I have a confession to make, I never played Max Payne when it first came out. I didn't own an Xbox, I had an Xbox 360, but I missed the train. Having finished Mass Effect 3, I heard about the release of Max Payne 3. Having enjoyed the Max Payne movie starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, I decided to give the originals a try. I purchased the first game used and the second via Xbox Live.
I have never been more pleased.
Max Payne is basically a John Woo movie crossed with The Matrix. The titular character loses his wife and child to a bunch of drug-addict vandals. Going undercover with the DEA, he's framed as a villain and...wackiness ensues. By wackiness I mean slow-motion gunfights, assaults on super-corporations, and single-handedly taking on the entire New York City mafia.
Max Payne's game play has aged extremely well, allowing a fast paced action movie experience where you are placed against a literal army of thugs. Death is very easy in the game but autosaving means you rarely are placed at a point where it's frustrating to replay the scene. This is almost unique in the entire history of gaming. Never before have I enjoyed game overs but the replays are always entertaining.
What makes Max Payne so entertaining, though, is the writing. Max, himself, is a tortured soul whose occasionally silly metaphors are charming when they're not moving. He's a Reconstruction of the done-to-death Noir Detective archetype. There's nothing good in Max's life but revenge and that's the sole motivation that he has left. Yet, really, we want to see Max triumph despite his lack of heroic idealism.
The villains in the game are also immensely entertaining. None of them get more than a few minutes of screen time but make a tremendous impression for their short appearance. Nicole Horne is, obviously, the most memorable villain but her evil is mostly in the slimy way everything ultimately traces back to her. Lupino is completely off his rocker but we find that out due to the stuff we find about him rather than our interactions with him. If more games practiced this kind of visual storytelling we'd be in a far better place.
I'm also fond of the character Mona Sax, who is only a bit player in the first game but has a dramatically expanded role in the second video game. It's a rare female character who manages to be sexy without being cheesecake. She makes an excellent foil to Max Payne and manages to avoid a majority of the cliches associated with femme fatales in fiction.
I even like the somewhat pointless inclusion of Nordic symbolism in the game. There's no real meaning to it, it's just there to look cool. Yet, it does add to the atmosphere of Max Payne in a way that makes it resonate. The worst winter in history is affecting New York City, Alfred Woden is Max's somewhat duplicitous patron, and Lupino plays the role of the Fenris Wolf.
In conclusion, I believe that Max Payne is one of the best video games released for the Xbox. I encourage gamers who haven't played it to download the Gamers Marketplace version. It's available for only a fraction of the original cost and is well worth the expenditure.