Stop! Bullet Time! (U Can't Touch This)
It was the 27th day of July - a Friday, and it was hot. It was the kind of heat that turns good fans bad, circulating hot air around the office like an endless stream of the dragon's breath. We were all sweltering, but it was business as usual, and business as usual meant not much business at all. We wondered if anything could pry us from Lady Monotony's vise-like grip.
Then he walked in.
It was police officer (and developer Remedy's newest baby) Max Payne. He charged into the office like a rabid hyena on steroids. He was spouting some crazed, insane babble about Valkyries, drugs and being set up. None of it made any sense to me, just the inane rantings of a desperate insomniac. But before I could escort him to the door, he shoved me to one side and leapt into the CD tray of our innocent computer.
I wasn't gonna stand in his way. After all, Remedy says his whole life was ripped apart in a New York minute - whatever the hell that means. All we knew was he looked rough. Or maybe he just smelled something foul. His face was contorted like something hurt bad, the kind of pain that can only come from a diet of reheated Nacho Belle Grandes and endless cups of 7-11 coffee. But even still, we couldn't turn him away. The man was on a hell-bent, by-any-means-necessary (yet extremely short) mission to right wrongs. Max wanted revenge, cold and sweet, but he needed our help.
Max made it onto the GR hardrive without a hitch, but completely disagreed with my Seagate 28Gig HD at home. Why? The jury's still out on that one. Just know that Remedy's tech support is only open Mon-Fri, 9-5 Eastern time. So we advise against installing Max over the weekend.
No more than five minutes of gameplay had expired before I realized what Maxwas babbling about when he stormed the GR office. Gorgeous and atmospheric story boards ala comic book graphic novels, complete with sequential panels and word balloons filled with pulp detective dialogue, grace the segments between the intense action and graciously compliment the game's gritty noir feel. Definitely a pretty way to present a story, which ain't half bad.
The pictures describe the brutal murder of his wife and baby daughter, an intricate setup for the murder of his partner and some new drug called Valkyr that is plaguing the streets of New York. It's all connected somehow and had funneled into a narrow, bullet-riddled mental causeway that is Max's singular obsession...and now ours.
Once the initial graphic novel sequence passes the first thing that immediately draws attention is the mouth-watering visuals. The adherence to realism and meticulous detail is simply amazing. The textures are some of the best we have ever seen - hands down. They're vibrant without being too colorful to detract from the game's dark, brooding atmosphere.
Plus, the level of destruction and incredible object interaction is enough to make a grown man cry. For example, when a stray bullet bites into a wall, the tiles crumble apart like a crisp Frito under the leaden heel of your neighborhood game geek. And it's not just walls - paper, boxes, bottles, water coolers, glass windows, wooden staircases - every surface and object reacts appropriately when met with speeding hot lead. A true technical achievement!
While his visuals are outstanding, Max's gameplay is relatively status quo for a third-person shooter. Most of your time is spent running and gunning through virtual New York's realistically designed levels and buildings, dealing hot projectile death with the game's multitude of weapons (from a baseball bat to pistols to machine guns) and picking up ammo and painkillers from fallen foes.
But where other games simply go through the paces, Max Payne offers a new technical innovation that has to be seen to be believed. Welcome to the John Woo-esque,Matrix inspired ballet that is shoot-dodging and bullet time. These are two of the coolest and most stylistic features to be introduced to the action genre since the polygon.
With a press of the right mouse button while standing still, time is slowed down to a snail's pace for a few seconds, but moving the cursor and aiming remains in real-time. The result is a beautifully executed tactical advantage for you, Max, and the vendetta at hand. It gives you a few extra seconds to dodge or target your foes. Move in any one of the four main directions (forward, back, left and right) and press the right mouse button and Max will perform the classic shootdodging maneuvers (jumping sideways and forwards or flying backwards with guns blazing) that have made Hong Kong and now US action movies so popular.
A meter indicates how much slow motion time you have and can be replenished by dispatching more baddies. Both of these tricks are quite handy when faced with numerous enemies. We just wish the odds were better stacked against Max in order to force you to shootdodge and bullet time your way through more areas.
The end result is incredibly cool and leads to some of the most startlingly cinematic sequences in town. Imagine entering a room with three bad guys, jumping up on a table, then slowing time down as you leap sideways in the air, rotating your body to unload a few shotgun shells into the bastards. Their bullets whiz over your head (you actually SEE the bullets)....but yours find their mark. The bullet-time ends, the dust clears, and the carnage has been wrought. Awesome.
Many of us were concerned how the control would fare in this new environment. Well, relax - moving Max around is a simple affair. Anyone familiar with the first-person shooter genre will instantly run and gun with ease. Yep, our boy Payne is manipulated by the now standard W, A, S and D on your keyboard and aiming is handled with the mouse. Easy peasy!
The sound is fine, but not stellar. Often Max's voice sounds like it's coming from some remote location other than the character. Weird! Many of the guns didn't have that bassy boom that commands your enemies' attention. Maxcould learn a lot from an old fogey like Counter-Strike. On the flipside, the voice-acting is very good, and, when coupled with the cool music, complements the dark atmosphere.
And then there's those annoying platformer elements. We don't want to spoil anything, but man, is it lame. Frankly, we'd rather be shooting and dodging, slowing down time and emptying clips into the well-modeled bad guys. The platform bits just seem thrown in to break the monotony, and it still feels like a waste of game space.
Which isn't to say that more varied gameplay is a bad thing. In fact, it's too bad Max doesn't offer more variety. There are no vehicles to hop into and drive around New York or really anything else FUN to break from the running and gunning (again, the platform parts aren't particularly pleasing). It's just a straightforward third person shooter...albeit overflowing with technological brilliance.
Sadly, your adventure with Max will be over before you know it. It took us between 12-15 hours to complete the whole game. That's really short considering how long it took them to make the game.
This also means that the replay value is suspect. Completing the game leads to harder difficulty settings and the cool but tough 'New York Minute' mode. Here the player has to motor through each level with a clock counting down from 1 minute. You need to kill baddies to obtain more time. It's pretty intense, but it's still just redoing the same levels in the same order with the same sequences over and over again. And since there is no multiplayer, you better get used to killing those CPU bad guys.
Replay value is upped due to the built-in level editor, but it's just not as easy to use as advertised. It might be simple enough for veteran designers, but most gamers will find it daunting and unwieldy. I don't doubt many of you tech-philes out there will figure it out, though, so expect the mod scene to explode in the coming months. Can you say Matrix mod?
While not without its flaws, Max Payne is a must-have for any PC action gamer. It looks simply unbelievable, the gameplay and control is easy and intuitive, and the bullet time makes it the premier action game on the PC. We've entered a new realm here, people, and I can see the spoon.