Blast from the Past special
FBT goes barmy for Bullettime in this double-bill of slo-mo retro
Max Payne is beyond criticism. It’s like the Godfather, even if you’ve not seen it you still know it’s a classic. But MP’s rep isn’t about it being a good shooter, it was about who was shooting; if Doom and Duke were larger than life badasses who ain’t got time to bleed, then Max Payne was Martin Riggs or Joe thingie from Last Boy Scout; a man who does bleed. Max was a likeable guy turned burn-out who gets caught up in a conspiracy only he can unravel because he has no agenda but kill’em all. But it wasn’t all flawed hero.
The John Woo meets The Matrix gunplay was something else, and I’m not sure it was ever topped. Every game after MP had some form of bullettime but none did it like our Max, letting you spin through bullets and take down mafioso wiseguys in the coolest way possible. When you throw in the graphic-novel cut-scenes, Max’s Bogart voice-over and a dense, tragic storyline straight out of classic noir, Max Payne was pure cinema in game form. We were our action heroes. I can’t wait to replay it and have that Max love reaffirmed.
But what about Max Payne 2, where Max got his bulletime in a twist over femme fatale Mona Sax? Now I think about it, I can’t remember much of MP2 beyond Mona; Max went after some Illuminati types while chasing a mobster in a mascot suit? Other than Mona’s abandoned ghosthouse for a crashpad and Max’s moody monologues, my mind’s a blank. I remember it being a lot smoother, a classic Hollywood beefed up sequel but I think I still loved it as much as the first.
I’ll pretend 3 didn’t happen; it doesn’t have Mona in it. I’m not even sure it has Max in it. I’m going back to prime Max to discover if he’s as good as I remember.
Still a Blast? – Max Payne
Opening on a snowy NY, we find Max standing on the top of a skyscraper and apparently in some trouble with the cops gathering below. As the flashback begins, Max explains how he got here and I get excited. This is gonna be good.
Oh wow, I’d forgotten about Max’s constant grimace. But then he has reason to look pained; finding his wife murdered by junkies is classic burn-out hero stuff, but the cot with the bloody baby under a blanket, an arm hanging out is strong even for then.
Or maybe the cause of Max’s ‘just sucked a lemon’ look is the strained dialogue he spouts. While he has every right to be depressed, his observations often come across like a teenager’s diary during their EMO phase (“the sun went down with practiced bravado”). The narrative cut-scenes aren’t quite the Frank Miller graphic novel I remember either; Mona looks less like a dangerous, seductive, high-end assassin out of Sin City and more like your mate roped in his little sister to play cops and robbers - it looks like those Dear Deidre photo-stories in The Sun.
The story is straight out of every 90s movie you love. Max is on the trail of Valkyr, a new drug sweeping the streets of NY – a reference to which Max found at his family’s murder scene – and gets caught in a turf war between the Mafia and the Russian mob. Aligning with the ruskies, Max dismantles the Mafia to reach the Valkyr source while being hunted by the cops for a murder he didn’t commit – he does commit several hundred more though.
Maybe it’s my age not the game’s but I can’t remember the last time I reloaded so often; both the gun and the game. Max is no Arnie or Doomguy; a few shots and he’s down (and by down, I mean somersaulting in slo-mo cinematics that would make John Woo wet himself). The mafia guys are insanely accurate – and that’s because they’re triggered by your arrival. When you reload this often, you notice how scripted it is. Back then it wasn’t so noticeable but now I really see it – mobsters even shoot at nothing if you happen to position Max differently to where the game anticipates. Surviving MP1 is via repetition learning.
But, that’s also part of it’s charm. We’re not really playing a shooter, this is an interactive action movie; the shoot-outs are choreographed for maximum actioner wish-fulfilment and there’s so many movie tropes – the convenient gas tanker that explodes, the shouty captain, the fleapit hotels and apartments, mafia-controlled docks and seedy nightclubs, the “I work alone” renegade hero, corrupt cops, evil suits; the fact that all women are dangerous, dead, prostitutes or evil … and of course a narrative that sees a routine case explode into a huge event providing a catharsis for our suicidal hero. There’s The Matrix references in there, capitalising on that film’s infamous Bullettime shots, we’re playing Heat, Terminator, Die Hard, it's the hospital scene in Hard Boiled. Except … Max doesn’t save the baby.
I hadn’t appreciated how unsettling the fantasy sequences were when I first played. Several times, Max wanders around his subconscious and it hates him as much as he hates himself. Tramping through corridors listening to the sounds of your dying wife is fairly bleak, but nothing compares to following the sounds of your baby daughter crying. Re-living finding a dead baby on the floor is one thing; but this time its fricking arm reaches out to him briefly. WTF?! That’s one hell of a moment. Max needs therapy.
What he gets is Mona Sax - although we don’t; she’s only in the cutscenes – and she’s not quite the Ava Gardener I gushingly recalled. But still, she has a tremendous impact on the experience, and Max. She’s not really a Femme Fatale, most of her nefarious double-crossing is down to Max being an idiot or not bothering to just ask her what’s going on. But if it’s not Mona trying to kill him, it’s the Bullettime.
Upsettingly, Bullettime and Shotdodge don’t give Max the Neo edge I remember either. If a scripted grenade is headed his way, using Bullettime to slow events just means I have longer to realise I’m not going to make it. It’s not MP’s fault though, I’ve just been spoilt by subsequent games that turned Bullettime into a superpower; I have quicker reactions not lightspeed and that feels more realistic. Shotdodge though, that is a bit of a lie. Leaping in slow-motion is never going to be anything short of cool-as, but then Max has to get up and dust himself down, by which time he’s been shot.
If I’m honest, MP1 hasn’t aged that well. Max’s monologues often grate, the graphic novel slides are sketchy and the AI scripting takes the edge off it; Max often lives or dies based on where he happens to be standing and the levels are samey – there’s only so many rundown corridors I can blast through while infinite mafia bozos run towards me. But... none of that matters when you're into it; while it might all be a nightmare to Max, we’re still living out that action-film dream.
Max is easily one of the greatest characters in gaming, possibly the best shooter lead of all time – this isn’t a Doom game where you fight to survive, this is a guy looking for someone to take him down, it’s just that no one is good enough. When I re-join the flashback opening of Max standing at the top of the building it’s a great moment and you feel relief, not because you just bested the final boss, but because Max finally has some peace. ‘I released my finger from the trigger, and it was all over’.
Except, it’s not. Does MP2 still bring the pain?
Still a Blast? - Max Payne 2
Just look at Max’s face. The emotion. Now fully animated, Max is trying to get on with his life. Sent to investigate a warehouse, he’s soon involved in a shootout with a bunch of mercs masquerading as a cleaning company. Saved by none other than Mona, Max decides to dig into the case and ask a few questions. Naturally, it’s his Beretta doing the talking.
As a shooter, MP2 holds up pretty well. The enemies Max puts down aren’t as scripted as MP1, the levels are more complex and there’s a lot more cover and interactivity to make the firefights interesting, but it’s no less brutal that MP1; it only takes a few hits before Max is reaching for the Painkillers; and just like Max, Bullettime got a facelift.
The more you kill while in bullettime the longer it lasts and Max can now do cool super-fast reloads mid-fight. He also stays in position until the firing stops rather than getting up and getting shot. It’s all a lot more fast-paced and cool now. Which, despite me grumbling about how dated MP has become, is a shame.
MP2 is a lot more shooter than cinema - MP1 got that actioner feel down perfectly and as a result seemed much more original for all its aping of action movies – MP2 though, is as effective as any other shooter, which means it doesn’t stand out as much; if it wasn’t for the voice-over, I’d forget I was Max. So what’s he fretting about this time?
Max is still dearest of all Vlad’s friends, now helping him put down a mafia crew while trying to figure out what those Cleaners are up to and why they want him dead. On top of which, Max is in over his head with Mona, being double-crossing every which way and hunted by the cops again – this time for a murder he did commit; this isn’t a personal vendetta anymore.
And that’s the problem with MP2. It’s caught classic Hollywood sequel-itis, where they’ve beefed it all up but lost the subtlety; pulling the strings is some illuminati types called the Inner Circle that Mona’s in deep with, but it just doesn’t resonate the same way Max’s on-the-edge personal revenge mission did even when it’s vaguely revealed they were part of the Valkyr event. In MP1 when Max said it was too late for him to stop you believed him, but here you wonder why is he bothering?
He has his guilt over his wife, and guilt over moving on from her to Mona but angst isn't as compelling as rage. Mona suggests they just run away together but he refuses – and we don’t get the sense that Max is his own worst enemy, that he's denying his own happiness, it just feels a bit forced. And the game has lost that focus the original had - the betrayals and revelations, the private little war for control, Mona’s true purpose – they’re all things that happen around Max rather than to him, or because of him. He spends most of the game completely flummoxed. It’s ironic that in MP2 he’s fully animated but more vacant that in MP1.
Max getting in over his head for a femme fatal is classic noir but in the original Mona said he’d proven he was a nice guy and it was against her code to kill nice guys, yet here she's obviously playing him, and implies she hopes he’ll save her; that is, do her dirty work; classic femme, yet she withholds key information that could have more than evened their against-the-odds situation. With MP1 you noticed the bad guys were scripted; this time it feels like the heroes are just following the script.
It’s just not a very good script either; MP1’s plot wasn’t exactly original but it knew that – here, we’re supposed to be drawn into the various and very obvious shenanigans, surprised by the twists that are more a writer’s convenience than clever plotting, and as a narrative it drags, unlike MP1’s one long night that got more out of control as Max cut through anyone in his way. It all comes down to a power-struggle that doesn’t really affect Max and gives him no real closure. If we’re doing all this for Mona, for a chance of happiness with her, to atone for his wife, it doesn’t really come across. Not even when we are Mona.
Several times we pour ourselves into Mona’s shoes. Her levels are no different to Max’s, in fact one is practically a reskin of a previous ‘escape the burning building’ level Max contended with. But the real missed opportunity here, if we’re going to be Mona at all, is her internal monologue. To hear her side, understand her motivations might have expanded things in an interesting way, not just to hear a Contract Killer’s point of view, but her feelings for Max – if she’s contracted to kill him, where’s the tense moments where she trains her sniper rifle on him instead, pauses to consider their relationship or just chats to him, reveals something? They feel like filler levels, especially because she has super-bullettime too instead of some other ability that could have changed things up and made her unique.
Mona is the classic Femme Fatale and as-according to the rules of Noir, Max is denied a happy ending; except the game flips that by showing Max find some peace. The ending makes it Mona’s story and it could have all worked better if we’d stuck with her throughout.
The graphic-novel cut-scenes have been sexed up and look great, and Mona’s hideout in an abandoned theme-park is a brilliant level made even better by the way you explore it first, then use that knowledge to get the edge on the Cleaners that invade. Then there’s saving a mafioso who’s been trapped in a giant mascot-style suit that’s rigged to explode. It has it's moments, and it's a slick shooter, but somehow even though it's aged way better than MP, it's just not as satisfying.
Had it stuck to it’s dual-wielding noir guns, Max should have followed everyone else to the grave – least then we’d be spared Max Payne 3. We’re interested in the sadness of Max, that killing is the only thing he was ever any good at, but instead he’s crowbarred into a private little war his follows instead of instigates, and is a witness (or commentator) rather than the hero. But even when the story’s uneven beats and twists are combined with the shooter elements, MP2 is still a good game; it’s just not Max Payne.
Replaying those has been loads of fun, and I think over time I merged the two games into one; MP1’s bleak narcissistic themes and cinema re-enactments and MP2’s storyboards, tight gunplay and Mona’s impact; together they make a great game. It might be uneven and a little old now, but MP 1 and 2 is one of the most original and compelling shooter series’ to ever come along. Not including MP3.
Max Payne 1 2001 | Developers; Remedy Entertainment | Publisher; 3D Realms
Max Payne 2 2003 | Developers; Remedy Entertainment | Publisher; Rockstar