Max Payne

Max Payne

Into each life, a little Payne must fall. In the case of fallen-cop turned avenging-angel Max Payne, a little goes an extremely long way and feels just like the delicate kiss of a metal slug shot at high velocity through naked flesh. Payne, the violent star of his own eponymous third-person action-adventure title, has earned top marks on the PC; now, with his eyes on even bigger game, the anti-hero’s anti-hero goes shooting on Microsoft’s Xbox.

Payne is Job with a firearm, and certainly without the forbearance. When his version of the American Dream shatters, Payne sets upon vengeance, shooting more men than Polaroid and spilling more blood than Vlad the Impaler. His one-man war against New York crime syndicates and, ultimately, the purveyors of the designer drug Valkyr V, forms a wonderful backdrop for a game that’s equal parts brilliant and bloody.

The world of Payne is served up film noir style and is narrated throughout by the protagonist in a haunted man’s monotone. Comic book cut scenes punctuate each level, and exposition intermingles freely with prose that’s reminiscent of modern-day pulp detective fiction. “The headlines were screaming bloody murder,” Payne muses at one point. “The storm was a screaming duet with the approaching prowl car sirens. It was all a scream when you were down for the count and wanted for murder.” While not exactly subtle, the interludes serve to set Payne apart from the hordes of “do unto others harder and faster before they do unto you” shooters.

A snowed-in Big Apple becomes Payne’s playground. His mission takes him through the subway system, the most depressing hotel on Earth, crate-choked warehouses and a rusted-out cargo ship in order to ultimately reach a twisted version of heaven (in the form of a soulless steel tower). Expect a mix of wild shootouts and firefights, wherein tactics against dumb A.I.-fueled thugs can be put into play. Payne can access a series of weapons–ranging from simple handguns to exotic Molotov Cocktails–in order to properly ventilate his foes, and will be called upon to put some heat into his feet as well. At one point, Payne steps directly into a trap and must escape from a firebombed building; without pause, our grizzled gunfighter must race through an ever-expanding haze of red and black to reach the door to safety–beyond which, armed goons wait.

Though there are simple turn-off-your-cerebrum puzzles to solve and perilous platforms to both leap on and cross, the game makes no pretense as to their importance. Payne is all adrenaline testosterone, and fires on all cylinders when the hero bursts into a room full of ne’er-do-wells who have ordered up the lead sandwich special. Here, players can opt to slug it out in real time, or do things John Woo-style with a special “bullet time” feature. When “bullet time is activated, gameplay slows to a crawl, and our hero Payne can execute delicate leaps and dives, all while targeting his foes at normal speed. In slow motion, it’s possible to catch every white bullet trail and crimson blood spray; we’d daresay it’s violence made beautiful.

Payne holds up throughout, save for two particularly horrid scenes that take place in the twisted corridors of Max’s mind. After navigating a claustrophobic version of his house, Max must walk a series of thin red lines and hop onto a series of blood pools to reach a place that definitely wasn’t worth the trip. If Payne strays from the trail, he’ll plummet into blackness–and the symbolism couldn’t be made more apparent if the developers came to your house to explain it personally.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.