Tuesday, July 10, 2012
Review: Max Payne
Back when it was first released and I was still too young to know what the fuck was actually going on, Max Payne was definitely one of my favorite games. I just couldn't get enough of going into bullet time and capping mobsters. That's all it was to me back then. Years later, I understood everything and it started to hit more at home for me. Now, this can mean one of two things - either the game will kick more ass, or it will suck ass. This falls into the former. Oh sure, it doesn't make the gameplay any better, but the gameplay was awesome anyway and the story is like that side dish that is just as satisfying to eat as the main dish.
The story is that Max Payne comes home one day from his job as a policeman and finds his wife and daughter murdered. From there, he lives his life wanting revenge on those who killed his family. Three years later, he has to work undercover with the Punchinello mafia family, who the DEA believe is trafficking a dangerous drug known as Valkyr. Remembering that the killers had been high on Valkyr, well, let's just say it's personal, and when he gets framed for killing a fellow DEA agent, he's not even sure what to think anymore. All that ends up on his mind is revenge, and throughout the game, he learns more about the drug and who's really behind it all. It may not sound all that original or great in theory, but the execution more than makes up for it. You'll feel more for Max as the game progresses as he pretty much has nothing to lose and everything to gain, especially when diving into his inner subconscious and monologues that not only describes his current situation, but also reminds you that, well, he has nothing to lose.
So how do his actions speak? Why, with grenades, molotov cocktails, pistols, sub machine guns, rifles, shotguns and sniper rifles aplenty, of course! Anything that resembles a blunt object or a gun is Max's for the taking as he jumps around and shoots down mobsters like a hybrid of Thomas Anderson and John Fucking Rambo, and even though every gun type is fundamentally similar, each of the guns in that type operate a bit differently. From firing quicker to firing stronger shots... it's all that's important during the heat of battle, let's just say that, and at least they're grouped together for your convenience as you select them either via numbers (1-6) or with the mouse wheel. The weapons work as they should - rapid firing weapons and pistols work best from a distance while shotguns fuck shit up in closer quarters, and pistols are basically there in case you run out of ammo for the other guns.
Encounters consist of entering a room and shooting down all the mobsters. The shooting mechanics may not feel as tight as they would in modern shooters, but they still work well enough. However, under most circumstances, just plain shooting isn't the best option, because Max can't take too many hits before dying and painkillers can range from somewhat uncommon to something about as rare as a working copy of Cheetahmen 2. I mean, you can maybe take down one or two normally, but any more, and you'd be fucked unless you have a good amount of room - which is usually the case, but you'd be missing plenty of shots if you run around like a maniac. Oh, and did I forget to mention that unless you quick save after every encounter, you'll be starting back at the beginning of the level after dying? Yep, you create your own checkpoints because Remedy didn't want to. Silly developers.
But come on, the reason you bought Max Payne was because it had bullet time, which was the shit back in the late 90s and early 2000s, and for a game to have done this successfully would be a huge accomplishment. This makes avoiding enemy bullets and landing your bullets onto said enemies a lot easier as time slows down, not only giving you some room to breathe but also time to move the white dot onto them, fire, and hit them. You can either use it while standing still or when you're diving (like a forward/backward/side jump that's more about covering horizontal ground than being up in the air, though there is the option to jump in the air). For the latter, bullet time only lasts until you land, and it's preferable when you need to land those last few shots. For the former though, it's until you click the right mouse button again, and is most useful when you'd rather do as little moving as possible, though you'd do well to keep an eye on the hourglass next to the body silhouette. Running out of time means you can't use bullet time until you kill an enemy, which will recover a bit of it. This forces you to be more strategic with it, because you don't want to be using up too much, and like I said, shooting in real time isn't the most optimal solution unless you're really careful, can move around and shoot or if you're up against like one or two thugs.
So yeah, bullet time is not only well balanced, but also pretty fucking well implemented as while time has slowed down, your aiming hasn't, making aiming and shooting a whole lot easier in the heat of battle, and while you could argue that it makes it too easy, eh, you can still get shot by a few stray bullets and like I said, you can't abuse it because you can only use so much without killing enemies before you can't use it until you kill another enemy. Although that's the full extent of the gameplay, I don't give a fuck, it's still a lot of fun to do. Oh sure, they put in a few little platforming segments, which just have you jump up onto structures, and when they don't feel shoehorned, they're frustrating... simply put, you have to buy an engagement ring for each jump and whichever of the eight directions you're going in. Nope, fuck that.
Although it was no technical marvel even by 2001 standards, the graphics have an ambient edge that will continue to age like fine, fine wine. The dark corridors, the rusty warehouses, the dark sky, the constant snowing - it all feels alive and helps to really suck you into the atmosphere created by the story (which is dark and gritty if you forgot). In fact, I don't think the story would have as much of an edge if it wasn't for the colors and lighting... it'd still be great, but not as immersing. The comic strips - which serve as the bulk of the cutscenes - are the best when it comes to ambience. It actually uses live action shots of the actors and New York City and then they get drawn over with pastel crayons or something, but the way that they're done works pretty damn well, especially when darker colors are used. On the flipside are the couple handfuls of cutscenes using the in-game engine... not that they're bad or anything, but like I said, they're not really great either, and goddamn, these character models look goofy, especially Max, whose face looks like he's about to take a big shit, and their animations feel floaty when Max's isn't while playing the game. Yeah, I'm glad the comic book style is used for the majority of cutscenes because they're the ones that really suck you in.
Ambience doesn't end there - the sound design is fantastic. It's mostly silent, with only footsteps to occupy your ears (and for its credit, it does at least sound convincing). Music only plays when something happens, like fast paced techno-y stuff during action segments to get you pumped up or more sombre, violin and piano driven music during a cutscene that accentuates the sadness of Max's circumstances or the darkness of Max's tale. It works at its best during the latter moments as it really draws you into his tale, but the former is no slouch either, nor is the voice acting. I dare say this is when voice acting started to be taken more seriously, because every spoken line of dialogue, especially from Max, makes it feel like you're really in the game, or like you're watching a really good movie. It allows you to really get immersed into the story as everybody sounds on key. Whether it's the melancholic tone of Max's voice or even the stereotypical mobster accent, you'll be further drawn into the story.
Max Payne is one hell of a game. Whether it's the fun as hell shootouts with the well implemented bullet time mechanics or the dark, gritty and compelling story, there's no way you can deny how fantastic this game truly is. A lot of games tend to excel in just gameplay or just story, and as much as I would gladly take the former over the latter, any game that can nail both and add a lot of ambience to really kick some ass is one that must be in your collection at all costs.
For the record, if you're buying this on a PC and you have Windows Vista or above, you'll need to read through this because if you buy it fresh off of Steam, it'll run like shit. For Remedy or Rockstar to not have done anything about this is a little disrespectful, but at least somebody else took action, so extra thanks to DarkjeThe2nd for making it possible for Vista and Windows 7 operators to enjoy this game the same way we did/would've on Windows XP.
9/10 (Fucking Excellent)