Martin Scorseses film, Raging Bull, opens with a boxer in the ring, moving with grace as flashbulbs explode in the distant crowd. Jake LaMotta, the films main protagonist, is pulling punches at the air—just warming up. His movement is simply graceful in slow motion, yet we all can sense that the act of boxing itself is lighting quick and aggressive. Now, jump to another film: Mission: Impossible 2. All right, so its not the best action movie to cite by director John Woo. But it also has signature moments of slow and poetic motion with the contrast of intense action.
Consider, then, a technique in editing that is used in commercials, trailers and films far too often now: accelerated or high-speed action abruptly shifts into slow motion, or vice versa. Its a simple technique and only takes a few steps with any non-linear video software. Its definitely more interesting, however, if one experiences a similar manipulation of time in a game rather than just film. Enter Max Payne.
Max Payne is the child of Remedy Entertainment, a Finland-based developer that was formed in 1995. After creating a PC racing title in 96, Remedy moved forward quietly and created a graphics benchmarking utility some of us may know as "Final Reality". Later, they went onto develop another piece of benchmarking software that PC gamers got a kick out of when they first downloaded it: 3Dmark.
Remedys history in developing benchmarking software resulted in the creation of Max Payne. The impressive if not solid graphics demos within Final Reality and 3Dmark beckoned to be used within an actual game. So naturally, Remedy moved forth with a design. While good graphics and artwork might make a game a notch better, Remedys designers drew inspiration from action films to come up with elements they thought would give their game an edge.
Apparently they decided to do two things. One, tell the story through comics. Two, introduce something that would make the action more breathtaking and intense than it may really be. After seeing ads with bits of phrases including "framed for a murder he didnt commit" and "nothing to lose", I could feel some sort of cliché plotline evolve before this game was available in stores. I knew I would be in for some action, but of course I had to be highly skeptical, considering all the enthusiasm by the public. Once I installed the game, I was ready to see if Max Payne would live up to so much hype that had been generated by fans and press alike.
Max Payne starts off with a cutscene, in-game. Later, though, the story is displayed through illustrations in the style of a graphic novel (in panes complete with text balloons and sound effects written out for effect). His present situation reveals him to be a good cop gone bad: blackmail, his wife & childs murder by drug abusers and a conspiracy have pushed him to become a vigilante. Within a few moments, his recollection of how it all started becomes the staging area for the beginning of the game—on the streets of New York.
The action in Max Payne is essentially divided into two styles. In the first, you run about normally throughout levels as you would with other third person games. Max Payne attempts to be different, though, by offering the ability to dodge enemy gunfire through enhanced reflexes. This is where the second style of play comes along: fighting in slow motion.
Remedy Entertainment didnt shy away and claim that theyve come up with a fresh-new idea for the genre from scratch. Inspired by "The Matrix", "Bullet Time" is the name for an ability in Max Payne that reduces the speed of gameplay so that bullets can be seen along with trails, giving the player the ability to avoid getting hit. Although everyone including Max moves in slow motion, I had the ability to aim his sights as fast as I normally could. I was able to avoid damage by a thread while being able to take down multiple enemies in one sudden dive when time was decelerated.
Using Bullet Time is a matter of skill and conservation. Without a doubt, it looks very cool to punch bullet time on and fly through a room with the attitude of Chow Yun Fat. However without enough practice, what might seem excellent at first will result in some horrible maneuvers. Often I looked like a fool as I ran into a room in bullet time only to dive against a wall and avoid absolutely nothing. My frustration thankfully vanished as I became accustomed to the controls and levels, "shoot-dodging" with calm fluidity. Its quite possible that you could play through the entire game without using bullet time. But Im pretty sure youll be restarting from your last saved game too often.
Both aesthetically and aurally, Max Payne satisfies. Snow falls on the drab streets of New York with the surrounding ambience of traffic and sirens in the distance. During Bullet Time action, bullets stream by Max and strike concrete walls, filling the air with dust and debris complemented with the muffled sound of slowed gunfire. Although the game has migrated to Playstation 2 and XBox flavors, Max Payne still holds up relatively well. Its obvious that its graphics arent as recent as its next-generation console counterparts, but it definitely remains good-looking on PC.
Max Payne is certainly not a first-person shooter, but there are several things that make it a rather "distanced" third person shooter.
First, while there are cut scenes at various action-intensive points in-game, the bulk of story is exhibited through comic illustrations, revealed one pane at a time, with rich narration and sound. These narratives do provide a nice breather from the action, but I feel that they detract from an experience that could otherwise be more involving. Interacting with key objects in the game (a note left on the table or a photograph Max notices, for example) takes the player away from the level and into the comics. Taking a break from the action and switching to 2-D illustrations certainly emphasizes "third person" in the greatest sense. At any given moment I could be "in the zone" in the middle of a gunfight and Id come upon an object that would simply stop the action and bring the illustrations and narration. I feel like Im robbed of my enjoyment too suddenly and told to wait. Its not only because of the break in the action—its because Im taken away from the level entirely. Once the narrative is finished, it puts me back where I was, however Ive already lost my energetic streak from the action right beforehand. My adrenaline rush ends.
Second, the levels themselves dont seem to flow as smoothly as I would expect. While there are moments of silence in between the most intense fights, the action itself can be frustrating. Unlike other shooters where I usually survived areas of action the first time I encountered them, Max Payne did feel like a testament to "trial and error" game play. Ive spent a good deal of hearing "Its Payne!" repeatedly after several failed attempts to survive. Dying over and over in specific locations was not uncommon. This game is clearly tailored for those who are willing to master it and not just for any gung-ho gunner.
Repetition can best describe the experience of going through Max Payne. Ill enter a room and face death if I am unprepared. Reload game. Go in with bullet time and take care of baddies. Repeat with next room or similar location. It just doesnt flow smoothly for me: diving and dodging becomes boring over time.
Interestingly, the game tries to offer a refreshing change of pace away from the main narrative of the game several times—when Max experiences flashbacks and hallucination. In these, the levels become labyrinths in dream sequences of sorts. Frightening and disjointed from the rest of the game, they were a nice shift from the usual backdrops. Still, when returning to the "regular" scenarios throughout I realized that the game could have done without them.
Many gamers and press have hailed Max Payne as an amazing, breakthrough title. Personally I have to disagree. It has its moments, but the action is divided so much that I often lose my motivation for playing when things get quiet for too long. Like other shooters I have experienced I not only felt the same way about its closure but I also felt that the game as a whole didnt seem to take me along for the exciting ride that I had hoped for. It certainly possesses some of the best visuals I have seen for a shooter of its kind and the concept of Bullet Time indeed separates the game from others in the third person genre. In the end, however, Bullet Time and Hong Kong style cinematic action doesnt do enough to make me feel completely involved. Because play between Bullet Time and the regularly paced action is so distinct the game loses its flow and, as a result, points as well.
Like Woos Mission: Impossible 2, Max Payne's style may be well presented, but the substance itself is a bit thin. Hopefully, if there is a follow-up to Max Payne, well see something more akin to the great works of Scorsese: gritty and rough but also graceful, well-paced and meaningful throughout. What editing techniques work in film and television may not be the best devices to use in a game. Bullet Time seems to create additional hurdles in the games design that will need to be conquered. Max Payne is a decent experience, but it isnt the awesome shooter that many people are claiming it to be.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PC version of the game.