Max Payne: the Ninja Gaiden of third person shooters

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Gears of War has spoiled me. The indestructible concrete blocks and crates littering modern shooter battlefields allow us to play it safe, picking off enemies at leisure and occasionally executing a lethal melee move when a bogey gets too close for comfort. The current crop of celebratory "old-school" shooters like Bulletstorm and Duke Nukem Forever are needlessly bombastic with their repeated "taking cover is for pussies" mantra, but there is something to be said for the…riskier style of play older shooters often forced upon gamers.

Max Payne is such a game.

More accurately, Max Payne is a game that will force you to master the art of flying by the seat of your pants while navigating through (and contributing to) a total shitstorm of hot lead. Max can take cover in the sense of standing behind a pillar or around a corner, but if you want to kill the bad guys you're going to have to expose yourself. This usually means diving headfirst through doorways in slow-motion, dual handguns blaring away.

You'd better hope you take everyone out on your way in, or else Max is likely in for a quick death – Mr. Payne is a glass cannon to the aforementioned Mr. Nukem's walking tank. A single shotgun blast or burst of submachine gun fire will often send Max pirhouetting to his slow-motion death.

It's kind of like playing one of the older Rainbow Six games, only without any teammates or high-tech equipment to cover your ass. My quicksave key deserves a Purple Heart. 

"I made like Chow Yun-fat."

Why subject myself to such sweet torture? Like many other fans of shooty-bang-bang games, I've had my eye on Rockstar's Max Payne 3 since the first trailer dropped months ago. Initially the techie in me was primarily enticed by Rockstar's continuous visual and performance improvements to their RAGE engine and NaturalMotion's incredible Euphoria animation system (which will hopefully carry over into GTA V), but as MP3's release date drew nearer I felt the obligation to catch up on Max's story as well, so as not to miss any references in the new game. So, I plunked down some virtual cash via Steam and dove into the Max Payne bundle pack.

In the process I found one of the toughest games I've played, and yet one of the most rewarding once I mastered Payne's shootdodging skills. At some point later in the game it all simply clicked, and I found myself downing far less painkillers and only occasionally tapping the quickload key.

Much like my experience with Ninja Gaiden, what began as a grinding war of attrition became a graceful, deadly dance where one false step sent me to an early grave. But I learned the right moves, and by the end of the game I was a regular death-defying John McClane, bloodied and bruised but leaving behind an impossible body count of thugs and mercenaries. 

Max Payne's gameplay has aged well overall, but a few presentation issues slightly marred the experience for me. The awkward "graphic novel" cutscenes are quite obviously touched-up photographs of the developers and random people in costumes – I can't help but think that traditional 2D artwork would have looked much better.

And of course, there's the protagonist's infamous "constipated face" character model and somewhat dorky appearance compared to the older, more gruff noir antihero of the later installments.

Is that a Hawaiian shirt?

The storyline appears to be a simple revenge tale on the surface, but by the climax it turns into an oddball conspiracy-crime mashup that wouldn't be entirely out of place in the Resident Evil universe. Dialog and Max's narration are similarly convoluted, a profound and poetic mess of noir-speak and Norse mythology references. The voice acting is mostly solid though, with James McAffrey delivering a particularly effective performance as our man Max.

I can't comment on Max Payne 2's presentation, not having played it just yet, but thankfully the third game's art design and production values appear to be up to Rockstar's usual high standards. And of course, the guns and ultraviolence are what truly matter in a series with a title like Max Payne. 

Finals week is quickly approaching here at college, but I'll be sure to find time to go on another blood-soaked revenge spree with Mr. Payne soon enough – he's earned it.

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