Let’s talk about: Max Payne’s Shootdodge

"You put all your eggs in one basket then you throw that basket through a plate-glass window into the face of a mafioso goon and hope that it kills him."

First things first: I ADORE MAX PAYNE. If Max Payne 2 was a lady, I would buy it flowers and write poetry about taking it out on a boat on a beautiful lake. If Max Payne 2 was a man, he would make me feel sexually uncomfortable whenever his muscular arm brushed against mine in casual social situations. If Max Payne 2 was a dog, I would

Anyway listen, you didn’t come here to read about me fucking a dog, you came here to read about Max Payne. Max Payne 2 is wonderful because it got the idea of Bullet-Time down to a fine art; Bullet-Time, for those of you not raised on repeat viewings of The Matrix on a worn-out VHS repeatedly borrowed from the video store in town, is Weaponised Slow Motion Wot You Do In Gunfights.

SORRY ABOUT THE DOG THING, I’VE BEEN UNDER A LOT OF STRESS LATELY

When you hit the bullet time key in Max Payne, you slow down time but not your reaction speed – so you can out-aim, out-react, everyone else in the room. Bullets streak past you with visible, dodgeable, lines of approach – and up until Max Payne, a lot of computer game gun attacks were worked out not with modelled projectiles and damage, but instead delivered damage directly to the target if they were standing in the sights when you pulled the trigger.

While you use it, a little hourglass timer ticks down in the corner of the screen; when it’s out of sand, you can no longer slow down time. (You get back sand by killing people, obviously, because murder is a definite currency in Max Payne’s Noirish universe, more so than money by a long shot.)

But it’s slow, and more often than not you use it as a get-out-of-dead free card, because Max Payne is a fast game without cover and things that slow that down take the edge off it. Max Payne 2 fixed that; for every man you killed within a short period – a combo, if you will – your hourglass became stained a darker yellow. The darker the hourglass, the slower your slow-motion was.

But, crucially, it changed the way that Max reloaded. On one kill, he’d reload by spinning around and slipping a new magazine into his weapon – it sounds daft, but it very much worked in context. It looked cool. But it looked like a cock sandwich next to what happened when you killed three guys, and your hourglass was dark gold: the game stopped entirely when you hit reload and the camera panned around our titular hero as he slammed in some fresh shells.

Bullet-time became a badass button, even more than it was before. “I feel like being fucking awesome right now,” I’d think, “I don’t know about you chumps, but that’s where I’m at right now.” And I’d wait until I knew there were three or four guys in quick succession and BANG kick in the door then BLAM discharge a sawn-off into the first guy and reload as I span then BLAM again then BLAM again, and it felt like levelling up, and I watched the camera spin around him, and I felt like some terrifying behemoth stomping through Hell.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

“SO HE’S DODGING AND SHOOTING AT THE SAME TIME: WHAT DO WE CALL IT, GUYS?”

Max Payne also developed the Shootdodge, which was a far more exciting way of using your precious Bullet-Time. When you clicked the right mouse button (or pushed some other button if you were playing it on a console whilst under the delusion doing such a thing was a good idea), Max immediately threw himself horizontal in the direction that you were travelling.

Just look at that screwed-up little face. LOOK AT IT.

Just look at that screwed-up little face. LOOK AT IT.

Time slowed down for a few seconds while he floated in mid-air and, presumably, had a good old think about the tactical nouse of throwing yourself head-first into a wall then having a little lie down in the middle of a gunfight.

It was a cheaper way of using Bullet-Time than just pushing the button (in that it used up a little less of yer murder-sand) – and in the sequel, they scrapped the cost of it entirely. You could Shootdodge as much as you want without having to murder anyone to pay for it. This is because Shootdodging is a beautiful risk, a core element of gameplay, and it doesn’t actually offer you enough mechanical benefits to be worth much of your resource.

(Also, if you don’t charge for it, it means players will never not be able to do it, which means – well, you’ll do it all the time, and Max Payne is a game series about jumping sideways whilst firing two guns at once, so why would you take that away from the player, even a little? No game should not feature that.)

I HONESTLY STILL THINK PRETTY MUCH EVERY GAME WOULD BE IMPROVED BY THE ABILITY TO JUMP SIDEWAYS WHILST HOLDING TWO GUNS AT ONCE, THAT’S BARELY A JOKE

See, when you Shootdodge (the more I write that word, the less sense it makes) you sign a contract with the fight. You commit yourself to moving along a certain vector for a handful of seconds – and while you’re moving you’re pretty much impossible to harm – but when you reach the end of that vector, you’re left helpless on the ground. You put all your eggs in one basket then you throw that basket through a plate-glass window into the face of a mafioso goon and hope that it kills him. You are making a definite decision that carries immediate consequences.

That’s the tactical decision you’ll make more often than any other, in Max Payne; whether to trade five seconds of normality for three seconds of invulnerability and two of incredible weakness. It becomes second nature. In a genre where, often, you’re accessing angles of attack from enemies, staying aware of distant threats outside of your eyeline, and plugging yourself into the best available cover you’re instead launching yourself like a fucking missile through the middle of gunfights.

Max Payne 2 ingame

I’m no expert, but I thought you were supposed to hold pistols up to your eyeline when you fire them

You plan Max Payne gunfights like you plan a strafing run in a fighter jet. What’s our best angle of approach? How can we minimise damage on the way out? Can we neutralise all the enemy forces before they return fire?

It doesn’t always work – and, when you’re learning, you find yourself down on the floor absorbing bullets more often than you’d like – but when you figure out how it works, how to wring benefits from it, it becomes second nature. You’d think you never took part in a virtual fight where leaping into the air and triggering slow motion wasn’t a natural, expected part of proceedings. Fights become almost turn-based, but in a world where you trigger the turns; you click right mouse, you take your turn and shoot some berk in the face, then you hit the deck and all of his mates return fire. It pushed the battle to be on your terms, so long as you were willing to play aggressively. It makes the core conceit of slowing down time and jumping in the air an understandable reality of the world.

What I’m trying to say is that Max Payne was a very clever game that felt stupid, and it was a revolutionary game that was almost immediately understandable.

There’s a reason every other game and its dog aped Shootdodging or Bullet-Time (or both!) for the next ten years, and why almost none of them got it right. It’s not something you stick on alongside the grenade launcher and the final boss. It has to be baked in. The game has to be about it.

It is only just possible to play Max Payne without the shootdodge function, and I know because I did it. I played through the entire game using only the lead pipe and, later, the baseball bat – using a pistol only when the game needed me to kill someone out of bat range before I could progress to the next area. It was… well, it wasn’t fun. Fun isn’t the word. It was a thing I’m glad I’ve done, but it wasn’t Fun. You need Bullet-Time, you need Shootdodging, for the pace of the game to work. It doesn’t just look good – it’s what the game is about.

LET ME JUST HATE ON ROCKSTAR FOR A BIT, OKAY, THEY’RE BIG ENOUGH TO HANDLE IT

Rockstar didn’t get it; Max Payne 3 was a fine game, and enjoyable enough for me to play through it one and a half times, now. But because it’s a post GTA IV title, Max moves like a fucking sofa. All of Rockstar’s protagonists stagger around like they’ve just got out of bed, now.

Back in the day, before we cared about the way that humans don’t immediately hit their top speed the instant they start moving – that for most of us, we need a second or two to accelerate – Max responded as quickly as you could think. BOOM. BANG. SLAP. WALLOP. The only thing stopping you from immediately shooting everyone in the face was your own shitty reflexes.

Also, it pulled shit like pre-defined bullet time sections, and fuck that

Also, it pulled shit like pre-defined bullet time sections, and fuck that

The newer, pudgier Max lurches in and out of gunfights with a notable delay, which is all well and good for story concerns, but it makes that split-second target analysis less satisfying to handle. Which is a shame.

(Plus you can’t tell when you’ve killed a bad guy or when they’re just plain tuckered out from all the bullets you’ve shot at them and they’re having a little lie down for a moment. Which means your attention is divided between Chump A who is currently shooting an assault rifle at you and Chump B who fell over a second ago but what if he got up again and Chump C who you shot in the chest five seconds ago but now he’s back up on his feet and firing at you and SORT IT OUT, ROCKSTAR)

I’m digressing. (Max Payne 3 remains one of the best Lounging Simulators I’ve ever played.) Remedy took slow-motion dodging from The Matrix and worked out a way to make it function as a game mechanic. It was stylish, but it had essential substance; it was useful, but not overpowered. It was a quick hit of risk vs reward that you could take as many times as you wanted until either everyone else, or you, were dead.

Well done, then, on that, Remedy. Once I’m done with this dog I’ll totally make out with all of you.