Buy 'MAX PAYNE': Game Boy Advance
Ever since the Game Boy hit the market and was deemed successful, hit console titles would occasionally recieve a handheld counterpart. At times the games were fun, but they often lacked the depth and production values of their bigger brothers. That trend is starting to change a bit with the power of the Game Boy Advance; we saw faithful renditions of the Tony Hawk series, most notably. Building on a similar idea, Max Payne for the GBA is an isometric version of the well-recieved game that released several years ago. This version is released alongside Max Payne 2, but the story is pulled directly from the original game.
The story isn't that bad, either. It's got its cliche moments, and its got a few dull spots, but the pacing is relatively nice overall and the content was enough to keep me interested. The story is presented between levels with art stills and text with voice-overs. The writing is fairly good and the voice acting works just fine. There are also quite a few events during gameplay where dialogue is represented by text bubbles, but it is only spoken outside of levels.
As for the gameplay itself, it's a mixed bag. On one hand, it's quite technically impressive. The isometric control scheme works perfectly, and generally the gunplay is very fluid and tight. Max can jump and dive, and he turns on a dime. He's got a decent arsenal of weapons to kick ass with, from pistols to shotguns to Molotov cocktails and assault rifles. Enemy AI isn't the brightest, and are easily stopped with a quick tap of your finger. On occasion they put up a fight, though, and you'll have to watch out for bombs and other troublesome weapons.
The lure of Max Payne, as most probably know, is the bullet-time feature. Essentially it's a slow-motion trigger that allows you to move slightly quicker than any of your enemies. In theory this means that you can walk in a room, find yourself surrounded by enemies, trigger bullet-time and take out all of them with a 360-degree hail of bullets. You can also dive and dodge in bullet-time, both being important techniques for survival and deadliness. All you have to do is tap the R-button, and as long as there's enough juice in your bullet-time meter, everything will slow to a crawl. The bad guys are much easier to hit and you can swerve and aim much easier. Diving will get you out of a tight spot, as will the dodge move - it's really rather difficult to actually get shot will moving in bullet-time. The framerate generally stays quite smooth during this operation, too - on rare occasions when many enemies are in the same vicinity the game gets a bit choppy, but otherwise the whole operation works well.
The problem actually isn't with any of that. In fact, that all works beautifully - especially beautifully, considering this is a GBA game that's managed to capture the essence of it's forefather. The problem is that the camera is too close in on the action. It makes for a detailed view, but you can rarely see an entire room, and you rarely have any idea what exactly is offscreen to your left or behind you. You can stop and hold the L-button to pull the camera over in any direction, but it's too much of a hassle and doesn't stick anywhere - it jumps back to center on Max. This makes entering rooms a dull affair in repetition: I found myself diving into rooms with bullet-time on and firing random shots in all directions in hopes of hitting anything. Every time. With no good way to really see what's a short distance in front of you, the game becomes frustrating and tiresome.
Level design is pretty good - not wonderful, but not awful. I often felt like I was traipsing through familiar rooms, but not long after I started to notice any tedium something interesting came into sight. As far as I can tell, most of the levels are ripped exactly from the original game, so it should be very familiar to those who have played the first. The appearance is obviously different, but the game still has a dark vibe throughout.
That dark vibe works wonders in this game. Graphics are gritty but detailed, from subway stations to bars infested with gangs. Blood splatters on contact with a bullet and will even spray onto any nearby walls - a slick touch. Characters themselves animate nicely, with a 3D-ish look to them. I can't tell if they are actually made of polygons or not - they could very well be pre-rendered sprites - but either way, both Max and his foes look great in all their tiny glory. The art in the game's cutscenes is nice, too, and worked nicely in conjunction with the voice-overs.
As I mentioned earlier, the voice-overs are more than fitting in the game. They're complimented by good sound effects, complete with explosions and gunfire that push the GBA's speaker to the limit. The music isn't as good though; there are only a few different tunes and they can start to get a bit grating after hearing them for the hundredth time. You'll definitely want to keep your speakers turned up during the cutscenes, but you might reconsider after a few hours of gameplay.
All in all, Max Payne is an interesting conversion of a PC and console game from several years ago that hasn't been completely forgotten. The game controls well, has sharp visuals and a smooth framerate. Bullet-time even works fantastically; it was a major selling point of the original, and no doubt it is the main thing that will differenciate Max Payne on the GBA from other isometric shooters. The fact that enemies are often off-screen does dampen the fun, and often leads you into a set procedure that you find will keep you alive (generally diving and shooting all over when entering a room). If it weren't for this annoying flaw, the game would be that much more fun. As it is, it's an interesting romp and a nice technical achievement; fans of Max Payne or anyone interested would do well to check it out - but should be warned that the game is not the end-all be-all of isometric shooters on the GBA.
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