Finally, despite persistent vaporware rumors, Max Payne hit store shelves on July 23, 2001, just three months before Rockstar's own Grand Theft Auto III landed. But even against GTA and competition that included Devil May Cry, Gran Turismo 3, Advance Wars, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Halo: Combat Evolved, Max more than held his own. Remedy's second-ever game eventually moved over 7 million units and scooped up dozens of awards.
Take-Two didn't need any more incentive. They moved in and bought out the rights to Max Payne for $10 million in cash and nearly a million shares of Take-Two stock. Remedy had already begun work on a sequel.
Fortunately, Max's new owners/publishers took a largely hands-off approach. Sam Lake also took a step back, declining to reprise his own character. This time, the budget stretched to hiring professional actors; Timothy Gibbs stepped in as the new body model while McCaffrey returned to supply Max's voice. The bigger questions centered around what to do to Max now, after he single-handedly annihilated an entire criminal empire. Lake finally hit on a classic noir answer: Bbring back the femme fatal.
She turned out to be Mona Sax, a hired killer who just couldn't pull the trigger on Max. A fairly minor character in the first Payne, Lake put her front and center in his "film noir love story" to re-destroy Max's stabilized life in the NYPD. Both had unfinished business with the Inner Circle, a shadowy organization at the heart of the first game's conspiracies... -- and with each other. When the designers handed a few levels over to Mona, Lake framed them as Max picturing what she'd done in his absence to keep players firmly planted in his anti-hero's head.
Lake delivered a 600-page script, roughly five times what he'd done for Max's first rampage. The design team placed an even greater emphasis on bullet-time carnage and built tools to make Max Payne 2 a modder's paradise. They even snuck in an unusual treat for players who completed the game on the highest difficulty setting: a happy ending.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne arrived in October 2003, just 27 months after the first. The general consensus pronounced it a cleaner, better-looking thrill ride, improved on all fronts, through still lacking a multiplayer mode. But for whatever reason, the game stalled, selling less than half what its predecessor did. Another company might've counted over 3 million in sales as a win, but Take-Two's fiscal year turned ugly across the board. Delayed games, bad debts, and a threatened SEC investigation into alleged accounting violations added up to a disastrous 2004, and Max 2's "disappointing" sales failed to provide a rescue.
Fair or not, Max became the fall guy. This time for real.
A Bit Closer to Heaven
Take-Two's then-CEO, Jeffery Lapin, insisted Rockstar wanted to make more Payne, and then the franchise went dark in 2004. A disastrous 2008 film adaptation staring Mark Wahlberg as Max didn't help.
Remedy moved on to a new 5-year project, taking Scott Miller's lessons forward into Alan Wake, an action-horror game featuring another James McCaffrey narration, a Sam Lake cameo (where he recreated the famed grimace), and plenty of Payne-ful easter eggs. Meanwhile, Miller's 3D Realms bogged down in the legendary 14-year development of Duke Nukem Forever. In 2009, Take-Two sued him for failing to deliver the game; both parties settled with prejudice the following year.
Finally, in early 2009, Rockstar finally made it official, announcing Max Payne 3 from their Vancouver studio for a winter release. In keeping with tradition, that didn't happen. The sequel went back under wraps as three more release dates slipped by. Screens of a bald, portly Max raised even more concerns ... until the first trailer hit in the back half of 2011. It led off with the now-iconic, melancholy cello riff and James McCaffrey's tired growl before exploding into a symphony of bullet-timed violence. Max was back.
His new decent into hell reflects the eight-year gap between games. Burnt out, self-destructive as ever, and now an ex-cop, Max takes on a private security job in famously rich and dangerous São Paulo, Brazil. But when he once again fails to protect a woman in his charge, Max unleashes another scorched-Earth campaign to put things right.
Leaving New York behind isn't the only big change, either. For the first time, McCaffrey also stepped into the motion-capture suit, providing the body model for a character he's personified for years. At long last, multiplayer makes it into the feature set, complete with line-of-sight bullet time combat. And of course, the entire design team changed, without anyone from Remedy involved in their old creation. Sam Lake, however, fully endorsed the final product.
It took an enthusiastic group of Finns to nail that uniquely American mix of modern action and classic noir, but even they underestimated Max's enduring appeal. He is the man pushed too far, the doomed anti-hero who keeps fighting, the lone cop betrayed but never broken, always sardonic, never bleak. Max's constant struggle feels timeless, and the relentless gunfights never get old.
Freelancer Rus McLaughlin has written for Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, Square Enix, GamePro, Bitmob, IGN, and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Follow Rus on Twitter.