Max Payne: The Art of Storytelling.
Graphics: 9 (beautiful yet gloomy however you need a powerful PC to view this marvel)
Sounds: 9 (quality voice acting / background noises that sounds real / stylistic musical scores)
Value: 6 (short yet pretty compact / all difficulty modes locked during your first run yet the 'New York Minute' mode is a good incentive to play it again)
Tilt: 9 (depressively entertaining)
When I read the ye ole cliché of a 'fugitive undercover cop' or 'a man with nothing to loose', it kinda wears me out as I heard of these premises about a trillion times before in all forms of media. Now add the promotional 'innovations' like bullet time, adjusting difficulty level and storytelling 'graphic novel' style, I cannot help being pessimistic. Well, pushing that aside for a brief moment when I scored a copy of Max Payne cheaply, I loaded it up and after a few splash screens, something already sparked my attention.
The opening musical score was indeed haunting yet intriguing. It was a simple tune with the piano being the main piece with a slight hint of bass, drums and the keyboard. Now add to this a cold, snowy New York night, you will begin to feel the coldness of this game – emotionally and physically. And if that's not enough to stir your emotions, the opening scene (for which I will not tell) immediately encompasses you into the world of Max Payne – the man with nothing to loose. With all that in mind, my main objective was to finish off the game, for Max's sake.
The game play can be described as a third person shooter. However, that in itself is a misdemeanour as there are many elements that make Max Payne worlds apart from other shooters. One of them is the 'bullet time' feature which forms the heart of the game. This enables Max Payne to enter a slow-mo state whilst your aiming is at normal speed. It's akin to I guess when you enter the 'zone' where your alertness is on full alert. However Max doesn't have this bullet time feature forever and only gained when disposing his foes. Gaining bullet time is in the shape of an hourglass and once the glass is empty, Max cannot enter bullet time; so its time to kill some more foes. So to activate bullet time is a simple right mouse click and watch the bullets zoom.
Another feature that sets Max Payne apart is the game's ability to adjust the difficulty on the fly. This one is extremely hard to gauge as I'm not exactly sure what this means. However, once completed the game then read developer 3D Realm's take on this, I applaud them on how subtle it was. What it does is that it gathers data 'behind the scenes' of the amount of deaths, hitpoints and many others therefore determines your gameplay. Once that's done, the game, in a very subtle way, assist your aim and incease the amount of damage ditched to your foes. So there's a good chance that the player won't be frustrated yet challenging enough.
Now, looking in hindsight, I can recall this couple of times as in chapter one (of the three in total), I was owning the planet however the second half in chapter two, I was getting owned yet in chapter three, it was quite easy. Maybe because the weaponry I was using then were quite powerful but in a nutshell, the adjusted difficulty served its purpose, subtle enough to make the game challenging enough for the player. This feature is not unique to Max Payne as racing games used this however, failed most of the time due to the opponents' rubber band feature when you are in the lead or they slow down when you are behind.
Sadly, with all these cool features, there is a sour point and that's the level of artificial intelligence (A.I). Well, to cut to the chase, there's little of. Granted some will hide behind covers or throw a grenade at you however it's actually scripted. Don't believe me then replay the scene again and you'll witness the same action. In addition, I have seen many times that the scripted event (like throwing the grenade) will actually kill him instead; or if Max throws a grenade / molotov cocktail at the enemies, they will just stand there, willing to take the full brunt and then scream to their deaths. There is no excuse for this silliness as games like Half Life, the AI are very intelligent – well to the point that they will run away from a grenade attack or throw one because they can.
Another sour scripted event is the AI spawning from out of nowhere. I'm don't mind linear games however when doors are locked then suddenly burst open some five minutes later, doesn't fair well with me. Or when you nuke the entire area only to climb a set of stairs to the next landing, then suddenly a hoard of men rush up from behind you, places a quizzical thought. I'm sorry but that's truly dumb and quite surprised from a quality product. Maybe that's the developers' idea of a challenge however for me, it's just plainly stupid. Save that for Quake / UT99 as that's what those games are designed to do. And lastly, why on earth Max cannot crouch and move at the same time?
The graphic novel approach when telling the story is very effective, especially giving your eyes a well deserved rest after mowing down enemies prior. Yet, according to the blurb that this is the first of its kind, well it's not as Strife or ZPC – both are released in 1996 used this. However granted though, it's very effective as it also uses a voice over narrative. Well written and spoken, it effectively sets the dreariness as Max searching for his unanswered questions. Yet, the storyline beyond the comic strip is a little cliché, but with abundance of metaphors, you have to admire writer Sam Lake's creativity. To those who don't know him, he was also the lead writer for his recent project Alan Wake; and yes the format is very similar between the two – heck even the title is similar; Max Payne / Alan Wake.
Considering the comic strips are beautifully and stylistically hand drawn, the game is also a masterpiece. Max himself moves fluently and detailed, with New York, or as Max refers to it as 'Noir York', filled with graffiti, cracked walls, sleazy joints – stuff that tourism groans about, displays the murky side of this grand city; like reflections of Max's outlook to life. Yet, you will also witness clean, crisp office blocks and locales showing off the strength of New York as a financial power. But to view this work of art, at the time of release, even the most beefy PCs will groan – but heck if you have the hardware, it's all worth it. Thankfully though, there are many graphical options to tailor this visual feat.
The sounds are also top-notch from the drone (yet effective) voice acting of Max Payne to the stereotypical (but not overly painful) mobsters to down-trodden folks adds immersion. Heck, even the mundane sounds of creaky floorboards, toilets flushing, subtle murmurs and so forth will, from time to time, make your head turn to see if it's actually right behind you. And as mentioned before, the musical scores are beautifully composed to set the noir feel.
Considering there are only three chapters and each consists of approximately eight parts, the game is not terribly long. And because I am known to take my time, I knocked this off around the fifteen hours mark; so I guess an 'average' user can finish this off less than ten. Granted that there are additional gameplay modes however all are locked during your first run. So once completed, the next difficulty unlocks then the final. So it's kinda weird you need to play the game three times to unlock all the difficulties as I cannot fathom why not unlock all from the get-go? Yet, on your second run, the 'New York Minute' mode unlocks which basically to complete the mission within a set time limit. Well at least this feels like playing a different game.
Max Payne is truly the art of storytelling. Right from the start, you will feel the pain as Max seeks the truth about why his 'American Dream' fell into tatters. If a game does this well, it will become memorable for a long time to come as you are not playing the game, you are experiencing it. Now to add to this the many innovative features like bullet time (yeah, yeah it's from the movie 'Matrix' however no game has done this effectively at the time of release) and on-the-fly adjustable difficulty (as after all, we all play differently), Max Payne stands way out from the ever-so-saturated shooters genre.