A Lesson In Payne

HIGH Bullet time shoot-outs in noir noughties aesthetics.

LOW Platforming challenges

WTF This game is my age – and now I feel so old.

Max Payne comes from the perplexing minds of Sam Lake and Remedy Entertainment. Released in 2001, it’s often hailed as the earliest example of a third-person shooter to reach technical, commercial, and critical success, and in addition, it introduced the world to “Bullet Time” – a mechanic that slows down time, allowing the player to have a more cinematic experience while preserving the overall flow and engagement in the process. Its invigorating narrative has also stood the test of time — let us dissect this title, on the twentieth anniversary of its release.

The noir tone of old detective movies hangs in the frigid New York air while rudimentary musings of Norse mythology are smattered throughout the narrative in a soup that feels both savory and sour. Set against the New York skyline, the graphical presentation has aged poorly, but the vision of what was being aimed for is still alive and well. Every design decision makes it clear that Max Payne is alone – he’s a man in the belly of a beast eager to consume him, and that sense of dread is something many horror titles fails to elicit in me.

The gunplay is refreshing — in the modern age of heavily-planted shooters, the constant leaping and shooting in bullet-time is a sensation I never knew that I needed. The sheer thrill of leaping in mid-air and turning someone into Swiss cheese remains consistently engaging without losing its shine, especially in levels with open areas that encourage experimentation. Aiming is inaccurate since bullet spread isn’t consistent, which will be problem in some levels that require precise inputs — these may result in moments of frustration.

The story is as intriguing as the gunplay is as engaging. What starts as a simple revenge tale escalates into a larger, more complex web of intrigue involving the Mafia, drug epidemics, and military conspiracies wrapped up in the bow of a secret society. My only nitpick here is that someone with even the most elementary knowledge of Norse mythology can pick apart the script’s threads long before they’re ostensibly meant to be revealed. However, many of the payoffs ultimately land well, which is a testament to the writing.

One thing to note, however, is that the narrative comes via comic book panels which are an exercise in efficiency and camp. The facial expressions are a tad amateurish which gives an unintendedly comedic tone, although for me it was a neat juxtaposition to the script. The voice acting also gets a bit exaggerated, but it left me with a dry smile.

However, while the gunplay and script remain strong, Max Payne features some ill-advised platforming sections, and they are awful. The “Harbor” mission in particular runs counter to the overall feel of the game with claustrophobic level design and a verticality means that enemies get the drop on Max before he’s aware of their presence.

Twenty years later, Max Payne certainly shows its age but remains a singular third-person shooter with strong narrative and style. Coming to it now, I can easily see why so much ink has been spilt over it during the past two decades — happy birthday Max Payne, and welcome to Club Twenty.

Rating: 7 out of 10

— Fumo Chabalala

Disclosures: This game is developed by Remedy Entertainment and is published by Rockstar Games. This mobile version is currently available on iOS and Android. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on an Android Phone – Nokia 5.4. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Blood and Violence.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game does not offer subtitles during gameplay but does feature them in the comic book segments. In-game audio does notify players of enemies during engagements, but there are no visual cues that will alert the player pre-emptively, so this is something to keep in mind since enemy spawn locations are less than ideal in most circumstances. However, there are visual cues for clues, and whenever the player is hit, a red flash of light will inform them of any damage. This game is not fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: Yes, this game offers fully remappable controls.

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