“I came in from the cold and the dark. Outside, the city was a cruel monster.”
Remedy’s 2001 release Max Payne was a mega-hit, receiving numerous game of the year awards. As Rockstar prepares to release Max Payne 3, the game that started it all has been ported yet again, this time as Max Payne Mobile.
From the start, Payne is a bleak experience, set in a frozen New York City. The location selection adheres strictly to NYC staples, but perhaps an older, grimier version. The subway system, dilapidated tenements, the iconic city streets, docks, and a multi-tiered highrise finale that features suitably epic treatment. The game begins compellingly in media res, with Payne atop the impressive skyscraper, ready to go to war, and then makes the narrative choice to have you play through the night your wife and child were murdered, in a setup as classic as any. From there, Max will go on a heady journey against the mafia to expose a drug conspiracy coverup.
Max Payne was very much a PC release when it first appeared and boasted impressive specifications and significantly higher resolution textures than most releases of the time. Much credit must be given to Remedy’s custom designed engine, one that ran fluidly on a number of systems of the era, but one that also served as a benchmark for even the most powerful PC rigs. Remedy used the most advanced techniques available at the time to create a credible environment. There is a strong focus on interactivity and tables are strewn with magazines and trash. Max Payne feels like it is culled from the same modern sensibilities as even the most recent shooter.
In many ways Payne ushered in the modern era, boasting location specific damage, enemies with personality, and a cinematic camera system that was astonishing at the time and holds up better than it should. Of all the weapons, the desert eagle most consistently proves itself worth its weight in gold, even if later levels require you to rely on heavy hitters like automatic shotguns, assault rifles, and grenade launchers. Remedy has always made a good use of sound, and Payne includes memorable music, including the haunting opening theme, and chunky weapon sounds that really make you feel the Beretta, shotgun, or Ingrams at your disposal. The voice acting is still just as memorable.
Bullet time is far and away the show stopping gameplay element. Every time Max activates this ability, time slows to a fraction of what it would be, and lets Max take encounters to a whole new level of badass. With this crucial time, Max is able to face impossible odds and navigate the ballet of bullets he will engage in as very bullet leaves a trail that can be clearly seen and avoided. Max can also “shootdodge” dramatically in an direction, John Woo style.
The touch-based controls work well enough, and are about as good as we can get with that sort of interface. It uses standard on-screen joystick and hot prompt buttons for shooting, using bullet time, and reloading. Still, pair it with any half-decent bluetooth controller or keyboard and mouse and it is still incredible to have a portable Max Payne. Max Payne is a difficult game, and the training wheels come off early as Max goes up against consistently tougher enemies that require precision. It is fairly violent, as enemies tend to erupt into bloody fountains. And yet, even this is tame by modern standards. Still, the narrative is decidely mature in content, complete with a memorable jaunt to a junkie infested tenement.
A heavy layer of cheese permeates the entire game, and this likely has just as much to do with the relatively low budget the team worked with as aim for a purposefully pulpy and over the top noir world. One sequence takes place in a bar heavily fashioned after Norse mythology and the Valkyries. Cutscenes are also perfectly future protected, by using a stylish blend of photography and painting to provide a brilliant noir pastiche. The game is strewn with in-jokes and references, including various team members posing for different characters, and even team lead Sam Lake as Max himself.
Ultimately, Max Payne Mobile does what any good port strives for and reminds players what they liked about the game in the first place. Remedy is a different type of developer, one unafraid to embrace absurdity or take risks, even if some of those risks don’t pay off (platform heavy nightmare levels, I’m looking at you). And of their efforts a timeless classic was born.
Max Payne Mobile is available now for $2.99 on iOS device and will soon be released for Android.