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Max Payne retrsopective

Bow down to the don of sardonic, smartarse heroes...

It's now hard to explain the powerful first-time thrill of playing Max Payne.

Arcing sideways in impossibly graceful slow-mo, bathed in distended audio and flapping leather trenchcoat, and delivering two, three, four pinpoint wet-splash headshots before landing in a pile of pain and one-liners, and getting up to do it all over again.

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This was Max Payne's magic, sadly routine these days, with self-destructive heroes two a penny and bullet time tricks over-used to the point of cliché.

But it wasn't routine to 20 year-old me in 2001, with a Coen brothers-inspired love of pulpy noir and still-burning memories of watching The Matrix five times at the cinema two years earlier (all the hours I spent not talking to girls had to be reinvested somewhere).

The Matrix had re-written Hollywood action mechanics, but until Max arrived the lurching cameras and frozen time sequences hadn't filtered into games. Throwing yourself around at gravitydefying glacial speed was so inherently cool that you'd do it over and over, even when there were no enemies - sideways and forwards and backwards, guns pointed between Max's toes, grim look of twisted concentration on his face.

And what a face it was. The first Max Payne trod a delicate line between self-awareness and outright parody. Max's looks encapsulated that - it's actually the face of writer Sam Lake, not big-jawed and blandly handsome, but pained and sneering. He's the hard-boiled hero nicely overcooked, needing nothing more than a mouthful of painkillers and a fresh clip of ammo to keep himself stumbling onwards.

Max needs no more than painkillers and fresh bullets to keep himself stumbling on

Against this not-quite-serious face, Max's flatlining monologues (also Lake's) couldn't be too OTT. In fact, the game seemed more wry and self aware, the more insanely portentous they became. "After Y2K, the end of the world had become a cliché," runs one particular gem. "But who was I to talk, a brooding underdog avenger alone against an empire of evil. Nothing is a cliché when it's happening to you."

Payne's locations completed the pitch-black puzzle. The game was set in a New York of permanent twilight, grim corridors and grey industrial warehouses - a cartoon noir playground fitting the overblown aesthetic perfectly.

Max Payne's quality made a sequel inevitable - but all it did was prove that the original's peculiar post-modern thrills were a one-off. They changed Max's face to that of a 'proper' actor, and in doing so upset the balance of stylised violence and knowing exaggeration. Max Payne became just a good shooter, without the rough-edges that made the original a cultural touchpoint, and proof games could be smart, funny and hugely, violently playable.

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