My Top 5 Games of 2001: #4 Max Payne (PC)

Developed: Remedy
Published: Gathering, 3D Realms
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Platform: PC (reviewed), Mac, PS2, Xbox, Xbox Live

Max Payne has the distinction of being one of the only games that I upgraded my computer to play. That should give you a bit of an indication of how excited I was coming into this game. I remember pouring over every preview for it that I could find. I was just blown away by how great it looked. Of course by today's standards it looks like shit but back then it was the best looking game that I had played up to that point. Max Payne follows the events of a single night in which the titular character, a police detective turned DEA agent, starts out undercover in a mafia family but ends up chasing after the person who kills his partner early into the game and eventually finds a conspiracy that leads to the top of a giant corporation. There's spoilers ahead so be warned.

The game opens with Max standing on the roof of a skyscraper. He talks about how "they're all dead" and that we'll have to look back three years for this to make any sense. No kidding. We then flashback three years to the day that Max's life changed. He comes home after a long day working as a police detective for the NYPD and finds his house has been broken into by junkies who are hooked on a fictional drug known as valkyr. He's forced to kill them all when they attack him in a drug induced frenzy and he finds that they murdered his wife and baby.

The scene then jumps back up to the present, but two hours before the opening narration. Max is working as an undercover DEA agent and is currently investigating the Punchinello crime family and their trafficking of valkyr. The only people who are aware of Max's undercover status are fellow DEA agents B.B. and Alex Balder. B.B. phones Max one night and tells him to meet Alex at a subway station. Max arrives in the seemingly abandoned station but soon finds a dead police officer. He makes his way to the rendezvous point but is attacked by mafia hitmen.

He finds all routes cut off so he does the sensible thing and RAMS A SUBWAY CAR INTO A WALL so he can continue on through an abandoned part of the station. He soon finds more thugs who have blown through a wall that just happens to have a bank vault on the other side. He sees what the thugs were after: bonds for a huge corporation known as Aesir. This isn't relevant until later in the plot. Oh boy we're doing this again.

Max soon finds his way into another active subway station where Alex is waiting. They speak for a moment about the robbery, concluding that the thugs work for Mob boss Jack Lupino, an underling of don Punchinello. Alex is suddenly killed by an unseen assassin who quickly escapes just as police sirens begin to ring out in the distance. Max is forced to flee and makes his way to Lupino's center of operations: a sleazy motel. How original.
Max is greeted by two of Lupino's cronies, the Finito brothers, who immediately reveal that they know of Max's undercover status and attempt to kill him. He dispatches them and is forced to fight his way out of the hotel to track Lupino himself. His best option now is Lupino's right hand man, Vinnie Gognitti. Max overhears a news broadcast that implicates him as the suspect in Alex's killing, meaning that both the mafia and the NYPD are after him. Jeeze.

As Max exits the hotel, several bombs go off in nearby buildings, including the building that houses Lupino's office. He sees a car drive away and recognizes the passenger as rival gang boss Vladimir Lem. He comes across a ringing pay phone, which he answers for whatever reason, and is greeted by the mysterious Alfred Woden. Woden warns Max about what he already knows: the police and Punchinello are both after him, and tells Max that he will contact him again. Max manages to track down Gognitti who runs off and jumps on top of a MOVING SUBWAY CAR. Great idea. Max soon follows as Gognitti jumps off the car and continues his flight. Max eventually manages to wound him and asks him where Lupino is. Gognitti, the gutless bastard that he is, gives away Lupino's location: a night club known as Ragna Rock.

Max infiltrates the mafia infested club and eventually finds what can only be described as Lupino's inner sanctum. Lupino is high as shit on Valkyr and shouting to all the demons of hell in some kind of satanic ritual. Max is obviously unable to get any information out of Lupino who attacks him. Max is forced to kill the crazy bastard and is confronted by a woman who Max believes to be don Punchinello's wife, Lisa, but it turns out to be her twin sister, Mona. Sure.

Mona tells him that Punchinello is the one who had Alex killed and Max framed and that she wants him dead too, referring to him as "that sadistic wife beater." She suggests that they "pool their bullets" but soon after, she drugs him with a spiked drink saying that she "can't risk him going berserk and getting Lisa killed." Good idea, Mona. Max has a horrible nightmare in which he relives the day his wife and child were killed. As he dreams, he recalls that his wife worked in the district attorney's office and found something important that she never got the chance to tell him.
Max wakes up tied to a chair with a man holding a baseball bat in front of him. That's never good... The man roughs Max up a bit but doesn't kill him. He leaves the room and Max soon manages to break the rickety wooden chair. He scrounges up a few weapons and fights his way out of the building, finding himself on the street that Lupino's hotel is on. The same car that he saw earlier drives up and he's greeted by the rival gang boss, Vladimir, who has a proposition for Max. If Max can kill a turncoat from Vlad's organization, he'll give him all the weapons he needs. Max takes the offer and after fighting an army of thugs he soon finds the traitor and kills him. Just on time, Punchinello happens to call, expecting the traitor to answer. Max gets him good and pissed and demands to meet him, knowing that Punchinello would love to see him suffer in person. Punchinello tells him to head to his restaraunt and Max sets off.

Of course all Max finds at the restaurant is a trap. Bombs go off soon after he enters and he narrowly escapes, returning to Vlad. Vlad takes Max to Punchinello's mansion, where he manages to kill most of the thugs guarding Punchinello and receives another call from Woden. He warns Max that an armed helicopter just landed near the mansion so he doesn't have much time. Max finally finds Punchinello begging for help over the phone. As Max breaks into the room, Punchinello begs him for mercy, saying that a woman who is high up, possibly a government agent, forced him to do everything. He's then gunned down by a squad of heavily armed men who hold Max at gunpoint. A woman appears and instead of having Max killed, she injects him with Valkyr. He immediately feels the effects of the drug, and as he blacks out, he hears the woman telling her soldiers to "take her to cold steel."

Max has another nightmare about his family's killing and again remembers his wife trying to tell him something important as he ran out the door to get to work. Max awakens and soon recovers from his high. He immediately remembers what the woman said before he blacked out and heads for Cold Steel Foundry outside of town. Max guesses that she probably expected him to die from overdosing on the drug so he has the drop on her.

He fights his way through the facility and finds a file that points to the junkies who killed his family as test subjects for Valkyr, meaning that the drug is corporate made. The facility begins to self destruct and Max barely makes it outside. He can think of only one lead: B.B., the only person other than Alex who knew Max was undercover. He confronts B.B. in a parking garage and immediately accuses him of killing Alex. B.B. rambles about how high up this conspiracy goes and eventually runs. Max fights through another army of thugs and eventually is forced to kill B.B. Max receives another phone call from Woden, who wants to meet Max in person.

Max heads to an old office building and finds Woden who introduces him to his organization, The Inner Circle. He explains that Valkyr was created by the Aesir corporation, which is led by Nicole Horne, the woman who tried to kill Max with Valkyr. He asks Max to kill Horne and promises that The Inner Circle can clear his name afterward. Right on schedule, armed men burst in the room and gun down everyone except for Max, who manages to jump out the window into the building's central courtyard just in time. As he fights his way out of the old building, he sees Woden rise up from among the bodies of his comrades on a security monitor. Sneaky bastard.

The only option Max has now is to take Woden's offer so he heads to the Aesir corporation building. He fights his way through the army of guards and soon finds Mona in an elevator. Horne's voice can be heard over the intercom ordering Mona to do her job and kill Max. Dun Dun Dun! For whatever reason, Mona can't bring herself to kill him and is shot in the head by a group of guards who suddenly show up. She falls to the ground and the elevator doors close, leaving Max to deal with the guards. After Max dispatches them, he calls the elevator again but Mona's body is nowhere to be found. You'll have to wait til the sequel to see what happened. I'm not kidding.
Max fights his way through the building as Horne taunts him on the intercom. She reveals that Max's wife was killed because she found out too much about Aesir's darker dealings. He eventually finds Horne boarding a helicopter on the roof. He can't reach the helicopter, which is behind a fence, so he does the next best thing: he shoots the support wires for the huge antenna on to of the building which falls on the helicopter and causes it to plummet to the streets below in an inferno. We're treated to the opening scene again with Max repeating his narration before the police arrest him. Woden can be seen standing among the crowd who are watching Max's arrest, apparently as a sign that he plans to keep his promise to Max. Max closes the game saying, "Woden grinned smugly. It was the grin of a winner. That made two of us."

Man, that was longer than I expected, but just as before, it was worth it. Max Payne was a game that I had possibly higher expectations than any other, and it still managed to live up to them. The story is full of goofy dialogue and plot convenience, but I still love it. Max speaks in metaphors during narration and they can be downright hilarious at times so the game has an almost constant element of dark comedy from beginning to end.

Lets forget about the story for a bit though. Max Payne is all about the gameplay which is absolutely stellar. It's a third-person shooter but unlike the shooters of today, there's no cover system. Instead, you can activate slow motion any time you want to dodge bullets and take enemies out with ease. You have a limited number of times you can do this but it recharges whenever you kill an enemy without using it so you have to fight each battle wisely. You don't wanna waste all of your slow-mo on easy enemies and find yourself with none left when you reach a particularly difficult fight.

The graphics... They were the best around in mid 2001 when the game came out but they just kinda look silly by today's standards. It's always amazing to me how fast technology evolves. There isn't much else to say. Graphics from the ps1/n64 era and many games in the ps2/Xbox/GameCube era just didn't age well. I'm sure we'll say the same thing about modern graphical spectacles like Uncharted or Gears of War some day. One thing to note is that almost all of the cutscenes are presented in comic book form which would normally come of as kinda lazy but they're very well done in this case so I can't complain. One thing that I can complain about is the fact that the exact same song plays in every comic book scene so it gets kinda repetitive.
Believe it or not, I used to think this was as good as graphics would ever get.
There actually isn't much to say in the audio department either. I told you Max Payne was all about gameplay. The sound effects are great and the voice acting is very well done. Max's voice actor is the standout of course. He has a fairy short credits list so it's pretty amazing how well he pulled it off. Max just wouldn't have been the same character with any other voice. One of the only negative things that I can say about Max Payne is that there isn't much music. For most of the gameplay, there is no music at all, which I guess gives the game a more "real" feel but you know me; I'm a game music nut.

One thing that I'd like to note is the fact that Max Payne was developed by Finnish developer Remedy. What is really amazing to me is that you would never know it was made outside the US while playing. I don't know if Remedy has a lot of Americans on staff or if they did their research but Max Payne (plus Max Payne 2 and Remedy's latest game, Alan Wake) is very true to its setting. The developers of Heavy Rain should really take some pointers from Remedy.

Max Payne is readily available on a variety of platforms. It's available on steam and Xbox Live so you don't really have an excuse not to play it. It's one of the most action packed games I've ever played so anyone looking for an action fix, here's your game.

Number 3 in my top 5 games of 2001!
A hugely anticipated RPG that some love and some hate. Guess which side I'm on.

I'll leave you with one of the few songs from Max Payne: the main menu music, and the song that plays during comic book scenes. You'll hear this song a lot when you play this game. Video brought to us by RagingDevil777:

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