Max Payne is a series I am familiar with from my childhood, when playing GTA was cool for some reason. I don’t think any of my friends really cared about the story, setting or gameplay in these mature games. The fact that it was bloody, grim, had realistically portrayed characters (at least visually) and sexual content, was enough. This led me to step away from the series until I was older, when I could actually approach them more maturely. While GTA was hit and miss for me, Max Payne grabbed me and made me appreciate style over substance. I was, and still am more connected with games by how you interact with them (or gameplay, in other words), but it made me look more at other aspects of games, such as story and presentation. I actually wanted to review Disney-games for December, but Max Payne seemed just as fitting for the holidays. After all: isn’t December the time of the year for looking out especially for those that have it worse than us?
Starting with a flashback
Being inspired by Loaded, Tomb Raider (without “the horrid camera”) and Noir-style stories, Remedy created Max Payne. However, before its eventual release, the first installment went through plenty of reworks and rewrites. There was uncertainty about what the goal would be for Sam Lake, the writer. He knew he wanted to make a deep, psychological story about a hard-boiled cop and give it a focus on his struggles. Eventually they set on Max Payne, due to it having a dark tone without too much comedy taking the spotlight. Many of the gritty design-choices that seemed so fitting, were actually made to lower the cost of the production, such as having comic-panels instead of cutscenes, more realistic environments compared to more visually demanding ones, and bullet-time instead of more different items being put into the game.
Working inside the limitations definitely helped, as Max Payne became a huge success. This started the series of third person shooters, with heavy emphasis on story, philosophy, and themes of depression. The first installment set a fantastic foundation, with one of the best stories ever and a stylized and cool shooting-mechanic. Compared to other mature games that were in the spotlight such as GTA, Max Payne showed how serious and mature it could be, without resorting to just violence and vulgar humor. The eventual GBA-release also had similar focus and a lot of care and smart design choices, such as moving the camera in the way Max was facing. A sequel was at hand and Remedy did everything to improve upon the last game. While I may not see it as an improvement myself, critics once again complimented this installment with high praises. Presented as a noir love story, it was somewhat of a shift from the previous title, and everything was technically better, but not necessarily smarter, which we will get back to. The sales were poor for this installment, affecting Remedy quite heavily.
Max went away from the spotlight for a while and after a terrible movie adaptation, Rockstar took it upon themselves to make a third entry. While it was an oddity to everyone, people behind the first game were brought on-board to check it out and help as consultants. The third game was well received and sold well, so it clearly had its fans. Despite this, it was a clear shift, with modern shooter mechanics and a story that was almost on par with a GTA-game. It seems there are many who are very mixed on this entry for the reasons mentioned above, but at the very least it had an ending that gave our hero a conclusion to his struggles.
Max Payne won people over not just by being dark, violent and dealing with heavy themes, but also thanks to how stylish it was with its noir story. With its personal approach to storytelling, with monologues and symbolism referring to specific themes or even mythologies, it showcases how games could tell a thought-provoking story. Our main-character was also one I felt with a lot, due to how personal his journey was with him commenting on situations and how his substance abuse affected him. Portraying a realistic character’s downfall, struggles, and strength in a poetic matter, is a feat I don’t think many can hold.
Besides the narration and story, we also had the famous bullet time mechanic and realistic environments. Bullet time, made everything go in slow-motion and was a good extra for precise shots, dodging, and looking cool. While many would think it was inspired by The Matrix, the first Max Payne was in development before this movie, so it is a bit uncertain if it served as an inspiration. It nevertheless became a staple for the series and each installment had it in some form, making it a concept they at least tinkered with. The other important element were the environments. In the realistic and believable settings, Max could interact with objects such as phones or minor clues. These could elaborate more about Max, the area he was in, the plot and so on. This made the world come even more to life and especially Max, by discovering them through gameplay. This also reflects the titles of the games: it was all about Max’ Pain.
Not sure on what to do
It definitely is a solid series, but it seems like only the first game had a good balance with fantastic story and good gameplay. Max Payne 2 was definitely the oddball for me. The game had a lot of technical improvements, but was a good showcase on how more could be less. There were more weapons than needed, the bullet time got overpowered, and introducing a love story seemed to have been outside Sam’s comfort-zone. It was never outright bad, but certainly a step down from the first installment and even compared to the GBA-title.
After 9 years, we also got Max Payne 3, which understandably was a bit mixed. It was a great game with a lot of improvements to make it more modern, but it did have a quite mediocre story, with even our main character falling to the trend of Rockstar’s generic GTA-storytelling. At least it made ducking worthwhile and I can’t say that for most of the series. Both story and gameplay were what made the original so impressive, so it is a shame to see how hard it was for the sequels to capture the same magic, but all entries still come recommended. Just try to avoid the console-versions of the first and second installment, as both have clear technical problems not present in the PC-version.
Deserved a vacation
Besides this trilogy there was the poor movie adaptation that was made before the third installment and some quite good comics made with support from Marvel, but that was about it. However, while I still enjoy the trilogy, I don’t think we need more. Max has had enough to struggle with throughout his life and giving him some peace feels fitting. Rockstar gave it a good shot, but it had its ups and downs, making it hard for me to see the greatness of the original mixed with the better ideas of the newer one happen. While I would also say that I’d like to see more stylish games with a Noir-style, there is a ton of them! Hotel Dusk, Blade Runner, Grim Fandango and L.A Noir to name a few. It is unlikely there will be a sequel as well, so for what it is worth: I am happy for Max. He can hopefully die peacefully.