You feel that tingling in your mind? That feeling that you forgotten something, yet this sense of nostalgia tingles inside you and never goes away? That is the feeling of games from your past, games that are now obscure from the public eye. Some are herald classics, others are better left in the landfill, but while they are no longer in the public eye, they still live on in some way. Each week, I plan on embracing that nostalgia, so to speak, and review one of these forgotten games in a series I like to call “From The Well.” This week, we look at Max Payne.
Storytelling in video games is a rare art form, since it is an entertainment media it is hard to convey a mature, coherent story sometimes for even the most impressive of games. Sometimes, however, the storyline well crafted, emulating the old time screenplays with near perfection, and the right amount of tension, release, and exposition to carry it along.
Max Payne is easily one of the few games that have an impressive, if not by the numbers story. That, coupled with standard gameplay with a twist, great presentation and a strong voice cast, makes Max Payne a small diamond in the rough, so to speak.
The game stars as the ironic title character that was a cop in New York, framed for the murder of his wife and child. Now driven over the edge, Max goes deep into the New York underbelly, fighting his way through criminal flunkies, mob bosses, and the occasional crooked cop. To help Max is his intuition, his never-ending drive to find and kill the murderer of his family, and some painkillers to keep him going.
The games hallmark is its noir style storytelling, told through exposition and dialogue from Max’s point of view. It is somber, very adult and entertaining to watch, hear Max’s inner struggles and witty retorts with those around him. It is also a very cinematic game, using artistic vignettes that read like a comic book, complete with thought and speech bubbles and in semi-monochromatic tones. The game totally excels here.
And it transcends into clever levels within the gameplay. One level is a dream like sequence where we relive the twisted and haunting image of Max finding his family murdered. It is a short level where you don’t kill anything, but enthralling from the story’s point of view, and an innovative use to immerse you in the gameplay, and is the highlight of Max Payne.
Sadly, everything else is by the books. You go from point A to point B and you need to kill everyone in your path. The game is violent, bloody, and slightly over the top. Your literally killing your way through waves of poor A.I thugs to kill the person responsible for the death of your family, which is not very cop like, but makes for a good game.
There are other oddities as well, such as the first, and definitely not last, use of the bullet time mechanic. It was a great innovation that in retrospect was pretty cool in enhancing the action from the game, but seeing as to how it has been regurgitated into numerous games afterwards it obviously works well in Max Payne. And we can’t forget the painkillers Max takes to gain extra life in his shootout sequences, but the pill-popping cop is an old hat at this point.
The game does suffer from poor level design and mediocre graphics, though. Every level is kind of bland, except for the few gems such as the aforementioned dream sequence, with similar corridors with similar looking bad guys shouting similar obscenities over and over at you. You also have poor graphics due to the fact that this was an early Playstation 2 game, right around the first three years of the systems life cycle. And the technology limitations at the time show, rather heavily.
The sound however is well done, with gloomy music and fantastic sound effects from all the guns, bullets and bodies being dropped in agonizing pain at full audibility. And as I stated, the voice acting was, at the time at least, one of the best recordings you can hear.
So overall, Max Payne is similar to Psychonauts, as the games story literally compensates for weak or poor gameplay choices. The game is a short, single player romp with a weak difficulty curve and fantastic mood, and while it would be hard to justify a purchase of a game like Max Payne, it should not be overlooked either. Storytelling in video games is still young, but Max Payne is evidence of the potential that games do have in broadening the horizons of the gaming industry.
Final Score- B