Max Payne 3, the latest installment in the redoubtable Max Payne series, will debut today on the home console market. To commemorate its release, I’ve decided to do a retrospective on the series from its beginning. So set your clocks to Bullet Time as we shootdodge through the franchise’s history!
In 1996, Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment had just completed Death Rally, its first video game. Inspired by the success of games like Tomb Raider and Loaded, Remedy decided its next project would be creating a third person shooter. Petri Järvilehto, one of Remedy’s founding members, brought in his friend Sam Järvi (aka Sam Lake) to help write a script for the new project. From inception, Lake wanted a story about a tough private eye in a game that would have a heavy psychological premise. Lake’s eventual tale would be about a cop avenging the murder of his family, surviving near impossible odds to meet that end. Originally, the game had projected titles of Dark Justice and Max Heat before finally settling on Max Payne. A prototype of the project was sent to American developer 3D Realms, which signed the title for a development.
By 1997, Remedy began work on a new game engine, dubbed “Max-FX”, specifically for Max Payne. In this article from Gamespot’s Micheal Mullen, many of the engine’s details were outlined, such as plans for advanced lighting and particle effects. Initially, the game featured multiplayer support (a feature that was later dropped) and was to contain tools for level editing after its release, allowing for user-created content. The engine’s most famous feature would be “Bullet Time”, the ability for the player to slow down time in order to swiftly kill enemies. Bullet Time is not the actual slowing down of time (like a superpower) but rather a higher state of focus for Max, in which he was able to better use his superior reflexes to defeat his opponents. Bullet Time allowed for gunfights similar to those created by director John Woo, who frequently used slow motion in his action movies.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 1998, Remedy released a trailer for the game, showcasing the Max-FX engine’s ability to create chaotic action sequences with cutting edge lighting and particle effects. Remedy aimed for releasing MP in the summer of 1999, but delays eventually hampered its release for the next three years.
In 1999, six developers from Remedy’s Finland studio traveled to New York City (their personal account of the trip is found here) to experience the city and take photographs. Accompanied by two ex-NYPD policemen, the developers went on a thorough tour of the town, absorbing both the magic and morbidity of the Big Apple. The photos proved important, not just for research but the game’s visuals. During the time of Max Payne’s development, the capability of video graphics cards was evolving, allowing for better lighting effects and more realistic textures. The developers’ photographs used the photographs from their NY trip in crafting MP’s environments, creating a photo-realistic ethos. The usage of photos of weren’t just limited to environments. A 2008 Edge article reported how Remedy used the pictures of friends and relatives of Lake as models for characters in the game. Lake himself served as the model for Payne. Additionally, these likenesses appeared in the game’s graphic novel-style cutscenes.
At E3 in 2000, Remedy released another trailer for MP, presenting a more refined look and enhanced gameplay footage. Although no official release date existed for the game, the trailer featured a message that claimed the game would be available “When it’s done.” A year later at E3, the final trailer for the title premiered, this time including the game’s now iconic theme music. Max Payne would at last be released for Microsoft Windows on July 23, 2001.
Reception for the game was incredibly positive; critic and consumer alike praised the game’s intense action and excellent story. Max Payne received numerous awards, including Game of the Year honors from several publications and a BAFTA for PC Game of the Year. Success would expand Max Payne’s legacy across gaming platforms, with releases on the Xbox, PlayStation 2, Mac OS, and the Game Boy Advance. An Xbox 360 release (as an “Xbox Original”) came in 2009, and this year MP saw release on iOS, Android, and the PlayStation Network.
Personally, just seeing the finalized version of Payne for the first time enchanted me. I was excited for the game since first discovering it in a 1998 issue PC Games magazine and continued to follow the game throughout its development. Although several years passed before I actually owned a copy of the game (mainly due to my lack of a computer that could play it), once I finally solved the hardware issues, I purchased MP and entered gaming Valhalla.
Max Payne was and still is a joy to play. Few games have delivered such exciting gunfights; many times have I flinched at the sound of incoming bullets or ducked with Max as he dodged a shotgun blast. The threat of death is omnipotent. Around every corner it feels like someone is waiting for you, itching to pull the trigger as soon as you step out. Players need every advantage available for survival, and there is no better edge than Bullet Time.
When needed, players can activate Bullet Time to slow down the game, allowing them to dispatch enemies faster than normal. A byproduct of Bullet Time is the “shootdoge”, an evasive technique that allowed players to shoot while diving away from enemy gunfire. The shootdodge revolutionized player character movement; previous third person shooters only allowed jumping, rolling and strafing to either side as means for evasion. Despite its strengths, Remedy exercised caution in making Bullet Time a viable tool instead of a trite tactic. Bullet Time instead gave gamers a better way of responding to the dangers they faced, while preventing the challenge from lessening.
Great as the game play is, Max Payne is a sonic masterpiece as well, sporting excellent sound effects, music and voice acting. When you fire a gun in the game, it sounds like an actual weapon. Shotguns roared, pistols howled, and bullets whistled convincingly past you. It was glorious. The sound made the gameplay so much more enjoyable because it helped create a believable atmosphere. The game’s music soundtrack, composed by Kärtsy Hatakka and Kimmo Kajasto was an impressive mix of rock, techno and classical. The somber theme for the game series is as chilling as it as tragic; sometimes I didn’t know whether to a get a tissue or grab grenade. But if there was any one thing I believe truly gives the game character, it is James McCaffrey’s performance as Max Payne.
McCaffrey provides Payne with an appropriately gruff and bitter tone, a sound that suited for the archetypal tough cop and vengeful family man. From his morose howl while holding his slain wife to his steely determination at Aesir Plaza, it is through McCaffrey that Payne is given life and emotion. McCaffrey’s performance delivered emotions the game’s graphical engine couldn’t replicate because the engine could only provide characters with a handful of facial expressions. For much of the game, Payne himself is stuck with just a smirk, which lead some to think the beleaguered cop suffered from constipation.
Following the success of Max Payne, Remedy developed a sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne in 2003. The game represented a definite overhaul for the series, staring with the updated Max-FX 2.0 engine. Max Payne 2 features a revamped physics system, better graphics and an upgraded bullet time feature. Payne himself got a new look, as he was then modeled after actor Timothy Gibbs (but still voiced by James McCaffrey). Mona Sax, the femme fatale from the first game, returned as an occasional playable character.
MP2’s action proved more furious than the first, thanks to the usage of the Havok physics engine. Weapons behaved better in relation to their environment; bullets have better ballistic effects, and explosives were more potent. Bullet Time improved, allowing players prolonged usage by killing more enemies successively.
Despite very positive reviews, MP2 did not sell as well as its predecessor, and the series would remain without a new title for several years. However, the game was popular in the mod community, which created several mods such as Vampire Slayer, Absent Grave, and even a first person shooter.
Outside of gaming, other avenues opened up for the franchise and soon Mr. Payne went to Hollywood. In 2008, Max Payne, loosely based on the first game, hit theaters in October. Directed by John Moore, the movie featured Mark Wahlberg as Payne, and Mila Kunis as Mona Sax. The film had good intentions; it tried presenting itself as a serious detective story mixed with some psycho/spiritual elements. That would have been fine, had the film contained one critical element: good action scenes! Max Payne was oddly bereft of the great gun fights that made the games special. It was a case of straying too far from the source material’s strength, resulting in a slow-paced film that looked decent, but didn’t offer much excitement. Well, that’s not entirely true. Mark Wahlberg does yell angrily in the film, which is always welcome.
SAY HELLO TO YOUR MOTHER FOR MEEEEE!!!!
Now, after nearly nine years off the beat, Max Payne is back for his third adventure. Set in Sao Paulo, Brazil, things have really worsened for the haunted hero. When he’s not being an alcoholic, he works as a private security guard for the wealthy. Of course, things (as they often do) go horribly wrong. Recent reviews show the game is yet another critical success for the franchise. As before, the game features a story driven single player campaign with plenty of gunfights. Multiplayer, which was once a part of the first game, now makes its debut in Max Payne 3.
It’s been quite a bullet ridden journey for the Max Payne franchise, and with its latest release, the future looks fortuitous as well. For more info the Max Payne games check out the Max Payne Wiki and for nostalgia, here’s the original game’s official 3D Realms site. Until next time folks.
Peace & Pixels