the murder of his family, but also the ones behind the crime he's being held responsible for, who unsurprisingly, are very closely related. There will be plenty of twists and turns along the way, and at times it will be difficult to keep track of who you're going after, but the story is told with plenty of style and always gives you a clear sense of purpose.
The story is told in graphic novel style, not unlike most comic books, and not only does this give it a unique feel, it also keeps it more in line with most of the game's over the top dialogue. At times the dialogue can feel a bit cheesy (Max's reaction to his family's death is certainly goofy), but as the game goes on it grows on you and eventually you'll fall in love with it. It also helps that there's some legit humor thrown in the way. At the times the game will acknowledge or even mock itself, such as during one dream sequence of Max, where he describes the feeling of being trapped in a graphic novel or a computer game as "horrible". The humor also shows up in most of the "cutscenes" (though cutscene is not really an appropriate name for them), as well as in some funny conversations between enemy guards, not unlike in Monolith's No One Lives Forever. It's too bad that there are very few of this funny conversations scattered through the game as they're legitimately funny and give the thugs a bit of personality.
And if the storytelling is great, the action is even better. Max Payne was the game that introduced the concept of "bullet time" (which has now been copied to death), and it's this element that elevates the shooting in the game from great, to legendary. Bullet Time essentially slows down time, giving you a better chance to dodge incoming bullets as well as shoot more accurately. Not only is this effect insanely cool, it's almost a necessity in many of the game's bigger firefights. The game does a very good job of implementing this concept without unbalancing the combat in your favor. You have a bullet time meter that slowly depletes as you enter bullet time, and in order to refill it you most kill enemies the hard way, so it's likely that you'll want to keep your meter mostly filled should a big firefight await, which in turn makes you carefully think your combat strategy.
Max Payne is essentially a series of thrilling shooting sequences laid out one after the other, but on a few levels the game will throw you in a different situation, such as dream sequences or maze like environments. While this sections do change the pace, they're not exactly enjoyable. The dream sequences in particular feature parts where as you struggle to find the right path you can easily fall off the edge towards an instant death. Rather than keeping the gameplay fresh, this sections only add some unnecessary frustration. Fortunately those sections are fairly short and only show up on two or three occasions, so they're definitely no deal breakers.
The graphical presentation of Max Payne is superb. The game does a tremendous job of capturing the gritty visuals of modern New York. The environments are heavily detailed, and despite the grim look, they're easy on the eyes. Also, Max Payne was one of the first games to feature relatively destructible environments, something that elevates the level of immersion, since rooms that have been host to a firefight will be filled with bullet holes, as well as torn up objects. The sound is also superb. Every weapon in the game's arsenal sounds appropriately powerful and the sounds during "bullet time" are even more amazing. As mentioned before, the voice acting can be somewhat cheesy, but it does the job alright. The game's soundtrack is also pretty damn good, as it elevates the tension during most gunfights.
Max Payne is a modern classic, a game that everyone should enjoy. It's been the source of inspiration for many latter games (some great, others not so much), but as usual, the original always stands out. If you like thrilling gunplay and great storytelling, you'll find just that in Max Payne.