Max Payne can feel dated and unbalanced in 2011, but this dark noir adventure still packs some very intense shootouts.
The best part of Max Payne is its stylish presentation. Most of the game's cutscenes are made up of photos that have been modified to resemble the frames of a comic book, complete with speech bubbles and written sound effects. Though the models are sometimes too expressive for their own good and the dialogue can be a little hokey, these graphic novel interludes are still very cool, setting an effective film noir tone for much of Remedy's adventure. There were points during Max Payne's campaign where getting to the next cutscene became my primary motivation for playing - an impressive feat is given that the actual story isn't that great. The plot (which deals with rogue cop Max Payne's efforts to get revenge for his wife and daughter's deaths while New York is savaged by a massive winter storm and a new designer drug) starts out as a solid (if cliché) crime drama before descending into silliness in its last half, with villainous drug companies, government conspiracies and self-destructing underground laboratories all making unwelcome appearances.
Max Payne can be a punishing experience. The game initially limits the player to a single difficulty setting (which apparently makes use of an adaptive difficulty system, though I found it tough regardless of how many times I died in a level), with harder difficulties available for subsequent play-throughs. Max is a pretty fragile video game hero, making the use of bullet time to take out enemies (who are extremely accurate in real time) a virtual necessity. Bullet time isn't infinite (you earn it by killing enemies), but I rarely found myself depleting it, despite using it at almost every opportunity. Even with this slow-motion advantage, though, the game is never less than hard. This level of difficulty can make for some very tense and engaging gun fights, but it can also be very frustrating (with plenty of immersion-breaking pressing of the F5 and F9 keys) and sometimes unfair. At one point, I blasted a standard enemy in the chest with a shotgun at point-blank range four times before he died, only to have my entire health bar depleted thirty seconds later by a shotgun-wielding thug who was standing dozens of feet away. Likewise, Max will take tremendous amounts of damage from mobsters' grenades and Molotovs, but his own explosives will sometimes fail to injure enemies who are actually standing in the flames. I don't mind a challenge (I love many one-hit-kills games like the original Ghost Recon), but Max Payne feels downright unbalanced at times. Additionally, some of the game's scripted sequences are too dependent on trial and error (such as an escape from a burning restaurant) while others fall flat (including a sequence where you stand still behind a statue while a helicopter shoots at you harmlessly for several minutes). There are also two levels that have you playing Max Payne's dreams, and while these have moments of inspiration (including a fourth wall-breaking bit in the second one), they're bogged down by some really tedious platforming and mazes. As much as I love the idea of these playable nightmares, the game definitely would have been better off without them. On the other hand, I did like the level of environmental interactivity - little details like turning on faucets and listening to television broadcasts do a lot to help immerse the player in Max Payne's dark universe. Additionally, though the story is all but collapsing by this time, the pace of the game picks up significantly in the last act, introducing powerful assault rifles and larger groups of enemies.
Given that it was released in 2001, Max Payne is a very nice looking game. Detailed textures give the environments an appropriately gritty look, with the snowy outdoor sections painting a particularly grim picture of New York. The slow-motion animations during bullet time are also well done, and the game features some meaty explosions. My only real complaints in the graphical department are the total lack of facial animations paired with some very silly facial expressions for Max Payne. Payne's usual smirk only serves to make him look severely constipated, leading to some unintentionally hilarious moments in the rare in-game cutscenes (fortunately, the camera remains locked behind Payne's head during gameplay). Audio-wise, Max Payne contains some strong voice acting and sound effects. The music is also good, though certain themes are repeated a bit too often.
I have lots of other little issues with the game (having to walk into a door to open it is awkward and dangerous, the level design is as linear as any Call of Duty title, etc.), but I really don't want to give the impression that I didn't enjoy Remedy's product. For all its frustrations, flaws and dated aspects, Max Payne was still an involving experience for the vast majority of the eleven hours it took me to complete it.
+ Stylish comic book cutscenes establish a great noir tone
+ Slow-motion bullet time looks and plays great
+ Good sound effects and voice acting
- Punishing difficulty can make some parts more frustrating than fun
- Trial and error dream sequences don't work
- Story becomes goofy in its second half
Reviewed on 7/17/2011