Max Payne is a 3rd person action / adventure game, set against a gritty backdrop of drugs and violence. You play the title character, a Mr Max Payne - a detective with the NYPD, dealing out rough justice to the criminal underworld. But there's a catch - very early on, your family is taken from you and you are framed for murder; now even the cops want you dead.
And so it begins.
Max plays like any number of action games before it - let's not kid ourselves, this is a familiar premise. You, some bad guys, a some guns - lots of guns. What makes it different? Chances are good that you have read about it's unique slowmo feature (more on that in a minute) that lets you deal out maximum carnage with maximum style, but that's not all - this is no one trick pony. This game just ooozes polish, like none before it. The hundreds of little moments of genius design, combined with an edgy "graphic novel" presentation of the hard-edged storyline and graphical finesse lift this game into the realms of legend - if you want a game that you can really impress with or one that you'll find yourself spending hours discussing with your workmates, look no further; it doesn't get better than this.
Technically, this game engine is impressive - it will run on a vast array of equipment, with many options to tweak it even further - from the bottom of the range 400MHz computer of yesterday through to tomorrows multi-gigahertz mega beasts, you can push your PC hard but still play it. The features that this engine implements include many firsts - from the technical (e.g. Radiosity Lighting and Hardware T&L combined) to gameplay elements (adaptive difficulty - this game is as hard as you can handle, but no harder), it's all here.
"Bullet Time" provides this game's first major hook - this is where the Marketing team are placing their focus. Bullet time let's you slow the action down to a crawl, allowing you to make those cool sideways dives, twin pistols firing in slow motion - you can even see the bullets flying through the air and the slow motion debris burst from the scenery, should you miss. John Woo would be proud.
Fortunately, the Max Payne is not too realistic - there's blood allright and plenty of it - but you wont see any "Soldier of Fortune" style innards or detachable limbs. Don't be fooled into thinking this is one for the kids though - it's dark themes (from just plain nasty murder through to torture and the occult) and stylized "no holds barred" presentation make this game one strictly for adults, ones who know it's just a game at that.
The levels vary from inside to outside, concrete jungles to nightclubs and more - the only problem is that it's never hard to figure out where to go. There are some puzzles, sure, but it's not particularly challenging first finding then solving them. However, don't let that make it sound easy - it's not. A lot of the game's difficulty (and it's not easy) comes from trying to find ways to clear out a room with strategically placed bad guys - you die very easily, especially with the amount of munitions some of these chaps are hurling about... add to that the clever adaptive difficulty (if you suck, the game goes easy on you - if you are raking up the baddies, it pulls out all the stops - it can get mind bogglingly tough) and you have yourself a genuine challenge.
All in all, while it has it's faults (some early problems with Geforce 3 cards, lack of animation in the facial textures) these are far and away outweighed by the incredible presentation and sheer playability of this stylish contender for the coveted title of "action game of the year" - Halflife won that once before and until Max, we had not enjoyed a game nearly as much. Now, that crown has been passed on - yes, it's different to Halflife, but with the focus firmly on the experience for the gamer, Remedy have hit the nail firmly on the head: This is the game of the year.