Max Payne – Max Payne and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Console Port
You can’t blame Rockstar for trying. In fact good on them for attempting to bring one of the greatest PC action games to consoles, exposing thousands of players to a title so fast-paced, gritty, and innovative it’s easy to overlook the cumbersome storytelling and awkward pacing — on PC, that is.
But after recently playing through the game again on the PS2 system, it’s baffling to me how critically-acclaimed the console port remains to this day. Sony later placed it under the Greatest Hits moniker; it’s been rereleased both on PS3 and PS4 as a downloadable ‘classic;’ multiple publications cite it as one of the greatest console games ever made. To say Max Payne has been a major influence on the following generation of console shooters is absolutely an understatement, with the likes of Red Dead Redemption, Star Wars: Battlefront, and even F.E.A.R. taking varying degrees of inspiration from the third-person shooter.
Now, in regards to the title’s conceptual merits — place the player in control of a traumatized cop trapped in a grey, comic book city with brooding atmosphere, a litany of familiar weapon variance, excessively-criminal baddies to shoot on sight, and a slow-motion gameplay option ripped straight from a John Woo flick — Max Payne is arguably the quintessential action game. Console-enthusiasts are quick to celebrate any game which lets them kick back and murder countless braindead assholes with shotguns and missile launchers, largely because it provides them the opportunity to live out the role of an action movie star. Max Payne even goes so far as to add a cinematic dimension to the mix with its ‘bullet-time’ scenarios, letting the player role-play as their own version of Neo without strictly necessitating cutscenes to add dramatic effect.
On PC, the game works wonders: the blurred animations seamlessly transitioning the action between fast-paced and slow-motion encounters; the keyboard controls allowing for accessible weapon alternation; the more advanced hardware — depending on the computer, that is — providing a more attractive and smooth framerate. The meticulous controller layouts are specifically designed for a mouse and keyboard input, and unfortunately this fact is made all the more obvious when compared with the console port.
My time spent with the PS2 version of the game was immediately a problematic venture, with most of the issues making themselves apparent during the tutorial sequence. The camera is fixed behind the titular protagonist’s body, keeping his viewpoint the center of attention and the reticule as the point of reference in regards to where Payne is aiming. So as you turn, Payne turns as well, like that of a first-person perspective with modified peripheral vision; but the sensitivity is so unaccustomed to a controller’s input reading that aiming quickly becomes hefty and arduous. Whereas a mouse allows for a more steady method of targeting, a PS2 controller allows far less approachable management.
Moving Payne proves just as inelegant a task. Given the fact that pushing forward on the stick even slightly forces him to run at full speed, it becomes clear how the game is obviously particularly designed to function for PC. The sticks on a PS2 controller are meant to allow the player to gradually increase the speed at which their character will move, depending on the situation they find themselves in. Max Payne features a surprising amount of redundant platforming segments, all of which awfully manage to test the patience of the player in command thanks to the inability to work their way slowly across a narrow beam or cautiously leap over a deathly abyss.
While these blisters may often prove relatively functional with enough experience, the rest of the controls work just as awkwardly. Switching between weapons is a laborious, unresponsive chore; with a functionality suitably fixed for the numbers on a keyboard for easy rotation, but operating here as a more tiresome method of cycling through Payne’s arsenal via the directional buttons. The triggers on the PS2 controller are also notably ill-suited to their functions, easily causing complications in the heat of battle. Too often I found myself jumping instead of shooting or accessing the slow-mo feature rather than leaping forward towards cover. These cumbersome controls all make for a more frenetic and uncomfortable action game experience, the opposite of which is certainly intended (and necessary) for a game of this caliber.
Framerate issues pop up every time Max jumps into bullet-time or shoots multiple enemies on screen. Autosaving amounts to a litany of checkpoints that often screw over the player since it saves their current level of health. The awkward manner of returning to the main menu as though it were the Pause menu further makes it clear how intentionally-designed the game is for PC. Technical issues which can result in cutscenes failing to play out or dialogue to be missing will often force the player to skip the sequence altogether and miss out on important story-driven material.
Max Payne on PC is far from a perfect game. Dated animations, ridiculous voice-acting, an overly-exaggerated script, unpleasant platforming segments (those awful nightmare sequences give me nightmares), and repetitive level design detract from what is otherwise a tight-knit, engaging, and inventive action title. But Max Payne on PC is a masterpiece in comparison to its console port companion, a fact which comes quite discouraging to someone who grew up loving the game on PS2.
So where did Rockstar go wrong? Well looking at the release date, Max Payne debuted on console the same year as the company’s explosive Grand Theft Auto III, a highly-successful venture that would live on in history as one of the most influential titles ever released. Perceiving the opportunity to make another big splash for console games (what with the current generation finally beginning to display the impactful power of its hardware with numerous releases), the developer likely seized the chance to have another massive hit on their hands and rake in the subsequent profit. This isn’t to argue that Rockstar are greedy businessmen seeking any permissible venture to garner the most attention and revenue; but I am willing to bet that this particular port was not released with the integrity of further advancing the game’s functionality into a more approachable design applicable to console gamers.
The development of games is directly influenced by the system for which it will accompany. Whereas Remedy undoubtedly approached the composition of Max Payne with intentional gameplay decisions regarding computer game accessibility, slapping a PC game onto a PS2 disc without properly aligning the functionality alongside the console’s limitations makes for an unremarkable experience, akin to listening to an album on YouTube or watching a movie filmed in 4K on a standard definition television.
Part of what makes gaming such a fascinating medium are the limitations secured within the frame of specific systems. Regulating the core controls behind a playable protagonist to a few simple buttons is vastly contrasted to doing so with a keyboard — where literally hundreds of inputs are capable of being inscribed. So part of what makes an effective gaming experience is the lengths to which a developer utilizes those limitations and manages to push further beyond the intended use of a specific controller output. ‘X’ to jump is certainly an established standard to anyone familiar with PlayStation-era platformers; but the games that cause players to question their familiarity with a consistent structure are the ones which provoke more thought and encourage innovative deviation.