Playing Max Payne Feels Like Spending An Evening Paging Through A Stack Of ‘90s Comic Books

Playing Max Payne in 2022, I’m surprised at how well it holds up. It isn’t a game that I played at the time, and typically early attempts at third-person action don't age especially well. The game predates the Wars (God of and Gears of) by a few years, but its blend of guns-blazing shooting, graphic novel presentation, and slo-mo dodges still feels great 21 years after its release.

Though the gameplay doesn’t feel dated, the shooter does evoke its pre-9/11 era in the best possible ways, with comic panel storytelling that feels ripped from the Clinton years. In many ways, It feels like the last gasp of the ‘90s preserved in video game form.

Last night, I blitzed my way through the level set in an underground science facility, then the one in the parking garage, and finished up with the Matrix-inspired shootout in an opulent skyscraper lobby. With its still, shadow-smeared cutscenes and breezy levels which rarely take longer than 30 minutes to complete, playing through this game in 2022 — now that loading times have been fully obliterated by the muscular processing power of modern PCs — feels as enjoyably easygoing as spending an evening paging through a stack of comic books.

One of my favorite rituals as a kid was going to get McDonald's breakfast with my grandpa — both of us got the two breakfast burritos — then going to a comic shop in town to flip through their wide selection of back issues, neatly arranged in plastic sleeves. When that store eventually closed — our small town wasn’t big enough to support it in an era before nerd culture ubiquity — we’d go to a used book store in town where a few cardboard boxes in the attic were stuffed with old comics for fifty cents a piece . Each visit, I would pick out a few to read for the day. These issues were largely from the ‘90s or earlier, and the Turok books I grabbed stand out as the most ‘90s of them all for being significantly darker and more violent than the superhero and Sonic comics I was used to. The ads for movies that had long left theaters and the shadowy art left an indelible imprint on my brain.

Now, as an adult, I still enjoy this kind of deep-dive on occasion. My local library has a great selection of comic books, and I had a great time last year spending an autumn evening lying on my couch under one dim light, a hot toddy steaming on the coffee table, paging through Batman’s Court of Owls arc. Max Payne taps into this same feeling. Its world is as dark and noir-influenced as the best Batman comics, its cutscenes are impressionistic and gorgeously dark. I love it for that, for the simpler years it evokes, and for the enjoyment it can still provide years after its graphics stopped being remotely cutting edge.

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