Can I talk to you about Max Payne? Can I? Sit down. Pull up a chair. Get comfortable.
Max Payne 2 is my favourite game. It is not the best game, in my opinion, not by a long shot, the way that my favourite meal is probably something involving melted cheese that would never win a Michelin star. I appreciate that in the grand scheme of things, when we etch “ART” into a big pillar and display our works on top of it, when we judge the worth of human endeavour, that Max Payne 2 is bumph, sound-and-fury, flashing lights and loud noises.
But, whatever. Max Payne 2 absolutely perfected jumping sideways holding two guns at once, and it is this perfection that I am going to wax lyrical about.
Max Payne is a ridiculous game about a washed-up cop murdering his way through New York’s criminal underbelly to get revenge against drug traffickers for ruining his life; it occupies that strange turn-of-the-century Playstation 2 space where games were transitioning out of their arcade roots, so while there’s a dream sequence that deals with Max’s guilt over the death of his son, it is resolved in play as a series of quite difficult platforming sections. That sort of thing.
The most important part of Max Payne, though, is slow-motion – or as they call it in-game, ripping it directly from The Matrix, Bullet Time. Unlike a lot of games in the early 2000s, Max Payne modelled all of its bullets as objects in motion rather than instantaneous flashes of damage along an invisible vector. When you slowed down time by tapping the Shift key, those bullets slowed down too, and you were able to actively move out of their path. Suddenly, slow-motion went from being a neat effect that a handful of games had messed around with to a core gameplay mechanic, serving to represent the edge that Max had over his enemies and making you feel pretty good at the game even if you were only delivering an average performance.
But! I’m not here to talk about Bullet-Time. I’m here to talk about Shootdodging.
You might think that your right mouse button is pretty special, what with the drop-down menus it generates and the way it lets you do a different colour in Microsoft Paint, but these are nothing compared to what it does in Max Payne. These days, if you click the right mouse button whilst playing a shooter, you’ll most likely peer down the iron sights of your gun and become slightly more accurate.
To hell with that. I’m here to ask you: what if it made your gun less accurate? What if, instead of slowing down the pace of the game and rewarding gradual advancement into cover, it shot you forward like a fucking rocket?
This is the Shootdodge. Whatever direction you’re travelling in, when you tap that right mouse button, Max hurls himself into the air and goes fully horizontal whilst time slows and he draws a bead on everyone who stands against him – then, as he slams into the floor laid out flat, normal time resumes and the bullets start flying once more. It’s John Woo’s signature move. It’s half of every fight scene in The Matrix. It is, to a 15-year-old me in the year 2000, everything I’d ever dreamed of.
But – crucially – it is also a brilliant piece of game design. I did not realise this when I was 15. I liked it because man go sideways bang bang very good yes. It is a pristine slice of risk/reward. It is instantly easy to grasp, remains useful no matter the level of play, and helps the player look at arenas in a completely different way. It forces you to think in vectors, turning what is a pretty by-the-numbers shooter into something completely different.
You are not planning an advance in Max Payne. You are not providing covering fire, taking up positions, returning fire and taking time to replenish your ammo. You are operating on the same rules as a fighter plane attacking ground targets – you are thinking in vectors, in avenues of approach.
Cover shifts from something you occupy, almost an upgrade or an extension of your character, to something that you cruise past while you’re unloading an assault rifle downrange and, maybe, something you can land behind so any return fire doesn’t turn you to mince.
When you’re in the air, you’re incredible. Your reticle moves at normal speed but the rest of the world is treacle-slow; your new vector and increased speed means that pretty much any bullet fired at you before you dodged is going to miss. The game even quietly and instantly reloads your guns for you when you leap, because it would be rubbish if you leapt forward and weren’t able to shoot properly. You’re hell on wheels. You’re a force to be reckoned with. You’re hot shit – and then you land.
When you land, you’re unable to move for a second or so as Max pulls himself to his feet and resumes his assault – and sometimes, that’s enough to kill you, especially if you weren’t accurate enough with your shots. When you land, you’re rubbish. Shootdodging turns a fast-paced gunfight into what amounts to turn-based combat – you dodge and shoot, you land and they shoot, rinse and repeat.
The story of Max Payne, throughout all of its iterations (even the Rockstar-only Max Payne 3, where freed of original developers Remedy they were free to suck every drop of levity and fun out of the franchise and make it so Max accelerated like a tractor and steered like a sofa) is largely the same. Here’s a man who is very good at gunfighting, and gosh darn it, trouble keeps finding him and the only way he can get out of it is through timely application of gunfighting. Max is a goddamn terror to those that he fights, something inhuman and utterly dangerous, half-mythic and deathless – and to himself, he’s a burnout, a casualty of prescription drug addiction and bad whiskey.
When you click in that right mouse button, you’re that goddamn terror. You’re nigh-on impossible to harm. Your guns are always full of bullets and your accuracy is unerring. You can out-draw and out-shoot anyone. You are this violent vector, a fighter jet in a cheap leather jacket, this inexorable force smashing apart the rotten status quo.
And then: you crash to the ground, the comedown hits, and you’re more vulnerable than ever. You’re a mess. You’re patched together with painkillers and hate. You’re laying on the dirty ground while people try to kill you and you’ve just got to stand up, Max.
The Shootdodge is Max Payne. It is beautiful.