The early 2000s were a unique and special era for videogames. For the first time, 3D graphics hardware enabled developers to set games in relatively realistic environments; there were greater opportunities to experiment with lighting, higher resolution textures, and more detailed models. At the same time, games generally stuck with relatively simple, accessible gameplay - unencumbered by the layers of complex systems that typify many of today's "AAA" projects.
This period saw the release of several favourite games of mine; not only Return to Castle Wolfenstein (2001) but a number of third-person action titles like Urban Chaos (1999), Oni (2000) and Rune (2000). Of these, the one I've returned to most often is Remedy Entertainment's peerless classic Max Payne, released in 2001 - the original, and frankly best, playable action movie.
A-Grade B-Material: The Story
Working in a juvenile medium, developers have often drawn inspiration from movies, and few genres have more commonly caught their eye than the action film. Max Payne, however, was the first game to provide a true action movie experience - and part of that is due to its pulpy, B-movie storyline, perfectly suited to Remedy's visceral gameplay.
Max Payne weaves together an unusual combination of influences to great effect - film noir and Norse mythology. Max himself is a vengeful cop, following a trail of clues in a corrupt New York City in the grip of a fearsome snowstorm: a clear allusion to Fimbulwinter, the ceaseless winter than precedes Ragnarok in Norse myth. In search of those who killed his wife and infant child, Max assaults New York's criminal underworld, but then encounters in turn a covert government project, a rogue corporation, and a secret society. This sense of escalation is reflected in the gameplay, as Max's enemies shift from two-bit criminals, to mercenaries, to "killer suits" armed with the latest weapons.
Much of the tale is relayed in an unusual comic book style, narrated by Max in a distintive hard-boiled prose rich with florid similies. It may be a fairly crude film noir pastiche, and the comic approach may not mesh perfectly with the game's overall aesthetic, but it's a thoughtful alternative to the primitive in-engine cutscenes of the time.
The Core of the Rotten Apple: Level Design and Gameplay
Like Return to Castle Wolfenstein (released just a few months later), Max Payne was one of the most technically impressive games of 2001. Remedy used their own short-lived proprietary engine, MAX-FX, to create a succession of beautifully seedy locations in their vision of a fallen New York. Within the opening levels, Max visits a disused subway station, a bank under attack, and a succession of sleazy tenements operated by the deranged crimelord Jack Lupino. While the interactivity of these environments is fairly limited, they have the feel of real places - crucially, without compromising gameplay.
Max Payne is a challenging game, but its controls and systems are simple and intuitive. Max can jog, jump, crouch, and roll from side to side. He has two slow-motion moves which are crucial to survival: a limited "bullet-time" mode which is replenished by taking out enemies, and a "shootdodge" to help get the drop on foes. While the game has long drawn comparisons with The Matrix, it's clear that the films of John Woo were the true inspiration (the Hong Kong director is referenced by name early on).
Every gunfight in Max Payne is exhilirating in its own way and the wide variety of weapons are action movie staples which have very different qualities. Like Half-Life before it, the game makes heavy use of scripted events to surprise the player and change the dynamic of battles: in one early level, Max bypasses a locked door when two of Lupino's thugs inadvertantly detonate a bomb planted by their enemies in the Russian mob.
All Guns Blazing: Sound and Visuals
Key to the unsettling atmosphere of Max's New York is the strong soundtrack provided by Kärtsy Hatakka (of the Finnish band Waltari) and Kimmo Kajasto. There is a good balance of downbeat and more action-oriented pieces, with influences from techno - highlights include "Whack Him" and the particularly memorable "Byzantine Power Game". The sound design is also impressive, with guns each having their own distinctive, aggressive effects.
The MAX-FX engine was only ever used for Max Payne and its sequel, but stands up brilliantly today. Some aspects of the game are dated, including Max's much-ridiculed model (based on Remedy's Sam Lake) and the blocky cars and trucks. However, the texture work is very strong for the era and Remedy clearly made good use of their research trip to New York, during which they took reference photographs - just as Grey Matter did for Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
The consistent visual style helps tie the disparate New York locations together, so that a decaying slum and a palatial mansion feel part of a cohesive urban environment. Particularly impressive is the early part of the game, where effective use of textures help Jack Lupino's various sleazy premises feel like a flowing area, despite being separated by loading screens and level transitions.
Dead on Arrival: The Legacy
A huge success on release, Max Payne had the potential to be a major ongoing franchise - but it was not to be. Perhaps owing to its poor promotion, Max Payne 2 was a surprising commercial failure in 2003 and the series was put on hold for many years. By the time Max Payne 3 was released in 2012, Rockstar Games controlled the license. Sadly, the third game was less a playable action movie than just a plain old, unplayable action movie - it was saddled with endless cutscenes to cover for the technical deficiencies of the console hardware it was developed for.
Max Payne was truly groundbreaking in its combination of exciting gameplay, distinctive themes, and an engaging story which placed players within a truly playable action movie world. The extremely poor 2008 movie badly damaged the series, and Max Payne 3 departed radically from the core gameplay, but it's still hard to bet against Max making another bullet-strewn comeback, one day.