Remedy’s first Max Payne game turns 20 today, which, most importantly for this article, means I can’t make a joke about how it’s now old enough to do X or Y. 20 is a garbage age for milestones. But I just looked it up and discovered that in America you only have to be 18 to buy a shotgun (what?!). That means Max Payne the game is already old enough to, in slow motion, leap sidways as it fires a shell right into a mob enforcer’s face. I think it’s sort of what Max himself would have wanted. Happy bullet time day to you!
Bullet time is what Max Payne (a pun) is most famous for, of course. Other games had done slow motion business before, but this incredibly over-the-top neo-noir gunstravaganza was the first one where you went, “Cor, I’m just like Neo off of The Matrix!” while you did it. Though really, the influence goes back to John Woo’s absolutely fantastic action movies, which you should watch all of right now.
In an interview with IGN in 2003, Petri Järvilehto, then Remedy’s lead game designer, said that, “Even in the early prototypes for the game, we were thinking that slow-motion would have to be an integral gameplay element since it was simply so cool to run down a corridor with two berettas firing in slow-mo.”
It is! And its influence was such that if you go back and play the original Max Payne today you can basically draw a line from Max Payne’s bullet time in 2001 to the Dead Eye in Red Dead Redemption 2 a coupla decades later.
There are other reasons to go back and play Max Payne, obviously, and I’d recommend it if you never have (it’s currently, like, £2 on Steam as part of a sale, but is normally only just over a fiver). Max is a New York City cop who comes home one day to find his wife and infant daughter have been murdered by tweakers, and jones the DEA to go after the bad drugsmen. His life has no meaning, and you can tell because he stops wearing suits and starts wearing a shitty necklace. Eventually, Max goes undercover in the Punchinello (another pun) crime family, and due to a hilarious mishap in a subway station, finds himself on the run from both the Mafia and the cops.
As a whole, it’s the best blend of goofy and ridiculous. The cutscenes are done as comic book panels, which were clearly very fun to shoot the stills for (Max’s face is provided by real life person Sam Lake, now Remedy’s creative director, and is constantly scrunched up in an, “I DIDN’T ASK FOR THIS!” grimace that Lake recreated today). The writing also contains lines like, “The sun set with practiced bravado”, which is absolutely incredible. And you can listen in to the idle bitching of your enemies before you round the corner and they notice you, at which point someone will yell, “IT’S PAYNE!” just before you drop into slow motion and watch bullets drift gently past you.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about revisiting it now is that bullet time in Max Payne isn’t really a special special power in the same way it is now. You can’t do it indefinitely, and there’s a cooldown timer – but it’s pretty generous. In practice, you can kind of do it whenever you like, with the click of a button. It’s just a thing you do. It’s like Max just has an inate ability to be really cool.
You can side step bullets as they leave little traces where they pass through the air. Your enemies crumple, also in slow motion, like puppets who’ve had their strings cut. Bullet time is accompanied by not only by every sound being slowed down to comedic groans, but also the regular slow thumping of a heart beat. I can’t lie: it fucking rocks, even 20 years later.
Compare that to your Red Dead Redemption 2 Dead Eye, where you can target baddies in slow motion before hitting the trigger to shoot ’em all in succession. It’s very satisfying, but it’s not quite as intimate, you know? And to refill your Dead Eye you need to snarf down tobacco like normal coloured teeth are going out of fashion, so there’s a more economic limit to your own personal God mode. Cowboy games love bullet time, incidentally; a version of it crops up in the Call Of Juarez series and Gun, the latter a personal nostalgic favourite of mine.
The more you think about it, the more examples you can think of. There’s the V.A.T.s system, notable for using super slow motion instead of a time freeze in Fallout 4. That one’s governed by your character’s action points – how many things you can do in one turn – where you can use computer targeting to aim, in green-tinted slow motion, at specific body parts. Probably the best version of it, though, is in Fear, or FEAR or F.E.A.R., depending on your preference. It’s first person, has a great intro and outro noise – that sort of sci-fi byoooooo-ooooop! – and feels as immediate as Max Payne does. And, arguably, Superhot is the only game where bullet time is the whole game, even more so than the Max Payne series.
Because that’s kind of what it is in Max Payne. It’s not just cool, it’s essential to playing the game. Max is pretty squishy when compared to your average present day action protagonist, so if you don’t use and master the bullet time you’ll die pretty quickly. He’s just a Noo Yoik cop, who’s well good at shooting two berettas at the same time! He ain’t no Superman! In 2018, Lake told ScreenRant that Remedy won’t be making another Max Payne game, which is fair enough. They’re busy making other cool shit like Control, after all. Remedy did make Max Payne 2, where bullet time had some layers added to it, before the series was handed over for good to Rockstar, who did Max Payne 3 in 2012.
But I don’t think anyone will ever forget the original. The game that started it all. The first one to make us feel like a cool, down on his luck hero who was nevertheless preturnaturally great at killing people. IT’S PAYNE!