It’s been twenty years since Max Payne bullet-time jumped onto gaming consoles and PC, arriving with the spectacle of gun action that had only been seen in movies and never been done in games. But two decades later does the game that brought The Matrix-inspired combat to games stand the test of time?
First announced in 1998 at E3 with a flashy trailer that showed off some impressive (at the time) particle effects, the game was originally supposed to release in the summer of 1999, but was pushed back to allow some heavy re-development and changes; changes that probably played a big part in the game’s initial success. Upon its release in 2001, fans were given a hard-boiled detective noir story heavily inspired by Hong Kong action cinema; something that was pretty rare at the time.
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The story follows Max Payne, a former New York City cop who left the force following the brutal murder of his wife and baby daughter. Since leaving the police Max has joined the DEA, and has been undercover inside a powerful crime family who control the distribution of the dangerous new drug, Valkyr. Over the course of the game we play as Max as he stumbles from one dangerous shoot-out to the next as both the police and the criminals of New York set their sights on the bitter, mentally tortured man.
The game is a pretty dark one, and doesn’t shy away from both violence and the severe PTSD that Max is dealing with. There are segments of the game where, under the influence of the Valkyr drug, Max is forced to relive coming home to find his family murdered; segments that still stick out years later for people that played the game.
The creators of Max Payne leaned into the gritty aesthetic though, and even used this when creating the game. Instead of producing fully rendered cut scenes to break up the levels, the team conveyed the story through both still, graphic novel style artwork, and the inner monologue from Max that would also appear mid-level to help give hints to the player and deliver character and story information. These moments were, honestly, pretty cheesy, and the dialogue is fairly hackneyed and sometimes felt like a parody of old Hollywood noir stories; but it was so absurd in its ridiculousness that you kind of ended up forgiving it at times.
What really made the game stand out at the time, though, was the use of bullet time. With the press of a button the action would slow to a crawl, and you could see bullets slowly making their way through the air towards you as enemies ducked for cover at a snails pace. Whilst Max was also equally slow in these moments it did allow you a moment to survey your surroundings without the risk of getting shot, and enabled you to execute some impressive dives through the air whilst returning fire. The games developers were aware that this would be compared to The Matrix, which came out during the development of the game, so added in a few nods to the movie in a couple of the levels.
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Despite being a bit flawed in places, Max Payne received favourable reviews, largely due to being very different to other shooter games at the time, and once it made the leap from PC to Playstation 2 it just got even more popular. In its debut month on PC the game sold more than 82,000 copies, and once it arrived on Playstation it sold over 430,000 copies. A success by anyone’s standards. Alongside the sales, the game got a ton of positive reviews and accolades from the press and regular gamers, receiving high scores across the board. It also won a lot of awards, including the Best PC Game of 2001 BAFTA.
With the success of the game it’s no surprise that a sequel was given the green-light, with Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne receiving a release two years later in 2003. Possibly aptly named, the second game would be the height of the series’ popularity, despite the franchise receiving a live action film starring Mark Wahlberg in 2008, as well as a third game in 2012. Despite the low success of the franchise later on, Max Payne was a still a highly successful game on its initial release.