It’s strange to think that it is now eleven years since I first played Max Payne. There was something special about the Remedy developed title, a noir story met an irreverent sense of humour that could only be achieved from an outsiders’ perspective (in this case Finnish). This combined with polished mechanics and controls to create a game that, even all these years on, feels modern.
Max is the model anti-hero; a distressed undercover cop, framed for the murder of his friend and who discovers (while searching for the true killer) that the case is tied up with the murder of his own family. Haunted by dreams of his loved one’s deaths there is the constant suggestion of a need to escape his past, a fact portrayed by Max’s dependence on painkillers to restore health. It was this blending of narrative and gameplay, this attention to the small details, which really made Max Payne. That and bullet-time.
Max Payne was the first game to utilise the now all too familiar slow motion effect of bullet-time. It had already been popularised thanks to the Matrix, but the sense of empowerment was a revelation to me as I controlled Max’s leisurely glide through the air while gunning down dozens of thugs. The cinematic atmosphere this mechanic added defined the franchise and remains its greatest legacy.
In keeping with the story’s tone, the conclusion of the game offered little in the way of justice for Max, and a fraction of the redemption he deserved. But despite his murderous rampage through New York, the authorities at least saw he was the hero of the piece. His freedom ensured that Max Payne would soon return for a similar, less than cheery, adventure.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, had perhaps the most unnecessary subtitle in gaming. Max had been on a steady decent from day one, so the idea he could some how fall any further was at once unimaginable and inevitable. This, combined with its billing as “a film noir love story”, only served to make me worry for damage that was to be done to the already emotionally shattered hero.
Personally I found the second game a little less satisfying as Max’s driving force through the world felt less convincing than in the original game. Hinging around taking out a Russian Mafia boss Max’s interests was less potently personal, and as such the lengths to which he was prepared to go felt less believable. Remedy went some way to balancing this with the return of assassin Mona, one of the few characters (comparatively) sympathetic to Max in the first game. She returned as a love interest to add some emotional resonance to proceeding, but while I would be the first to admit men do stupid things for lust the lengths to which Max was driven even I struggled to relate to.
The conclusion of Max Payne 2 promised Max would return, but despite the games popularity it never materialised. Eventually I forgot about it, until a few years ago Rockstar (who handled the console ports of the first two games) suddenly announced they were working on a third title to the series.
I was in two minds about the announcement. While still foreign to the American setting the GTA developer’s humour is distinctly different to that of Remedy’s. It may sound like an odd thing to pick up on, but it was a subtle element that had a huge impact on the first two games. This worry combined with initial screen shots for the title, which looked so different in tone from the rest of the franchise (featuring a bald Max in sun drenched Rio) that I got the feeling Rockstar had missed the point. That was until the new trailer was released.
The new trailer shows a greater scope than the previous game. Rather than taking place over a few days in Max’s life, the third title is to follow Max through a longer journey. Beginning the hero’s familiar urban New York setting, he is now doing freelance security. His leather coat has returned, as has his depression and a now open use pain killers to self medicate the pains of his past. This is the Max Payne I remember.
I have little idea how the story will unfold, or what will eventually drive Max to shave off his distinctive hair and fulfil the promise of the original screen shots. But the anchor of a New York setting, and Rockstar’s track record, has me hopeful this will deliver me the game I had forgotten I was waiting for.
Max Payne 3 on PC, 360 and PS3 will all be available from May the 18th. Personally I will be siding with the PC version (if my system can handle it). That is where this series began, and there is still no better way to make Max freak out in bullet-time than a quick flick of the mouse.