Monday, July 18, 2005

Max Payne

I'd heard conflicting reports from my friends on the original Max Payne over the years, ranging from glowing positives to discouraged negatives and dating all the way back to the actual date of the game's release on the Xbox. This was Rockstar's first venture onto the console that Gates built, (and a relatively hands-off venture at that, as they lendt little more than distribution and noteriety to the game) and landed only a few months after the runaway success of Grand Theft Auto III, late in 2001. It's possible that some of my buddies allowed the open-ended, enveloping style of GTA to set their expectations a bit too high for this unrelated, albeit similarly-mooded, would be follow-up. Then again, it's also possible that they'd seen past that smokescreen and recognized the game as an entity unto itself and just didn't like what they got all the same. Me, I had resigned myself to basically ignoring it until I found it for a pittance in a pile of used games at EB and took a chance. How much can five dollars hurt in the long run, anyway? Well, I was bound and determined to find out.

Undeniably the best thing Payne has going for it is a tremendously effective immediate atmosphere. From moment one, you feel like you're a part of this gritty, grimy, underground world. You're convinced that drippy, rusty pipes, crusty, decaying stone towers and dirty snow are the only constants in your own life, and all of that helps to make the central character, Max himself, much more understandable and sympathetic. All of the little things work together, from the graphics to the storytelling to the various ambient sounds to the characters themselves, to paint this immersive picture of a city overflowing with criminals, corrupt cops, self-centered politicians and very few true good guys. Even Max himself is far from a squeaky clean do-gooder, and seems more like a comedically poetic Punisher than a Superman as he fires out one overly wordsmithed sentence after another like so many dirt-encrusted bullets. Really, Max only distances himself from the guys on the receiving end of his wrath through an admirable drive to discover the truth and a tragic origin, and this lack of any true, identifiable hero works toward that aforementioned greater good, delivering a more realistic setting and allowing the story to take some liberties with its subject that would have otherwise been taboo.

Max's tale plays like a solid motion picture; you come in just as the action gets interesting (a rookie cop living the "American Dream" comes home one night to discover a set of intruders in his house, and fails to gun them down before they slaughter his wife and infant child) and hang around as the anti-hero quickly loses his inhibitions and his mind, accepting an undercover job that predictably goes bad and leaves him cut off in the middle of a criminal underworld that feels he's betrayed them. Things grow more and more twisted and far-sighted as the tale progresses, culminating in Max's discovery of why those seemingly-random hoodlums were really in his house in the first place and just how far up the food chain his hitlist will need to reach in order to achieve any sort of vengeance. The story is compelling, and is always laid out in one of two ways; either through a live-rendered cutscene in between scenarios or by way of a series of narrated, graphic novel-reminiscent storyboards. It's nothing new to see a game featuring speaking parts in the middle of a mission any more, but the paneled storyboard work that serves to bookend each sub-level is an interestingly novel concept that somehow manages to avoid the cheesiness you'd think it would be drowning in. Although the frames themselves are obviously based off of source photography, and that photography looks like nothing more than a half dozen programmers and their friends out goofing off on the streets and occasionally shooting stills for a game they happen to be working on, there's a certain charm to these pages that helps the player to further identify with the events that are going on within. It's a nice break from all of the tense, blood and guts action of the rest of the game to sit back and take in a quick comic book-based scene, even if that scene does happen to involve just as much blood and violence as the gameplay.

As Payne slowly begins to lose friends and brain cells, he also loses his focus on reality and slides into several amazing, if frustratingly tedious, hallucinogenic nightmares and fantasies. These are the scenes that really help to set the storyline apart from its peers, while at the same time dragging its gameplay a notch or two below that universal standard. The world spins hazily and blurrily around you, your field of vision is always clouded by a sort of dizzying grey fog, things seem to move just a little bit too fluidly, and time slows to a crawl... they really are some of the best in-game visualizations of a dream-like state I've ever seen, and are crawling with the same sort of bloody, twisted, hopeless tone that fills the rest of the game. You'll hear the last wails unleashed by Max's wife and the occasional wounded scream of his child off in the murky depths, and the first three or four times they'll send shivers down your spine. Once you find yourself on your sixteenth jaunt through the area, however, they grow more than a little annoying. Still, if it weren't for these little bits and pieces of horror, the game would tread dangerously close to straight action, with absolutely no respite.

Gameplay itself is slick and easy to master, with the first few levels acting as a great primer for what's to come. There's no real "lock-on" mechanism, as is so prevalent in similar games, but there is Payne's infamous "bullet time" function, which makes the process of aiming precisely at a moving target a bit less hairy. If you've seen The Matrix, then you probably already knew what I was talking about when I said "bullet time" and thus don't need a more detailed explanation, but for those who haven't; Max leaps into the air in some sort of dramatic, gun-wielding swan dive, and from the moment he leaves the ground until the moment he touches dirt again, time slows to a crawl. It's the same sort of thing that was employed previously in Conker's Bad Fur Day and made you groan when you saw a CGI cow performing it in the trailer for Kung Pow a few years ago, but is actually handled with some restraint so that it doesn't feel all that gimmicky and truly blends in as a helpful new gameplay element. You get a limited amount of "bullet time" to dole out, (exactly how much depends upon the difficulty level you've chosen) so you're not doing it over and over and over again, and you're given enough control of your actions in the middle of a dive to keep it from being an easy, surefire kill every single time. Besides, all the times you wind up jumping headfirst into a wall in awkward slow motion make it that much more more rewarding on the one or two instances where you'll dive magnificently around a corner, shoot an explosive barrel, take out a dozen guys before you hit the ground, and feel like an untouchable action hero.

Everything else controls pretty much by the books. Max can run, jump, open fire, look around and snipe at any given moment, and anybody who's ever played a third person shooter before could jump right in without any sort of primer to explain the button configuration. There's rarely a moment where you'll find yourself bored with this one, (aside from the aforementioned occasions where the dream sequences drag on a bit too long) as even the genre's more common actions have been amped up with some sort of unexpected, entertaining twist. For instance, if you get a clean headshot off with the sniper rifle, time slows to a crawl and you're rewarded with a slow motion bullet's-eye view of the aftermath. On the occasion Max falls in battle, the camera cuts to a gritty close-up, so you can see the cloud of gunfire that pulled you down, and where the men who killed you were hidden. In general, Payne is just a load of fun, and while occasionally the tasks necessary to complete a stage aren't made abundantly clear, there's usually enough stuff to screw around with on any given stage to keep you from getting too upset. I found myself stuck in an underground stronghold one evening, and having eliminated every living being in sight and tried every door in the area, I just gave up, set a checkpoint (which is another welcome addition; the ability to save your progress at any moment, even if you're taking heavy fire) and passed some time by standing atop a cannister of compressed, explosive gas that I found laying on its side, shooting the top off of it and riding it across the hall to a fiery death. I did this, literally, for upwards of an hour... trying to see exactly how many explosions I could catch on-camera as Max died and the screen performed its spinning tribute to the fallen hero. Of course, I'd been drinking beforehand...

Payne's graphics have long been hailed as a measuring stick of sorts for the Box, and while I'll certainly agree that they're far above the standards set during the N64-PSone war, they haven't aged all that well as this generation's battles near their end. The textures and character animations have become almost run-of-the-mill over the years, and while that may say a thing or two about the game's long-lasting impact on the industry and the trends it may or may not have set, it doesn't necessarily come across that way when played for the first time today. The characters themselves have always appeared to me as though they lacked real weight and mass. They look like scarecrows, especially in profile, with regularly-sized heads and hands, but stick arms and bodies with thick clothes just draped over to give the illusion of substance. The facial textures, while beautiful, don't look particularly professional and feel more like user-submitted skins wrapped around the same body several times over. The constant smirk adorned by Max himself only serves to further reinforce this sensation. The environmental textures that wow you from the ground level don't carry over as the skyscrapers near the roof level, and while that's not something you'll notice in the game's first few levels, later stages take place almost exclusively atop high rises and warehouses, where the poor walls are featured, front and center. Building interiors are sufficiently varied, with little bits and pieces of black humor thrown in like a porno poster on the wall or a hidden video camera facing the bedroom behind a false wall in a seedy hotel, but occasionally distract you with sealed doorways that look identical to the doors you'll need to be breaking open or casually pushing aside as the game progresses. This isn't a bad looking game, but I wouldn't say it's deserving of excessive praise, either. It's close, but the effort and attention to detail seems to drip away as you reach the later levels.

The sound, especially the voice-over work, is very well done. Although the majority of the game is merely accompanied by ambient noise, (and, more often than not, screaming and gunfire) you'll occasionally run into some music or white noise that is particularly effective in setting a mood or getting a laugh. The programs running on the few functional televisions you'll discover are especially funny, and smack of the kind of comedy you'd expect from the various radio stations in modern chapters of Grand Theft Auto. When somebody's speaking, which is really quite often, the voices suit the situations almost shockingly well. Payne himself sports a deep, gritty, exceptionally noir-detective baritone, and pounds out the game's sometimes over-the-top dialogue to terrific results. The random wiseguys and crackheads you run into sound like precisely the kind of villains you'd expect to run into on the streets in this kind of a situation, and the traditional TV and radio newscasters fill their roles more than adequately, as well. Sometimes I have trouble discerning whether this game was meant to be a revival of the noir genre or a parody of it, as the acting varies from extremely camp to chillingly effective, and that's a fun line to walk as the events progress.

Well, I went in with low expectations and what I got in return was an appealing title that would've been worth every penny of a twenty or twenty five dollar investment. Playing a game of Max Payne is like owning a passably good movie on DVD. It's not great, it won't be bringing home any Oscars and it isn't quite my definition of an epic, must-see production; it is solid entertainment for a couple of nights. You'll pop it in once in a while when you don't want to have to think about anything in particular, and it'll deliver a fun time. It's got just enough depth to keep you motivated throughout a long session, but momentarily entertaining enough not to demand your time in huge, six hour bunches. I can see how those who rushed out to pick up their copy on release day were disappointed... this isn't substantial enough a game to justify a full fifty bucks. It's short, relatively easy and overly linear. There's no immediate replay value, despite the ability to unlock a few new modes of gameplay, because they're all essentially applying questionable new rules to the exact same game. It introduced a few new gameplay elements and represented itself strongly in both visual and audio, but just doesn't have that undefinable "it" factor to push it up and above the rest of the pack. Every time the story would take a step forward, the gameplay would take a step back, and vice versa. At this point in its lifespan, and for the price you're likely to discover it for today, I'd say Payne is worth the expense, but I can see why some of my running buddies felt betrayed by it back in '01 when they were expecting another GTA, which is pretty much what it was advertised as, and got a straightforward noir-era third person shooter.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.7

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