Better Late Than Never - Max Payne

Many moons ago, I wrote a hub discussing the biggest games I'd yet to play. Well, I managed to get around to one of them: Remedy Entertainment's Max Payne. In this new feature, I'll document my experience playing the big games I missed the first go-around and see how they hold up - minus the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

Let's start with the plot. Max Payne is a straight-laced detective who returns home one day to find his home broken into by drug addicts who brutally murder his wife and infant daughter. Between the shrill cries for help and the bloody image of Max's slain child, it definitely holds up as one gaming's darkest introductions. I should point out that the narrative is presented in two ways: in-game cutscenes and comic book-style panels. The latter, while admittedly goofy today, do help reinforce the noir graphic novel feel. I just wish you could skip the in-game cutscenes like you can the comic panels as I hated having to watch a long scene repeatedly in tough areas.

Anyway, turns out the junkies were high on a drug called Valkyr, which is rapidly spreading throughout the city. Let me quickly say that I saw the Max Payne film when it hit theaters and exhaled in relief that Valkyr's effects in the game weren't represented by the outrageous Valkyrie imagery from that train-wreck. Three years pass and Max more or less becomes The Punisher: a no-nonsense enforcer of justice who has just has much blood on his hands as the criminals he's sworn to eradicate. His quest is to trace Valkyr to the source and eliminate both it and those responsible for creating/distributing it to ensure the tragedy that befell his family never happens to anyone else. The story is a checklist of well-worn noir crime elements (the mysterious dame, the morality-challenged cop, overwrought self-narration, etc) and outside of a strange chapter where Max infiltrates a secret underground military base (huh?), it's a respectable tribute to the genre.

Max Payne became famous for it's Bullet Time, a mechanic that slowed gunfights down to a crawl, displaying the trajectory of each bullet and allowing players the chance to stylishly and efficiently . It was satisfying in 2001 and still entertains in 2014. Regular gunplay, on the other hand, is an imprecise mess. Without any sort of iron sight or lock-on, aiming boils down to shooting everyone in your general direction. Thankfully, enemies seem to have garage-size hit-boxes, so wildly emptying clips like Yosemite Sam usually gets the job done. There are many sections that overwhelm with enemies to the point that Bullet Time is almost required to survive. Since things move so slowly, my patience wore thin of having to constantly spam it during those hectic firefights.

Cheap deaths are annoyingly common and the most infuriating and recurring element was death via an explosion. Whether it's someone lobbing a grenade from a blind-spot, firing a rocket launcher from a hidden vantage point, or stepping into an ill-placed laser-wire mines, most of my game over screens were plastered with Max's body either sailing rag-dolled or engulfed in flames. Seriously, there were times I would enter a room and be immediately blown up before I could see who or what did it. It happened so often that I began to wonder if Michael Bay was the final boss. As I said, grenades are the worst as they nearly always fly out of nowhere and blow up too quickly for you to escape it's blast radius. It's cheap, it's irritating, and caused me to end many sessions before I wound up rigging my Playstation with explosives.

Another part of the game I loathed were the platforming portions of the dream scenarios. Throughout the game, Max slips into the memory of the night his family was murdered, allowing players to relive that horrific night and remind them of why they're doing all of this in the first place. I loved these segments for their haunting atmosphere and dark imagery. However, some of them feature bizarre sections that take place in a pitch black void with only a trail of blood to guide you to the exit. In actuality, the trail is a wafer-thin platform and slipping off forces you to start over. Max isn't exactly Ezio Auditore; he feels slippery and his animations are sensitive, with the slightest nudge sending him over the edge. What sucks is that it's practically a maze and trial and error is needed to determine the proper path.You also have to put up with the sound of Max's baby bawling the entire time. The last of these sections amps that effect about 100x as falling causes the baby to let out a LOUD shriek that scared the hell out of me.

Despite my problems, I had a good time with Max Payne and I'm glad I was finally able to experience it. Max Payne 2 is in my future so that I can play Max Payne 3, which I've heard nothing but praise for. Max Payne hasn't aged nearly as well as other titles, shooters in particular, from the PS2 era, but it still holds up well enough for late (and patient) newcomers like myself to have a decently fun time.

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