… Let’s all head back to Roscoe Street Station for that bullet-dodging, slow-mo jumping, classic, Max Payne…
I’m not sure where my recent retro-mood has come from, but being at a bit of a loose end for a couple of evenings last weekend I scrolled through my Steam library looking for something to delve back in to and was warmly greeted by an old friend: Max Payne. The original PC outing was developed by Remedy studios and released back on 2001 for PC before being ported to a number of consoles and spawning two sequels, but it is the original game that has its own special place in my personal gaming hall of memories. I first played the game at a friend’s (who had significantly more PC horsepower than me at the time) house around the time of release but didn’t get my own copy until the PS2 port some years later. A quick search will tell you that 2001 was a darn-tootingly good year for gaming and with Max winning the BAFTA for best PC Game (this was at the time when games were shoved into the main BAFTA’s in the interactive media category) it must’ve been a standout title in a standout year.
For those not familiar with Remedy’s troubled hero, Max Payne follows the story of undercover New York Detective… Max Payne; his life is already draped in the tragic murder of his wife and child which serves as the hard hitting prologue to the game. Max heads undercover into the seedy underworld of organised crime to route out the source of the new drug Valkyr. He ends up untangling this web of crime and corporate corruption which takes place in one night as the city is battered by a severe blizzard. It’s into this world that I once again decided to dive last weekend and uncharacteristically streamed the event on Twitch (because, you know, who’s streaming Max Payne these days?). I was joined for much of the ride by TriformTrinity who managed to be supportive despite my multiple attempts, specifically one section where I was trying to just enter a building.
It’s a game with a few standout features that were pretty unique at the time and the reason that it was so heavily praised upon release, however my revisiting threw into sharp focus that were it not for those unique facets Detective Payne’s adventures are housed in a mundane vehicle. Taking off the bells and whistles leaves a pretty standard third-person shooter. Max’s movement & aiming feel a little sluggish by modern standards and selecting a weapon feels overly laborious as the player must scroll through the menu and hit fire to select the weapon despite its name appearing in the corner of the screen at the scrolling phase; this resulted in a quick-load more than once as I fumbled my way in to a fight. The levels themselves are largely linear and consist of little more than ‘enter room, kill bad guys, rinse & repeat’. Even the environments suffer from repetitiveness as Max spends a good chunk of the first chapter in and around apartment buildings with identical hallways, rooms, stairwell, and rooftops.
So I’m sure you’re eager to know what those more unique facets are that clothed this run of the mill mannequin. First up the plot is akin to a dark Film Noir detective story and was filled with adult themes (whatever that means – I’m an adult and I’m rarely involved in murder and drug pushing), something that maybe isn’t worthy of praise in itself, but the comic book inspired frames that convey the narrative are both well done and distinctively stylish. It’s also worth noting that they didn’t hold back in the dialogue and it reads as though the writers were competing to see who could come up with the most ridiculous stretched metaphor for Max to growl out in those gravelly tones. Max’s tragic story is also captured in a few playable dream sequences which are both chilling and unique for the time; I remember the first time I played through one of these late at night and being haunted by the sound of the baby screaming. The inclusion of these nightmares, and importantly forcing the player to take the reigns for them, managed to foster an empathy between the player and the character they were controlling in a way that few similarly styled game up to that point had managed.
Of course the big gameplay feature was the inclusion of Bullet Time (this was the first time the term had been explicitly used in connection with a game) that allows the player to drop the action into slow motion whilst retaining aiming speed. It results in some great cinematic moments as the player leaps into a room in slow motion and takes-out several enemies before hitting the floor. Unfortunately the mechanic also made the game surprisingly resource hungry at the time of release as each projectile was modelled and could be seen cutting through the air in these slow motion gunfights whereas most other shooters at the time used simple hitscan. Even going back now it feels pretty cool, although I’m certainly less blown away by it that I was the first time I saw it happen. Landing on the ground with the thump of time returning to normal without managing to clear the room is still an embarrassing scramble to your feet as you try desperately to take out the stragglers and running out of slow motion credit (earned by taking out enemies) at a critical moment is often a death sentence. The legacy of this gameplay breakthrough can be seen in the many titles from the early 2000’s that also contain a slow motion mechanic and the Sniper Elite bullet chase cam was undoubtedly inspired by the same feature seen in Max Payne some years earlier.
Ol’ Officer Payne also featured one of the first instances of “Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment” (DDA); in short the game would tweak the enemy difficulty up or down depending on how well the player was doing. The exact nature of this adjustment is never disclosed, but anecdotally it seems to involve turning up enemy health and accuracy the longer the player survives and visa-versa if they die too often. This all sounds great on paper, the idea was to keep the player feeling as though they were just scraping through whilst allowing them to progress steadily regardless of their actual skill level. Unfortunately coming back to this game after so many years I discovered that far from being a subtle mechanic to keep the player in the sweet-spot, you really can feel this adjustment happening. The system just doesn’t seem to work quite as planned; at the lower difficulty levels Max builds up a stockpile of painkillers and ammo which helps the player stay standing for longer as the difficulty ramps up. Finally the player runs out of painkillers but by this point the enemies are near invincible until a room of mobsters causes a gameplay roadblock with the only option to keep diving in and failing until the difficulty drops back down to something manageable. This cycle continues throughout yo-yo-ing nauseatingly from easy to hard and back again.
At the time Max Payne deserved every ounce of praise it received; it delivered some novel features and gave us a fresh take on the classic shooter. Unfortunately the harsh light of today doesn’t do it any favours and maybe that’s just because the games that Max inspired have been taken the ideas it introduced to bigger and better places leaving poor tragic Detective Payne looking quaint by comparison. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy revisiting it, but I’ve no desire to see that revisiting through to completion; a couple of hours of diving in slow-mo, picking myself up, and diving again are more than enough to remind me what it was all about. Max could be one of those games best left in rose tinted memories.