Dual Berettas and painkillers

Max Payne, An MA-rated golden oldie? Believe it. I just had to take this screenshot--it's so evocative of the concept.

Thing is, I shouldn’t have liked this game. Take a NYC cop with nothing to lose, fold in cadres of baddies to mow down in a myriad of urban environments—the choice of modus operandi is endless, from Desert Eagle to Molotov cocktail to sniper rifle—and chop in some then-revolutionary ‘bullet time’, which slows down time to make dodging gunfire (or just showing off) actually possible in an otherwise realistic game world. Whisk until there’s no one left to shoot.

Why, then, would it interest someone with a Hello Kitty address book? Because this game has several things to make up for its violence.

1. A wussies-go-home (but still killer) story. Max Payne was living the American Dream when junkies on the fictional designer drug ‘V’ murdered his family. Something snapped inside Max—a newborn nightmare that you spend parts of the game fighting through—and he transferred to the DEA to investigate a mob family for the drug’s source.

He’s undercover when someone sets him up for his best friend’s murder; that clinches it for our hero. During the worst snowstorm to hit New York City in a century, he plunges headfirst into an underworld of mobsters, drug clashes, government ties (naturally) and a hired killer chick named Mona, walking in uninvited on V deals as sirens ring through the night, following him like the ghost of the crime he didn’t commit.

2. Max’s noir psyche. The cutscenes in this game are like turning the pages of a graphic novel—but with sounds and top-notch voice talent intact. So then there’s Max’s narration to the tune of “I released my finger from the trigger. The final gunshot was an exclamation point to everything that had led up to this point.” and “I came in from the cold and the dark. Outside the city was a cruel monster.” and “Seeing her there got me thinking about another woman on another bed. Got me thinking about a fallen cradle.” He doesn’t always make metaphors, no—but when he does, in a perfect gravelly voice for metaphors of that sort, it complements the scenery.

3. Hard work went into this, and it’s obvious. It helps that all the voice actors drawl and quip just like you picked a few thugs and cops straight off Brooklyn. And that, though Max is alternately given clues and double-crossed during the drug war/storm of the game’s plot, it never gets repetitive.

One time, he’s slipped some V and suffers through a shrink’s-dream-come-true version of the night he came home to his dead wife and daughter (complete with mazes and blood smears that suggest his wayward soul)—and wakes up tied to a chair in the boiler room of a roachy hotel. A mobster plays baseball with his head and leaves for a crap. Max breaks the chair to get free; all the doors are locked except one that leads to a hallway; that hallway is heavily patrolled by the heavily armed. All Max has is the mobster’s bloody bat. It will take creative use of bullet time—his only advantage in this one-man war—and stealth to get him out of there.

Another favorite of mine is when Max arranges a meeting with a mafia big fish in a restaurant that turns out to have been rigged. As Max runs through each room (the place is burning in real time) obstacles realistically block his way: shelves fall on each other like dominoes, fire extinguisher tanks explode—a fine puzzle of design that’s quite different from having him face eighty enemies head on (hello, every other third-person-shooter game I can think of). Of course, the exit is a secret basement door in the kitchen leading to a sewer, and it’s guarded by ingram-wielding psychos, but it’s the design of the game that pulls, first and foremost.

4. OK, the violence is relatively amusing once in a while. Max is like the guys in the movies; he never stays down (unless he’s out of painkillers; he takes those things like I do Pez. What are the long-term psychological effects of that?). He can leap across fire escapes, catch rides on train roofs, and escape from self-destructing steel factories if he wants answers, and this whole game asks strong questions. The terrain gets cooler with the story; one minute you’re in a subway station, next the token arms-smuggling Russian freighter, so on through a Gothic nightclub and—finally—the penthouse suite of a vicious CEO. I left some stuff out. I don’t want to spoil it for you.

5. Smashing windows by jumping through them. Why the hell can’t you do that in Vice City? Because that’s the constitution of an inferior product and likewise depleted gaming experience. Every game that’s set in the modern day—RPGs, therefore, are excluded—should include the feature of climbing any fire escape you see, to the roof if the spirit so moves you. And get this: ALL the windows should be enterable, and each room you gain access to should have some kind of unlockable hidden there. Now that games are getting fancier, they should really explore all that crazy stuff humans never get to do in daily life instead of just copying what sells. E.G:

- An online game where you and pals rob a realistic Target. No, Whole Foods Market. No, Suncoast…

- you have ten seconds to crash an 18-wheeler. Variations: the vehicle is situated atop a hill, in the middle of realistic traffic, or on top of MIT and you’re armed with Evel Kneivel’s motorcycle.

- wrestle with construction machines. Can you imagine?

- you are a black cat whose mission in life is global annihilation.

- OK, and this is a really cool one: Car Polo. The difficulty level depends on what your ‘pony’ is: a Charger or Escalade is obviously expert level. Medium—Jeep. Beginners go for Harley Davidson. Backdrop: a college soccer field while nobody’s looking.

That just about telegraphed it: Max 1 is 8/10 and a classic. So the graphics might disappoint you (which is because you’re spoiled) and bullet time is now cliché (because everyone else stole it), but this story taught me about using character, setting, and motivation in contemporary fiction.

Too bad the sequel could suck a golf ball through fifty feet of garden hose. It has better graphics, though.

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