Payneful Memories: The Best of Max Payne

To me, there’s nothing quite like the “Max Payne” series.

As a fan of action movies, there is no game that can fulfill that itch I have for some ultra violence after watching one of my favorites like “Max Payne” does. More than that, though, the series has its own style and charm that very few games across any genre can possibly hope to match. It’s made up of a million little things that all come together to make something greater than it even looked on paper.

So in honor of “Max Payne 3’s” impending release, I’d like to reflect on ten of my favorite moments, levels, aspects, and everything else from the first two “Max Payne” games.

Mod Max – The “Max Payne” series was designed to be heavily moddable, and from day one gamers have taken advantage of that. From mods that make the game even more cinematic, to giving you the option of employing “Equilibrium’s” gunkata style, and way, way, to many “Matrix” mods, there is a strong community out there devoted to maximizing the games experience.

The two that really stand out, though, are the brilliant Kung Fu mod that gives Max martial arts skills, along with some deadlier gunplay abilities, thus helping the game become even more of an homage to the kung-fu classics that inspired it, and a mod that turns the game into a brawler set in the “Street Fighter” universe. The latter is actually kind of dull and buggy, while the former is a necessity. Both though represent the incredible ability the game has to be modded, and the creative impulses this series inspires out of its fanbase.

Innocent Man’s Story – This is maybe my favorite little moment of the series. In “Max Payne 2,” you are in a police station, when you overhear a cop interrogating a suspect over a double murder. Stay and listen and you will hear the absolute worst criminal alibi of all time delivered by a man who looks and sounds suspiciously like Joe Pesci.

I really can’t do this one justice with words. You have to see it for yourself.

Escorting Vinny – Escort missions have to be one of the worst ideas ever put into video games. The idea of having to protect someone with no ability to defend themselves from a constant onslaught of armed foes who desire nothing more than to see your charge dead is one that conjures both dread and constant restarts from gamers forced into them.

Leave it to “Max Payne 2,” then, to have one of the few exceptions. You’re forced to protect mob honcho, and renowned idiot, Vinnie Gognitti from a gang of assassins and escort him to a safe haven. The kicker here is that he’s trapped in a suit of his favorite comic character (Captain Baseball Bat Boy) that’s wired to explode. Vinnie is able to hide somewhat admirably, and can take a decent amount of damage, but it’s the costume and predicament that make this a bearable, and even entertaining, segment of the game. The best part comes when you make a stop at Vinnie’s apartment only to see that it’s filled with Captain Baseball Bat Boy memorabilia (that Vinnie will freak out over if you damage).

Only Max Payne could bring so much amusement to such a usually horrible design decision.

Comic Cut Scenes – These definitely aren’t one of those little things about the series, as they took up a large part of the games themselves, but I always loved the comic book strip-style cutscenes of the series. Their washed out noir-style drawings leant a sense of style to the characters and atmosphere that the games’ graphics couldn’t do on their own. In fact, when I visually remember this game, it tends to be in this style and not the actual gameplay. I don’t think I ever looked forward to a cinema break in an action game as much before, or since, “Max Payne.”

It’s a shame then that “Max Payne 3” will be going the more traditional cut scene route. Of course, they were only done in the first place due to budget constraints that didn’t allow the developer to make full traditional cut scenes for the whole story (a problem new developer Rockstar definitely doesn’t share). That’s probably a good thing, though, as this aspect remains one of the few things that the many “Max Payne” imitation games wouldn’t dare try to copy, and is therefore forever unique to the series.

Worlds’ Most Talkative Bad Guys – There are countless incidents in both “Max Payne” games where you will sneak up on a group of bad guys (or even just NPCs) and catch them in the middle of a conversation. While these are sometimes no more elaborate than “ITS MAX PAYNE!,” some of them actually make up the best dialog in the game.

Some of my favorites are a group of thugs discussing the spoiler endings of some real movies (“Seven” and “The Usual Suspects“), two hitters loudly contemplating the best way to pull off a secret ambush on Max, and a regretful mobster saying that he doesn’t even enjoy this life of killing and is just trying to support his family.

You can find some more of these (from “Max Payne 2”) in this video.

Punchenello Manor – The best part of the first “Max Payne” comes when you get to finally invade the home of mob kingpin Angelo Punchenello. Recently loaded to the teeth, thanks to your good friend Vladimir, Max starts off in the mansion’s wine cellar and slowly works his way up to the big man himself, redecorating with his firearms along the way.

If the overall goal of “Max Payne” is to make the player feel like the star of their own action movie, then this level could be considered the apex of that mission. There is something so incredibly satisfying about working your way through the castle of a mob boss, and it really reminds you of the climax of several great action movies as well. Plus, the home itself is incredibly well designed and stands out from some of the other drab sections of the first game (such as warehouses and factories), to create a detailed environment that is just as much fun to admire as it is to shoot your way through. Barrels of wine spring leaks from bullet holes, pictures fall from their mounts, and pianos even go out of tune after becoming victims of gunfire.

Overall, it’s truly one of the best action playgrounds ever created.

Address Unknown – There’s a host of TV sets in the “Max Payne” titles. Most give you snow, a couple offer cutscenes, and one even blows up when you try to operate it. The rest, though ,are tuned into fake television shows such as the soap hit “Lords and Ladies,” the none too subtle self-referential “Dick Justice,” and comic turned TV show hit “Captain Baseball Bat Boy”.

The best one comes in “Max Payne 2” and is called “Address Unknown.” It’s a “Twin Peaks”-style mystery that follows a man on the hunt for the serial killer who murdered his wife. There seems to have been a particular care put into the these episodes, as the plot is actually genuinely engaging and makes the episodes worth seeking out in order to follow the series to its fun conclusion. It, along with the other syndications, stand as a glowing representation of Remedy’s creative potential.

Viking Mythos – The first “Max Payne’s” story and dialog was about as subtle as a slow-motion sawed-off shotgun blast to the face. However, some of the more clever and memorable bits of the tale came in the form of references to Norse mythology. The games fictional designer drug is called Valkyrie (or V), a nod to the warrior women of legend who chose the most worthy of soldiers to be taken to the heaven of Valhalla. Valhalla, then, is the name of the project that originally designed the drug as an enhancer for soldiers. The company behind the project is named Aesir, a play on the name of the high pantheon of Norse gods.

There are many more. The mob club Ragna Rock is a reference to the Viking apocalypse, Max’s benefactor is a one-eyed man named Woden, which is a reference to the equally eye-patched high god Odin. Hell, the name of the building they meet in (Asgard) shares a title with the Norse realm the gods lived in. The best reference, though, comes in the form of the games, constant snowfall, which apparently preceded the Ragnarok apocalypse. It sets the mood of the world perfectly and ties in all of its little nods well.

Like a Rag Doll – Released in 2003, “Max Payne 2” was one of the first games to use the Havok physics engine. This revolutionary system allowed for some of the best animation ever seen in a shooter, and led to shootouts that featured armies of bad guys dying in unique (and twistedly humorous) ways. Remedy made great use of the then-new technology by doing things like stacking a wall of cardboard boxes atop a stair case, or placing enemies in front of open windows where they could fall onto a scaffolding, thereby triggering a fall of debris that moved differently each time you did it based on how the kill went.

In fact, except for bullet time, you could call this “Max Payne’s” most significant contribution to video games. The Havok engine is now standard in many action games (and is a particular darling of Valve ever since “Half-Life 2”), and it makes going back to shooters before its invention somewhat more difficult (just look at the static deaths in the first “Max Payne” for a good example of this). “Max Payne 2” may have not invented the software, but it showed fans and developers how much better things could be with it.

The Secret Rooms – Littered throughout both games are secret rooms and passages in nearly every level. At the least, they are loaded with painkillers, guns and ammo. Sometimes, though, some of the game’s best Easter eggs can be found in these hidden areas (including the absolute oddest Buffy the Vampire Slayer reference I’ve ever encountered).

What I love about these is that even though “Max Payne” is a pretty linear experience, these secret rooms keep you exploring every nook of the game, and provided an opportunity for Remedy to show off their impressive skill at creating “those little moments.” Hidden rooms never go out of style in video games, and style is one of the things that the “Max Payne” series excels at. It’s a great combination.

FunhouseI mentioned before that “Max Payne 2” contains some of my favorite level design of all time. Of those segments, the greatest is the funhouse level. Actually, I guess I should say levels as you actually pay a visit to it three times throughout the game. The first is a standard, but incredible, walkthrough of the house as you take a break from the shooting and violence to enjoy the cheap thrills. The last one involves you going through it again while everything burns around you, causing the tricks and decorations to short out.

By far the best one is your second time through as you get to go behind the scenes of the ride and see how all of the tricks work, while also using them to help take out a gang of baddies sent to kill Max and Mona. It’s just such a simple idea that is taken to absolute perfection, and for that reason actually represents what makes the “Max Payne” franchise so great in the first place.


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