When 1999’s The Matrix added “bullet time” to our pop culture lexicon, it was only a matter of time before video games tried to replicate this sense of chaotic gun battles happening in slow motion. While many have tried it, the first and best to really pull this off was 2001’s Max Payne.
Seriously, when you look at it, there’s *nothing* original about Max Payne. Everything is borrowed from hoary tropes, casting the player in the role of a inward monologuing cop who gets embroiled in some skeevy gang fight/drug case on the eve of a huge snowstorm in the city. The story is broken up by comic panel cutscenes that push this notion of a hard boiled detective film noir setting, and about all of it is as over-exaggerated and cheesy as it can get without becoming an out-and-out parody.
But that was kind of the charm, too. By pushing these tropes so far, the game was telling us that it really didn’t take any of this super-seriously — this was a mindless action movie in which the player got to be the main star.
And for a game that hinged on a single innovative mechanic, Max Payne sure picked a good one. Bullet time was a marvelously fun thing for a third-person shooter, making the game less about pure reflexes and more about the ballet of carnage and bullets.
In the game, you had a bullet time meter that would gradually fill up. As long as you had some juice left, you could activate it to greatly slow down everything while letting you aim and shoot like normal. This meant that the player could run, jump, and roll through crowds of bad guys, blowing them away in slow motion like they were in a John Woo flick.
The sequel was fun, but it also wasn’t quite as new or novel any more. The Max Payne games really are a one-trick pony that wears a film noir coat, and after the first experience, I was satisfied but not really champing at the bit for more.