It seems funny now, but back at the turn of the millennium, I was still chomping at the bit for Duke Nukem Forever to release. So naturally, when they put out one of their (now infamous) teaser trailers, there were tears of joy and cries of rage that the game had not come out yet. However, all this was displayed with a slightly distracted air, since I was taken aback by the trailer for Max Payne that came out at the same time.
While Duke Nukem Forever would take over another decade and lots of drama to see the light of day, Max Payne was in our hands by 2001, and it was good. The Matrix was still fresh in my mind back then, and when I first used the game’s slow-motion Bullet Time feature, the first thought in my head was, “Why doesn’t every game have this?” Shootdodging was another favourite, and I can attest that leaping across the ground while firing your weapons in slow motion takes a long time to get old.
The comic book aesthetic and moody narrative treatment were also quite fun, even if the monologues during the cutscenes got hammy to the point of self-parody. Anyway, near the end of the game, by which time I’d taken out half the mob population in New York, I realised that the game had been quite a watershed moment for third-person shooters.
Fast forward to present day when I’m trying out the recently released Max Payne 3, and I’ve got to say, even nostalgia isn’t saving this one. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older and more cynical now, but this game has some serious flaws that I’m finding impossible to ignore. Numero uno on the list is that playing the game feels like going out on a fun trip, but under the strict supervision of somebody else. Ever so often, you start to get into the groove of things, then a cutscene comes along and ties your hands for a few minutes, and by the time you regain control, you’re somewhere else. The game is practically going, “Ok, that’s enough. Move along. Now check this out.” Now while I know most games involve herding of some sort, I definitely don’t appreciate it when they don’t even make any effort to conceal it.
Second, it seems like the most outrageous stuff happens during cutscenes. Hey, I paid for this game, so the least you can do is let me play through the stunts. And finally, it’s very hard to remain invested in the characters when they have constant displays of utter imbecility. At times, I’m not sure whether I’m watching Peep Show or playing Max Payne.
Case in point — during one mission, you’re supposed to provide cover fire for an ally, so he can get to a safe point unscathed. All the while, he’s helpless because his weapon just ran out of ammo prior to this sequence. Normally, I’d sympathise, but when all the bad guys that I’m taking out are dropping their weapons at his feet, and he just ignores them and runs past with his hands on his head, then I’ve got to start wondering what business this guy has being a bodyguard.
Even Max doesn’t get away scot-free on that count. during a later mission, after cutting a swathe through the gangs in the favelas without breaking a sweat, I reach the end of the mission, and then a cutscene plays where Max sees a room with five gang members inside with a handful of hostages and decides that, suddenly, the odds are too high to go in with guns blazing.
So cutscenes are a toss-up; you don’t know whether something outrageous or something outrageously dumb is going to happen. And when the game takes the character out of your control, and makes him do something which goes against how you’ve been using him, then there’s cause to be aggrieved.
In the end, Max has two masters — you and the game, and it’s pretty clear that he’s more beholden to the latter. There’s a decent action game under there somewhere, but there is way too much fluff to make searching for it worthwhile.