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!