Hall Of Fame: Max Payne
Welcome to the sixth entry in our Hall of Fame feature, which is a feature that sort of makes its appearance whenever it feels like it. Or rather, when I get off my lazy behind and do it. Well, this time we’ll be looking at the Max Payne series, which I still consider today to be two of the best action games in gaming history. Note that I said two there, and not three, but we’ll get to this later in the feature. So let’s kick off the latest entry in the Hall of Fame feature with another amazing trip down memory lane.
That’s right. We’re bringing the nostalgia, along with history’s greatest gaming legends.
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As per usual, we’ll look at how this series began. It all started out in late 1996, where developers Remedy Entertainment created the idea of a “3rd person action game” they wanted to make after just completing their first game, Death Rally, a top-down racing game. Their third person action game was to be inspired by Loaded and the huge success of the Tomb Raider games, although Remedy rather humourously stated that they wanted to avoid Lara Croft’s “horrid camera system”, but of course at this point it was all in the talking stages still. When speaking about this action game’s concept, story and script writer Sam Lake said that for him “the starting point was this archetype of the private eye, the hard-boiled cop”, and that this character concept would be used in a game with “deeper, more psychological” story. Still pretty much incognito, a prototype of the game as well as a design document of the project, flying under the names Dark Justice and Max Heat, were created and shown off to 3D Realms, who were impressed enough to sign a development deal, which meant the green light was given for production to begin. This was the beginning of a long road to gaming glory.
For a little side story here, just for interest’s sake, Remedy later made a bit of an inside joke in Max Payne 2 with the titles Dark Justice and Max Heat, as they featured as a TV show and porn film respectively in the game. No, you didn’t get to watch the porn film in the game.
Anyway, your perverted thoughts aside, three years later in 1999, the game designers made a trip to New York city (Remedy are from Finland) to research the city and get inspired for the game’s setting. They took thousands of photos of NYC for mapping and environment inspiration. It’s a common mistake today for people to believe that Max Payne was inspired by The Matrix, which released in 1999, naturally because of the use of slow motion, bullet dodges and the bullet time feature itself, which was the game’s main action selling point. However, Max Payne was actually in development long before The Matrix released, with the concept arising in 1996 as mentioned earlier. However, it was inevitable that similarities were to be drawn, and as a result Remedy cleverly played on them to capitalise on the hype, paying some tributes to the film, such as the introduction to the level “Nothing to Lose” starting out similar to the famous lobby shootout scene in the movie. Remedy used their own game engine, the MaxFX engine which was in development since early 1997, and this engine was only ever used for Max Payne and the sequel. Even more interesting, is that Futuremark, the company that licensed the MAX-FX graphics for their 3DMark benchmark series, included a lobby shootout as a game test in the 2001 edition of the game much like the Matrix scene. You can see why this and The Matrix are often linked.
The hype started to rise for the game when its first trailer was revealed at E3 in 1998, and the game gained widespread interest because of its innovative content, its dark story and action-packed gameplay as well as its visual effects like the engine’s particle-based system for smoke and gun muzzle flashes. But the producers at 3D Realms stated they were making a purposeful effort to avoid over-hyping the game, so the team behind this game definitely had their marketing heads screwed on properly. Unfortunately, while Max Payne was meant to be released in 1999 during the summer, it fell victim to repeated delays until it was majorly revamped in 2000, mostly with updates to its graphics with emphasis on more realistic textures and improved lighting, and the game’s proposed multiplayer mode was completely dropped. The game finally saw its release on PC In July of 2001, which PS2 and Xbox releases in North America following in December that same year, but only in 2002 in Europe.
Max Payne was released to universal critical acclaim and ended up winning a ton of awards including many Best PC Game awards and Best Story awards, even coupled with a few Game of the Year Awards, and all the praise was definitely deserved. Max Payne was not only an insanely awesome action experience, but also featured an extremely compelling story with amazing dialogue and characterisation of the protagonist. Many fans and critics heavily praised the game’s fully voiced over comic panel cutscenes, which drove the story forward instead of real-time cutscenes. But what’s very interesting about this is that as a development choice, it wasn’t strictly a style choice. Remedy found that comic panels were not just more effective, but also cheaper to use than fully real-time or animated cutscenes. However, Remedy also revealed some artistic choices for it, stating that comic panels forced players to interact and interpret what they were shown in the panels for themselves, and “the nuances are there in the head of the reader […] it would be much harder to reach that level with in-game or even pre-rendered cinematics.” For something else of intrigue, Remedy also felt that it was easier to shuffle around and reorganise comic panels in case the story needed editing during development.
There’s a lot of awesome facts you may not know about the original Max Payne that makes me just want to rant forever, but naturally I’ll have to keep it to the interesting stuff strictly. Some of you may know that most of the elements in the game are given names from Norse mythology. For example, there’s the Valkyr drug , which in the game is a military steroid that turns people into adrenaline-junkie killers who experience vivid hallucinations of death. Now, in Norse mythology the valkyries were women warriors, watching over battlefields as the “choosers of the slain” who took those that died with valor. Another cool one is The Aesir Corporation, which is the primary source of the Valkyr drug in the game, and got its name from the main pantheon of Norse gods, the Æsir. Probably my favourite one is that the powerful snowstorm that engulfs New York City in the game is actually a reference to Fimbulvetr, which is basically an epic winter that came before Ragnarök, the Norse version of the apocalypse. There are a number of other interesting ones used in the game, but I won’t mention them all.
As a game Max Payne was truly excellent. With exciting rambo-powered, Matrix-like action, plenty of weapons and a license to kill, it was hard not to have a blast. I played this game again last year and I still love the hell out of it. The mechanics are simple, yet work flawlessly. You aim, you shoot, you kill. At the press of a button you can slow the whole world down by entering bullet time, and the meat of the gameplay was executing stylistic dives and rolls to avoid fire, take down enemies in awesome ways and get in and out of cover seamlessly. This was where bullet time was born, or if I’m wrong in that then it’s certainly the game that popularized it. And the best part of the game was the phenomenal, dark and mature story and writing, which was so incredibly compelling that often enough the gameplay itself felt like a platform to get to the next comic panel cutscene. It was one of the rare games where the setting perfectly complemented the narrative, and the gameplay hardly set a foot wrong at all. And who could forget those creepy dream sequences that popped up when Max’s psych took a plummet?
Did I mention that the music for the game, which was composed by Kärtsy Hatakka, is just stunning? I honestly consider Max Payne’s main theme, as well as its sequel’s revamped version of it, to be one of the best game soundtracks I’ve heard. It’s chilling, sad, beautiful and perfectly fitting.
The main criticism was directed at the game’s lack of replay value, due to the linear story and lack of multiplayer, but I found this silly since tacked on multiplayer has no place eating up development time for a game as amazing as this. So to that I simply answer with a smile-worthy Max Payne quote.
“I might have laughed, if I had remembered how.”
Max Payne 2: The Fall Of Max Payne
There were some interesting changes that took place during the journey to Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Firstly, on December 5, 2001, Take-Two Interactive released a press release to announce its purchase of the Max Payne IP from Remedy Entertainment and Apogee software, and it also revealed that it plans to release a sequel to the original game. On May 22, 2002, Take-Two announced that a fee had been agreed with Remedy and Apogee to develop Max Payne 2, and finally on September 3, 2003, Take-Two announced that the game would be released on October 15, 2003.
Before getting into the actual game, some other game changes are worthy of notice. The character of Max Payne, in the original game, was modelled after the story writer Sam Lake, but for Max Payne 2 his apperance was remodelled after Timothy Gibbs, a professional actor. They used the same voice actor, James McCaffrey, for the character though. Perhaps the apperance change was made to make Max look older, which worked. Lake returned to write the story, and decided to pitch it as a more personal journey for Max Payne, and to be a film noir love story, which would be fitting of the character’s personality. Lake had high ambition for the story, hoping it would break new ground in gaming, saying “at least it’s a step into the right direction. I’d like nothing better than to see new and unexpected subject matters to find their way to games and stories told in games.” The writer also stated that the basics, and archetypal elements in film noir that are found in many genre classics “can go a long way” when telling a story, and some examples of this include a hostile, gritty crime-filled city and a setting of heavy rain and night. Lake thought of writing a Max Payne sequel as an “art of it’s [sic] own”, because the setting and characters had already been established, so the sequel’s main aim was “to keep what’s good and fix what was not so good”, and to surprise players with the story direction. The result was that Max Payne 2’s screenplay was essentially three times longer than the original game.
Max Payne 2 used a heavily upgraded version of the original game’s engine, and while it only supported up to DirectX 8.1 at its release, it was able to imitate graphical advances found in DirectX 9 with use of effects such as reflection, refraction, shaders and ghosting. That last one is used in something like Max’s distorted dreams, where the screen is all blurry and out of focus. Character models were significantly updated, with a wider variety of facial expressions. Max Payne 2 also used the Havok physics engine, and Remedy chose it because according to them it was “hands-down the best solution to our needs”. The physics engine was there to complement the action scenes “with increased realism and dramatic, movielike action”. These advances featured in places like taking cover, which note you had to do manually since there was no actual cover system, and bullets could cause objects to topple over, forcing you to get cover elsewhere. Weapons like grenades could also remove cover.
The famous Bullet Time mode was also vamped up to “version 2.0″. Players could now use Bullet Time for longer, and this was done so players would be encouraged to dive into dangerous situations rather than coward out behind cover at a safe distance. The new Bullet Time also brought in an awesome, stylistic reload where if you reload while firing and moving, Max would spin in an arc, instantly reload his weapons and you could continue firing without missing a beat. Another feature was that if you reloaded during Bullet Time while on a single spot, the game would dramatically slow down, Max would duck to avoid incoming fire, and the camera would spin around to show you the area and allow you to think what to do next and see how many enemies remained. Remedy and Rockstar Games, who helped in development and publishing, made development tools available to players, allowing for modding. Modders could add new weapons, skills, characters, surroundings and perspectives to the game.
It’s very disheartening that despite the game releasing to widespread critical acclaim, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne sold poorly, which resulted in Take-Two Interactive referring to the “continued disappointing sales of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne” as one of the reasons for the company’s reforecasted sales for 2004. But financial jargon aside, Max Payne 2 was an amazing game, once again grabbing many awards. It retained the signature gameplay of the original, but improved on it in the few areas it could, as well as increasing the pacing and the rate at which you acquired new weapons. Again, the game hardly had faults, but a common complaint was levelled at its short length, and personally even though I was left wanting more at the end, when you have a game that’s this damn good and an ending so perfect, impacting and lasting, I can’t really see much reason to complain.
The story was undoubtedly the game’s biggest highlight. The brilliant setting, theme and writing made a triumphant return, and the thing I personally loved best about Max Payne 2 was the journey, the main character’s journey to rediscovering meaning in his life, and reason to continue living it. To this day, the game’s powerful and beautiful ending (I don’t care if you call me gay) still stays with me, and it’s about as true a moment of clarity and finality as you could hope for in an ending. It was definitive, it was perfect, and it just left you with silence. It was over, and it couldn’t have ended better. Sure you could alter the outcome somewhat by finishing the game on the hardest difficulty, but the impact of the ending was the same either way, just more rewarding if you finished it the bonus way. And another thing to never forget about Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was the remixed version of the original game’s soundtrack. It was a vast improvement, and a theme I still carry around with me and listen to now.
I honestly have no words left to say about this series, other than that you should play it if you haven’t before. It’s obvious to see from all this how obsessively in love with the original Max Payne series I am. And it’s a sure tragedy then that I heavily disliked and criticized Max Payne 3 from Rockstar for a mountain of reasons. To the point that I feel it doesn’t come anywhere close to being as good as the original two games, and doesn’t really deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. But I’ll get to it below. For now I’ll just end this with a personal favourite quote of mine from Max Payne 2:
“The genius of the hole: no matter how long you spend climbing out, you can still fall back down in an instant.”
Max Payne 3
I’ll talk about this game’s development and backstory, but I won’t really go deeply into why I believe it’s unworthy of being part of the original series because I said all I needed to in my review of the game, which you’ve probably ignored or began hating me personally after reading. But I stand by what I said in it. Max Payne 3 was a good shooter with flawed mechanics, but it’s unfortunately nowhere close to the original series in story, writing, setting, atmosphere and characterisation. What I will say is that for me, as obsessed with the original two games as I am, it’s easy to see where the problem began. Max Payne 3 wasn’t made by the original developers Remedy, and it wasn’t written by the series creator Sam Lake. Rather, the lead writer was Dan Houser, who wrote for Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto IV and Bully. Now, those were great stories, but as you can see they’re Rockstar games, and the result was that Max Payne 3 felt blatantly like a Rockstar production, and not at all like Max Payne. And most importantly, the series ended perfectly, and there was zero reason to continue and worsen it.
Max Payne 3 enjoyed a rather disturbed development process. It was originally meant to be released in late 2009, but it was delayed to 2010 along with other Take-Two Interactive franchises in order to “benefit from having more development time.” However, in June 2010, the game was yet again pushed back, this time to 2011. Worse, was that in December 21, the game didn’t feature on the 2011-2012 calendar year, and as a result was delayed once again. I’m sure you’re seeing the pattern here. When people began feeling like it was a lost cause, Rockstar released two new game screenshots, confirming that the game was still in development and not cancelled. On September 8, 2011, a little backwards, Rockstar announced that the game would be released in March 2012, and a debut trailer was put out on September 14. But in January 2012, Take-Two delayed the game for the millionth time, but this time only by two months, pushing it back to May 2012, and according to the publisher this was done to “ensure that Max Payne 3 delivers the highest quality.” Whew, that’s one roller-coaster ride.
Since the game released this year, and I put my thoughts in the review, I don’t see a whole lot of reason to go on further, because it would be redundant and this is already the longest Hall of Fame feature I’ve written. I’ll just say that if you don’t care about the original two games, never played them or you don’t care about Max Payne as a series, the story, writing, characterisation and setting as much or as obsessively as I do, then you’ll no doubt love Max Payne 3 and think it’s the bees knees. But as for me, this is not the Max Payne I love, but it is a good enough shooter on its own.
And that brings this Hall of Fame entry to an end. The original two games will always be remembered as epics, both in gameplay and story, and as two of the finest experiences you can find in gaming that get everything they do just right, but the third entry from Rockstar will most likely be forgotten by the time the next cool action shooter comes about, or by the end of the year. I think of this series as two games.
True to form, I’ll end this with a Max Payne 2 quote I particularly like.
“Death is inevitable. Our fear of it makes us play safe, blocks out emotion. It’s a losing game. Without passion you are already dead.”