Updated 2001-07-27

"I felt thin as death. I had been living on an endless supply of week-old donuts. They were fuel for this crazy furnance inside my head. I couldn't remember when I had last seen the Sun. I was on a permanent graveyard shift.

"When the darkness fell, New York City became something else - any old Sinatra song notwithstanding. Bad things happened in the night, on the streets of that other city: Noir York City."

- Max

A game, developed by Remedy Entertainment, released July 27, 2001 after years and years of development. It's a shooter (from third-person perspective) with absolutely stunning graphics and visual effects. And they even committed a sacrilege and made a decent storyline...

Also, the name of the game's main character. Max is a former undercover cop, now a DEA agent, who has lost his family and who was framed. Now, he's being hunted by both the criminals and the police... and trying to make sense of the tangled web of crime and violence around him and to find the head of the criminal organization.

What's so special about the game?

Max Payne is a good continuation of the recent trend of making "immersive shoot-em-ups" - the game needs to be credible to be enjoyable. Realistic environment, realistic character (Max is just as vulnerable as everyone else in the game), realistic enemies, realistic weapons... The only cinematic advantage Max has over the enemies is the Bullet Time. (And, of course, save/load. =)

In Max' case, you can really feel you're deep in the darkest alleys of the Big Apple, in the middle of darkest and coldest winter storm in history... hunted and hunting.

The real "innovation" in the game is the Bullet Time / Shoot-Dodge / Cinematic-Shot mode. With the click of right mouse button, everything slows down, but you're still able to aim normally (of course, this works only for a limited time). Imagine several hours of action a la the lobby scene from The Matrix...

Of course, as this sort of thing would not be particularly easy to do in multiplayer mode, the game doesn't have one. However, the game comes with a full set of editing tools.

For stuff, see http://www.maxpayne.com/

Smallish update: Yeah, this is the computer game noir experience. I actually needed to turn the lights off to see a goddamn thing at times. =)

(Yes, I later noticed the brightness control, too - but I do think the game is best played in the darkness...)

Oh, yeah, about the detective story cliches: I llloved them. =)

The storytelling in Max Payne splits opinions. Others find it tolerable or hilarious, some find it absolutely frustrating. One of the factors is probably that MP isn't clearly a serious work or a work of parody, and borrows elements from many sources that some people feel this stuff has no business to be in the storyline.

The story itself is quite dramatic with its good load of crime, violence and murder. Very serious story with serious environment and realistic weapons. Max's style of telling stuff is, however, way too poetic and metaphorical, more so than most detective stories, and just that makes it funny. Some people didn't like the fact how this continued throughout the game.

Anyway, it's like zen: if you need to ask why the story is good, you'll never understand. =)

Meet Max Payne. Movie-style good guy New York cop. Catches the bad guy evil drug dealers. Has a lovely wife and baby daughter. Just quit smoking and turned down a DEA job to put his family first. So, of course, something bad has to happen. And that something does. The game's introduction actually begins at the end of the game with Max telling the story, going into a flashback sequence that starts the game. Returning home from work, Max finds his family slaughtered by crazed junkies hopped up on a new drug called Valkyr. Soon afterward, he takes the job at the DEA he previously turned down and goes undercover. After three years, there's finally a break in tracking down the source of Valkyr... but then more bad things happen: Max Payne is framed and the NYPD sets out on a city-wide manhunt. One of the only two people on the outside that know who he really is ends up dead. The crime syndicate he had infiltrated finds out he's a narc. All as the worst blizzard on record hits New York.

If it sounds a bit cliched that's because it is. There are a lot of film and 'detective novel' style cliches in this game. The narration and dialogue, usually done through brief cutscenes that are like a comic book in appearance, sound like everything you might find in a stereotypical detective novel and for a while this makes some of the storyline a bit cheesey. To be fair, however, by the end of the first part (the game's levels are divided up amongst three main parts) the cheesiness will have disippated and the story gets incredibly good. I can't think of another action game with this much depth to it. Some RPGs can't even compare. Max feels like a real person and he certainly isn't happy.

Gameplay is from a third-person perspective. Many action games from the third-person perspective have had the problem of the player's character getting in the way of the real player's view. Max Payne avoids this problem by placing the camera behind and above the character, so while Max seems smaller than some third-person perspective game characters, he doesn't seem small in relation to the gameworld. This perspective allows the player to see around corners he/she shouldn't at times but, thankfully, there's no clipping problems allowing the player to see through walls. The graphics for this game are amazing. Not only do the gameworld's textures look great, you can see the bullets. The bullets don't somehow immediately impact with their target (speeding bullets are fast but not that fast) and each one actually has a graphic representation that looks like a bullet instead of just a speck on the screen - providing you get close enough to see the bullets. You'll have plenty of time to appreciate these graphics as well as Max Payne features the 'bullet time' effect (somewhat of a cliche nowadays too), usable by the player and in cinematic death shots (killing the last enemy in an area can switch the game into slow motion and put the camera into a view that focuses on his death fall). Max Payne is as much about eye candy as it is plot and gameplay. The creators, Remedy Entertainment, have done a great job expanding on almost all aspects of the game.

For those of you unfamiliar with what bullet time is: Think of any part in The Matrix (or at least the commercials if you haven't seen the movie) where the movie switches into slow motion, bullets glide by close enough to the camera to be seen, and the view smoothly changes to another angle. Max Payne gives the player the ability to switch into bullet time for a brief period of time. There's an hourglass graphic showing how much bullet time remains at the bottom of the screen. Killing an enemy refills the bullet time glass (though you may never go over the top). In addition to this, Max can roll/flip to either side or behind him and when he does the game goes into bullet time very briefly (until he's completed the dodge manuveur) without using any of the reserved bullet time cache in the hourglass.

As impressive as the visual tricks are the levels. Large, complex, and very realistic, Max Payne will take you through the seedy slums of New York and through immense buildings. One particularly noteable level consists primarily of rushing through a restaurant as bombs go off throughout it, with the explosions and flames just at your heels and popping out in front of you. The two drug-induced trip/dream levels are downright creepy, not only because of their design and imagery but also the sounds echoing throughout the level of Max's crying family. The developers spared no expense detailing the levels.

Throughout the levels of Max Payne are the bad guys. Lots of bad guys. Lots and lots of bad guys. The body count by the end of the game must be at least somewhere in the hundreds. The levels don't feel crowded; it's just that thinking back on how many enemies died is somewhat surprising once far into the game (and the game is rather long). Despite the fact that there are plenty of enemies to go around, the AI is actually pretty good. The enemies know their way around the levels, sneak out from around corners, take cover when necessary, and run for reinforcements if needed. Boss-type enemies can take quite a number of shots but aren't inordinately armored. They take enough shots so you know their a key character but not so many that you're left wondering if under their clothes they're really robots made of kevlar. What's really great about the AI in Max Payne however is the auto-adjusting skill level. There are three primary skill levels (these mostly determine how much auto-aim is used and how tough the enemies and their weapons are) but, as you play the game the computer will automatically make adjustments to the skill of the enemies based on how well you play (or how well you don't play). This is one of the game's best features as it keeps gameplay at that wonderful challenging-but-fun level many games can't stay at for long.

The game's only real downside is its lack of multiplayer. This is likely due to the fact that multiplayer would not only not be anywhere near as immersive as the single player version but the bullet time feature would have to be removed. Aside from the higher skill levels, the game's replayability attraction comes in the form of a level editor included with the install and a special play mode called New York Minute. In New York Minute mode, the player is given one minute to complete each level. Each kill increases the amount of time the player has left but it's still pretty hectic.

Max Payne is, quite honestly, one of the best games I've played in the past few years. Remedy Entertainment put a great deal of effort into nearly every aspect of the game and it really pays off. The game will eat you for hours at a time and when you finally stop playing for the moment, the echos of hired guns yelling "Ice him!" and the booming of gunshots will resound in your head. Plus the manual and disc come in a DVD case instead of an evil, easily breakable jewel case!

Platform: Game Boy Advance
Genre: Pseudo-3D Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Mobius Entertainment
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: December 16, 2003
ESRB Rating: M

How can I most succinctly describe what I think of this game?

How about this: I'm glad I only paid five bucks for it.

Max Payne GBA is what happens when a money-grubbing publisher finds itself in possession of a very lucrative game license. In the wake of the success of the original PC version, as well as the PlayStation 2 and X-Box ports, and with Max Payne 2 coming out near the end of 2003, Rockstar Games progressed to the next logical step: Max Payne for the 3DO!

Er, I mean GBA. Game Boy Advance. Well, they both make about the same amount of sense, at any rate.

What's wrong with the game? Let's start with the graphics. Everything has a washed-out look to it; the walls, the characters, even the blood. In Mobius'1 defense, it's very possible that they thought they were working on a Game Boy Color port. Even the storyboard portions have a very bad color depth problem; although the fact that they seem to have simply copied and resized images from the original game doesn't help. In all seriousness, my hypothesis for the shittyness of the game's graphics is that (1) they ran out of space and (2) they ran out of system resources. The first is based on the fact that one of Max Payne GBA's two gimmicks is that the storyboard scenes are voice-acted, just as in the PC and console versions. As you are probably aware, sound files (even at the lowest possible quality) take up quite a bit of space, and a GBA Game Pak only has 32 megabytes to work with. My guess is that the voice acting takes up at least four or five megabytes, which cuts rather sharply into the amount of space that can be used for other aspects of the game (like graphics). Secondly, the GBA's processor runs at a mere 16.78 Mhz, and the handheld has less than half a meg of RAM. Even with its low-quality graphics, the game often slowed down quite noticeably (and I don't mean from Bullet Time). If Max Payne had utilized the GBA's maximum graphics potential, it may have been unplayable.

Next up: How the developer managed to mess up a completely clichéd storyline. If you've played the PC or console versions of Max Payne, then you should know the plot. If you haven't played the PC or console versions of Max Payne, then there's a very good chance you work for Mobius Entertainment. Somehow, despite the fact that 95% of the text was copied directly from the original, they managed to create plotholes and story flaws where none had existed before. My favorite example: when you exit the Ragna Rock nightclub, Vladimir (the Russian mob boss) picks you up and drops you off at Punchinello's manor, telling you, "When this is all over, look me up. I could use a man like you." Trouble is, in the GBA version, this is the first time you ever talk to him. On the up side, Mobius (whether due to space constraints, deadlines, or sheer laziness, I don't know) didn't include those horribly frustrating playable nightmares from the original game, or the level I refer to as "Exploding Restaurant".

Now let's talk gameplay. Maybe I should start with the fact that, for some reason, the directional buttons don't go the directions they're marked. Pressing the buttons in any horizontal or vertical direction move you diagonally, and vice versa. I imagine the thinking was that since the levels had been designed on 45-degree angles, then logically Max's normal directions should be oriented that way as well. Voltaire had something to say about this line of reasoning, but I doubt you want to hear about that.

Remember the Bullet Time in the original Max Payne? Wasn't it cool being able to dodge bullets and aim while everything was in slow motion? Wouldn't you love to play a game where you're like that all the time?


Ay, there's the rub: Bullet Time is a neat gimmick, but that's all it is: a gimmick. Basing a whole game around it is stupid and bound to fail, but - whether on purpose or through sheer incompetence - that's what Mobius did. It is nearly impossible to go through any room in the game without being killed or severely wounded2, unless you're using Bullet Time pretty much any time you encounter an enemy. There are a number of reasons for this: (1) Enemies begin shooting you before you can see them, (2) They have near-perfect aim (running around does very little, if anything, to keep from getting hit), (3) They can shoot in three dimensions and (apparently) through many objects, and you can't, and (4) there is no dodge ability (!) other than the shoot-dodge (which uses Bullet Time). (The only time you do normal dodges is when you run out of Bullet Time. Go figure.) Arguably because of this, Mobius made the enemies pathetically easy to kill (Jack Lupino, the hardest guy to take down in the original game, took a whole 15 or so Ingram rounds before he died) and they give you five "lives" per level (what is this, Sonic the Hedgehog?).

Smaller irritations:
  • There are only two types of background music during the entire game; the title/storyboard music from the original (which is also played during most of the actual game action in the GBA version), and some "action beat" music which is probably from the original, but I can't really place.
  • Objects which need to be "activated" by Max often need him to stand in counterintuitive places, or will only work from one direction but not the other, even though in real life it wouldn't matter.
  • Several times, text from the storyboards would also be displayed in a completely different part, in-game. I chalk this up to laziness on the developer's part.
  • There is no sleep mode (!).
  • There is no mid-level saving. The game will only be saved when you beat a level.

In conclusion, my recommendation is to stay as far away from this game as possible. Either that, or pick it up cheap and trade it to some sucker for Prince of Persia or Metroid: Zero Mission or something. That's my plan, anyway. As for Rockstar, keep on the lookout for their upcoming game: Grand Theft Auto: Downtown Cheyenne.

GBA specs are from mrsid's Game Boy Advance writeup.

1: The game box says that it was developed by Remedy Entertainment. Don't believe it. What they mean is that the *original* game was done by Remedy. The GBA port was done entirely by Mobius Entertainment.

2: The only real exception I've found is that if you're using an Ingram or M4 and the mobsters aren't, then there's significantly less chance that you'll get badly hurt (provided that you aim and fire quickly enough).

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