Last night, I started playing through Max Payne on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. Returning to the 2001 game after so many years reveals a smart and surprisingly funny game full of experimentation. And, of course, kickass bullet-time gunfights.
I first played Max Payne in junior high when my friend Dan brought the CD-ROMs over to my house in the summer. It’s hard to explain how shocking the game was; I’d never seen anything so dirty or gleefully violent. Max Payne’s New York was a caricatured shanty city of crumbling row houses, snaking underground tunnels, and secretive gangster bars. Everyone slept on grimey mattresses and had several guns under their pillows. Max Payne handed you a Desert Eagle, some John Woo magic, and let you to dive right in. Replaying it last night, I was struck by how much that feeling has endured. Max’s one man crusade against the mob is as teeth-grittingly awesome as I remembered.
A lot of that has to do with the combat. It’s tempting to look back at bullet-time, the game’s special slow motion ability, as a gimmick that led to far too many imitators. But it’s the center around which the rest of the game revolves. It’s not just a power-up; it’s an incredibly smart tool for managing the game’s pace. Much of this has to do with how fragile Max is. This is a punishing game, even on the default difficulty. Playing it like a normal shooter is a recipe for disaster—Max dies in three to four hits, and enemies come in deadly groups. Bullet-time is an equalizer, an on-demand state of demi-goodhood that turns the most unfair encounters into brilliant puzzles. The average Max Payne gunfight lasts about ten seconds; smart application of bullet-time expands those sudden encounters into miniature blood operas. It feels like running a stunt crew, practicing over and over until you finally get the perfect shot.
It creates a dramatic mood that’s complement by the cheesy story. Max’s overly verbose inner monologues—replete with mythological allusions and musings on the American Dream—come hand in hand with overacted scenes full of childish gangsters. The villains are dopes, silly criminals in oversized suits and horrible New York accents. Every mafioso feels like a rejected Dick Tracy stooge. The contrast is spectacular; Max’s lyrical ramblings clashing with nasally taunts that would make my extended Italian relatives roll their eyeballs right out of their skulls. Max Payne’s mixture of neo-noir slapstick is unique and refreshing even now.
The first game offers a strong roadmap for the rest of the series. The rest of the series shifts from Max Payne 2’s playful deconstruction to Max Payne 3’s self-serious character study. It works because Max’s tough guy persona can be molded to fit nearly any story type and narrative need. Hard-boiled sane man, self aware video game protagonist, and redemption-seeking madman. He can be all of these things in equal measure and it never seems strange. His excessive gun battles fit into nearly any video game frame, manifestations of a frustrated soul wandering from genre to genre. He’s fantastic.
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Daily thoughts from a Kotaku staffer about a game we’re playing.
I hope to play through the entire series by the end of the year, and I couldn’t be more excited. Max Payne’s high-pulp embrace of video game cliches is unique and worth remembering. I don’t think there’s been anything else like it. At the very least, no one’s done it this right.