Max Payne: A Neo-Noir Classic


I have a lot of fond memories as a kid just browsing through Gamestop. Half the time, I didn’t even get anything; it was more so just me dreaming of what it would be like to play that game with the cool cover. Sadly, the feeling of physically looking for a game to play isn’t something most kids nowadays will experience. 

The funny part is that most of the time, I had no idea what the game with the cool cover and title was even about. Case in point: “Max Payne.” Specifically, I remember seeing “Max Payne 3” on the shelves at a Gamestop, when I was probably about 11 or 12. I had no idea what it was about, or what kind of game it was, and I didn’t even realize that the title was the main character’s name. All I thought was that it was a cool-looking cover, and I thought the title was “Max Pain.” However, I wasn’t able to play it back then, and completely forgot about it for quite some time. 

Now as an adult, I finally had the chance. However, instead of starting at the third entry, I decided on the original “Max Payne,” which was easy to do. This was thanks to Microsoft’s willingness to make games on older systems readily available on modern hardware (It was available on PS4 as well, but Sony still needs to take notes on reverse compatibility). The “Max Payne” series as a whole has an interesting history; it isn’t brought up a lot in conversation but was highly influential in the third-person shooter genre, specifically its famous use of the “bullet time” mechanic. Now, how exactly does a game released 22 years ago hold up today? 

Well, it holds up remarkably well. Dripping in style and oozing in substance, “Max Payne” is an absolute gem from start to finish. Not only is the gameplay endlessly enjoyable, “Max Payne” contains one of the best stories of any game, let alone third-person shooters. Its mix of classic noir tropes, surreal dream sequences and a unique style of presentation makes “Max Payne” an absolute classic in terms of storytelling, and propels it into the category of one of the best games of all time. 

“Max Payne” was released on July 23rd, 2001 for the Xbox, Playstation 2 and PC. It was produced by Finnish company Remedy Entertainment, who would go on to develop cult classics such as “Alan Wake” and “Control.” It was Remedy’s second effort in the video game sphere, following the vehicular combat game “Death Rally,” released in 1996. The company took heavy inspiration from both classic noir stories and Hong Kong action films for their next title. 

Despite working with a limited budget, Remedy’s sophomore effort put them on the map, and for the only being the company’s second venture, is an incredibly impressive title. In 2022, it was also announced that both “Max Payne 1 and 2” were getting full-fledged remakes for the PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC, allowing newer players to experience Max’s story with modern graphics. 

“Max Payne” follows the titular character, a rogue NYPD detective turned DEA agent. The game sees Max waging a one-man war against the New York Mafia, and later a pharmaceutical company, as he seeks revenge for the death of his wife Michelle and infant daughter Rose, who were both killed by junkies high on a new designer drug. He goes undercover in the Punchinello crime family, the ones responsible for trafficking the drug, in an effort to get right to the source. After being framed for the death of his partner and friend, Alex, Max becomes a fugitive. Only left with his wits and a seemingly endless armory, Max seeks to uncover the truth behind his family’s deaths, and ultimately kill those responsible. 

From the very beginning, Max’s story is captivating, tragic, and satisfying to watch unfold. The fact the narrative and characters flow so well is even more impressive, considering just how many ideas are thrown around. For one thing, the story features several nods to Norse Mythology. The designer drug which serves as the driving force is called Valkyr, and it was created by a secret military operation project Valhalla (referencing the Valkyries and Valhalla, where heroes who die in battle go in Norse myths); Max visits a nightclub called the Ragna Rock at one point (Ragnarok being the prophesied end of the world); and finally, the big pharmaceutical company is called the Aesir Corporation (in reference to the Aesir Gods).

In place of traditional cinematic cutscenes, “Max Payne” uses graphic novel panels in order to convey its story. This not only adds a lot to the game’s neo-noir aesthetic, but also gives Max Payne its own signature look. These panels would feature many of Remedy’s staff as the characters, although actual actors would be put in those roles in future installments.

On top of that, “Max Payne” incorporates a few different genres and tropes. At one point, it resembles a mobster film; then, it adds occult and even supernatural elements in one stage. Then, government conspiracies are at the forefront. Despite the mishmash of different ideas, the story works incredibly well, and each of these elements finds a way to fit into the overall narrative.

What makes “Max Payne’s” story even better is its presentation. In place of traditional cutscenes, Remedy opted to instead use graphic novel panels to present the story to the player. While this was largely due to the aforementioned budget restraints, it gave “Max Payne” a style that is undeniably its own. Also, because of the lack of budget, Remedy could not afford actors; instead, the majority of the characters are portrayed by Remedy staff and crew in the graphic novel panels. Most famously, Sam Lake, the head writer of “Max Payne” and Remedy’s creative director, provided his likeness for Max himself. 

If there’s anything that adds to the graphic novel panels, it’s Max’s narration. While Lake provided the character’s appearance, it was James McAffrey who provided Max’s voice. His gruff yet ever-so-smooth voice adds so many layers to Max’s character. His dialogue is absolutely perfect, with Sam Lake writing some of the most quotable lines in video game history, and McAffrey adding a signature flair to the delivery. Max’s monologues give the game its Neo-noir feel, dripping in grit and full of metaphors. And truly, there was nobody else who could deliver lines like “The final gunshot was an exclamation to everything that had led to this point. I released my finger from the trigger, and it was over” like McAffrey can. 

Sam Lake (left), Remedy’s creative director and the lead writer of Max Payne, also served as Max’s model. Max’s voice was provided by James McAffrey (right), who would reprise his role in the next two installments. Lake, meanwhile, would continue as lead writer for Max Payne up until Max Payne 3, where it was handled by Rockstar.

Of course, Max isn’t the only character in the game, and definitely isn’t the only one with some killer lines; the entire game is filled with top-notch dialogue and voice acting. The game introduces us to classic femme fatale Mona Sax, with the foundations of her and Max’s relationship quickly being laid. While she doesn’t have nearly as much importance to the story as she does in the sequel, her presence as a mysterious contract killer and foil to Max is definitely welcome. There’s also Russian Mobster Vladimir Lem, who becomes a valuable ally to Max in the latter portion of the game. Other memorable side characters include Alfred Woden, a member of a secret society, and Jim Bravura, a police officer who constantly hunts Max throughout the game. 

Then, there are the villains; the main antagonist of the game is Nicole Horne, the president of the Aesir corporation. If you’re looking for a villain you just absolutely love to hate, Horne is that villain; cold, heartless, and imposing, Horne is the type of antagonist you desperately want to see taken down. There are also several side villains Max deals with on his way. 

First, there’s Jack Lupino, the crazed underboss of the local mafia who has gotten a little too hooked on Valkyr; Vinnie Gognitti, Lupino’s right-hand man whose high-pitched voice, complete with heavy New York accent, adds plenty of comic relief to the gritty story. Other minor villains include hitman Frankie “The Bat” Niagara, Mafia don Angelo Punchinello and gangster Rico Muerte. These characters, while some are not as prominent as others, help build the world and add plenty of memorable lines, thanks to the excellent writing of Sam Lake and some quality vocal performances. Lupino’s “I have tasted the flesh of fallen angels!” is definitely a line you’ll never forget. 

Considering how long ago the game came out, the game’s graphics hold their own. There are some impressive environments and landscapes scattered throughout. The opening cinematic features a decent look at New York. The entire backdrop of New York City covered in thick snow just adds to “Max Payne’s” gritty, noir aesthetic. To complement this, the color palette is very mute, mainly consisting of dull grays and blacks. While most times, this dull color scheme would be detrimental, if anything, it really adds to the sense of hopelessness and futility of the game. 

Admittedly, the character designs have aged the worst; while the characters look excellent in the graphic novel panels, in-game they look downright goofy at times. Static expressions and weirdly shaped heads are shown a lot, often in dramatic close-ups. However, I find this to have a certain charm to it, and it doesn’t take away from the game’s aesthetic at all. It’s more of a humorous consequence of primitive hardware and a limited budget. 

“Max Payne’s” gameplay is another area where it truly shines. The game is divided into three parts with multiple chapters, each with different environments and enemy varieties. You’ll start off fighting standard goons and mob enforcers before moving up to armored soldiers and mercenaries. Max has access to a variety of different weapons. Starting with the berettas, you are ultimately able to use a desert eagle, a pump action and double-barrelled shotgun, dual Ingrams (aka the best weapon in the entire game), a sniper rifle, a colt commando, and even a grenade launcher. You also have various throwables, including grenades and Molotovs. Max is able to recover from damage through the use of painkillers, found in either medicine cabinets or, very rarely, on the bodies of fallen enemies. 

While these elements are fun, on their own, they wouldn’t be anything special; that’s where bullet time comes in. 

One of Max Payne’s defining features is its use of the bullet time mechanic. This ability allows players to slow down time, allowing for better accuracy and quicker reflexes. It also gives players access to the shootdodge; a slow-motion dive which allows for enemies to be taken out in quick succession, and moves Max out of the way of gunfire.

Now, “Max Payne” didn’t invent the term “bullet time” (that honor goes to The Matrix), but it absolutely popularized it in the gaming sphere, and next to the graphic novel panels as cutscenes, is “Max Payne’s” signature feature. Bullet time allows the player to slow down time around them, while Max moves at normal speed. This not only allows for better accuracy and reflexes but also enables the shoot-dodge, which sees Max in slow motion diving through the air. 

This ability can make the difference between life and death in many firefights, especially on higher difficulties. The smooth controls and Max’s weighty movement add a lot to make the fights feel that much more satisfying. And let me tell you; there’s not a feeling quite like diving past a wall and gunning down a large group of enemies before Max even hits the ground. This ability would also pave the way for numerous other games down the line. Any game that allows the player to slow down time and focus their shots was likely inspired by “Max Payne.” 

Now, as fun as the combat is and how gracefully this game has aged overall, this is, unfortunately one section where it definitely has shown its age: the blood maze sections.

At the beginning of both Part 2 and Part 3, Max experiences a nightmare about the night his family dies. These dream sequences alone are excellent; they not only give insight into Max’s psyche but also have memorable set pieces and moments within them; the second one in particular comes to mind, due to it breaking the fourth wall. However, both of the nightmares contain by far my least favorite part of the entire game; sections where Max must navigate thin trails of blood floating over an endless abyss, as he follows the cries of his baby daughter. 

In concept, these sections are pretty cool, and are beyond haunting; however, they are also ridiculously hard. While Max’s movement is smooth overall, it isn’t made for navigating thin walkways. It also doesn’t help that, half the time you don’t even know where you’re going. And if you fall, you have to start from the beginning. The second bloodline is even worse, as every single time Max falls into the abyss, you are subjected to an absolutely horrifying scream. So, yeah, I absolutely despise these sections. 

Another aspect that I think deserves at least some criticism is the weapon inaccuracy for some guns. Now, nine times out of 10, you are hitting your mark, and it feels excellent every time; however, some guns are wildly inaccurate, and to me, it seems completely random. The pump action shotgun is the best example of this; sometimes, your shot will land, and the enemies will go flying to the ground. Other times, you’ll point the gun, shoot, and nothing happens; they just turn and fill Max full of lead. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it either resulted in me taking a ton of damage and having to retreat, and me dying almost immediately from a barrage of gunfire. 

While I don’t think it is a major issue in the long run, “Max Payne” does seem to be extra harsh on new players in some ways. Now, I played the game on Hard Boiled difficulty, and while it was pretty brutal sometimes (especially during the final stage of the game), some of the tactics used by the enemies would catch people off guard no matter what difficulty. 

The AI in “Max Payne” is pretty impressive; they communicate with their allies and usually group together to make things more difficult for the player. They can also straight-up ambush the player without any warning. Sure, most will know they are about to walk into a room full of goons by the loud conversations. However, there are also plenty of times when a random grenade will fall down a flight of stairs (usually resulting in instant death for those who don’t see it coming), or an enemy will come out of Narnia and start blasting away. 

Another tactic some enemies like to use is hiding in a corner just behind doors; unprepared players will dive through that door to take out the enemies on the other side, only to get immediately peppered with bullets by the hidden goon. While you’ll be prepared for it again when you respawn, it can’t help but feel cheap. This is made worse by the fact that it does happen plenty of times, but not often enough for you to know it’s coming. 

As much as I despise the bloodline sections and how cheap some of the deaths may feel, these hardly do anything to diminish “Max Payne’s” reputation as a classic. It has easily one of the most engaging and interesting stories of any third-person shooter, the writing by Sam Lake is superb, its presentation and art style are unique and undeniably its own, the voice acting is top-notch, and the gameplay is an absolute blast from start to finish. The bullet time ability just makes gunfights that much more enjoyable, and the feeling you get from diving through the air and gunning down every enemy you see can’t be topped. I cannot recommend “Max Payne” enough, and I’m looking forward to what the remake will bring us.