Max Payne wavered on the edge of Good and Meh for several hours of gameplay, finally falling on the wrong side of the fence around the midway point of the game. The game basically tries to be an approximation of a John Woo movie, where you go into slow-motion dives firing Double Gats at heaps of foes. This isn't a bad core idea at all, and at times when the game works right, it works brilliantly. Unfortunately, when it ISN'T working, it's immensely frustrating, and those moments seem to eventually outweigh the good ones.
The plot is basically an action movie revenge cliche. Cop's family gets murdered by druggies, cop goes undercover into drug-dealing mob to get revenge, cop's partner and last link to the outside world gets killed, cop becomes a LOOSE CANNON and basically kills the entire Mafia single-handedly in retribution. The game makes much of being "noir." People say all the bad writing and incredibly cheesy Sam Spade talk is supposed to be intentional and satirical, but it doesn't come off that way to me at all and I think that's post-facto excuse-making by fans. Anyway, the writing, story and characters aren't really a problem at all. It's a balls-out action game, so none of those things matter, and the atmosphere is actually frequently brilliant.
The problem is that the game, in 2001, is still mired in 1990s PC FPS level design mentality and programming limitations. It's published by 3D Realms, whose previous biggest hit was Duke Nukem 3D. Now, everyone remembers all the good times about Duke 3D - Duke himself, the awesome Dukematches over modem or LAN with buddies, and how amazing and expansive the levels seemed when it came out. What most people forget about Duke is what a sloggy, stuttering experience it was beyond the first few levels - heaps of insta-death ambushes, having to save and reload constantly. That describes Max Payne to a T. It's like a masochistic, perfectionist space shooter incarnated in 3D action game form; the only thing making it tolerable is that you can quicksave at any moment.
In 1990s PC FPS, programming of AI was pretty limited in scope. So difficulty was generated through a few things, all of them rather cheap. I like to call it the John Romero School of Level Design. You have a lot of cheap and fatal ambushes that are nearly impossible to avoid until you've died to them at least once and know they're coming. And since the common enemies can't be made to "think" very well, you put them in tightly pre-scripted positions, then you simply jack up their offense and defense to ridiculous levels.
In Max Payne, this comes in the form of All-Knowing All-Seeing Grunts. The split second you have no cover between you and them - even if their backs are turned and they are 50 yards away - they instantly become aware of your presence and turn and fire instantly. They always know exactly where you are with their psychic powers, so if you run three rooms back through a bunch of doors and set up in an ambush position, they'll pop through a door already facing you and firing the instant they come through. They take a ridiculous amount of damage compared to what you can take (and how many there are v.s. you), and feel no pain - a shotgun blast to the torso at close range is only a momentary annoyance to them, like a mosquito bite. They all have incredible aim. They also seem to be fully self-aware that they are only nameless grunts in a video game, and will suicidally glory-charge you constantly even though they shouldn't know your exact position or what kind of firepower you're waiting for them with. And a grunt with a good weapon, such as the shotgun or double MACs, will kill you in one shot at close range even early in the game.
I guess the point of all this is to push you into using "bullet time", the game's big gimmick. But I found it barely useful. First, there's two ways you can use it. The simpler way is to do a dive in one of the four cardinal directions that puts everything in slow-mo, but allows you to aim at the same speed. You need to do this when you're forced to go through a room full of mooks holing up under partial cover. The problem is it doesn't last very long, it's still hard to aim while diving, and if you don't annihalate the mooks perfectly when you come out of the dive you just sort of stand up at regular speed and get torn to shit by their bullets. The other option is to go into perma-bullet-time, which lets you move around freely in slow-mo. The problem with that is, YOU move in slow-mo too, its not like the Matrix. All you can do is aim at regular speed, which I guess is helpful in hitting guys, but not really that helpful in dodging their shots for when you, say, get forced to run down a corridor with a guy with a MAC posted up at the other end. You also have a very limited amount of "bullet time potion", which is only refilled between levels. Going into "perma-bullet-time" gives you maybe ten seconds or so of it before you're completely drained and can't even do the basic dives any more.
It wasn't long before I got sick of every single goddamn common enemy being The Terminator, but even with that the game was still compelling and I stuck with it even when I was quick-reloading the same scenario ten times trying to get all the pre-scripted movements down. The thing that tore it for me was the "nightmare levels". In a couple of places, the enemies inject Max with drugs and he has hallucinations that serve as levels. The atmosphere in these is superb but the gameplay is bullshit. The whole thing is either trial-and-error maze of corridors, or following some finicky little tightrope of blood that also has trial-and-error branches. Pick the wrong direction and you die. More save-reload bullshit.
If they toned things down (this was on the LOWEST difficulty, which you're forced to complete to unlock the others - there's three harder modes!) and gave the game a more modern mentality in the scripting and level design, it'd be brilliant fun. There's enough potential that I'm looking forward to jumping into Max Peenor 2 to see what adjustments they made to the formula. But this first game is just too dated and rough. Maybe worth a shot when Steam puts it on sale for 2 bucks, but not more than that.
* Gameplay Video