MAX PAYNE: Original Soundtrack
Review by Jouni Lahtinen
Music composed, arranged and performed by Kärtsy Hatakka and Kimmo Kajasto
Mastered by Pauli Saastamoinen, Finnvox
Music for E3 1999 and 2000 promotion videos composed by Teque
(* Music for E3 promotion videos, by Teque)
Max Payne took a hell-of-a long time to get done, but it surely is worth four years of waiting. Every single detail in the game is made with patience and the game is as rich and intense as you can expect. When Remedy Entertainment, the finnish masterminds behind this genius masterpiece, had finished the game technology (the engine MAX-FX) they started to concentrate on the game itself, including soundtrack. For a start they had demo-scene computer musician Teque doing the sound effects and score, but as the expectations towards Max Payne grew and grew, Remedy designers decided to hire someone outside of the company, someone professional. And they hired Kari "Kärtsy" Hatakka, a man who needs no introduction for visitors of this site.
After hearing this my expectations towards the soundtrack jumped through the roof. As a fan of Waltari I knew that Hatakka most certainly knows what he does even when doing something experimental. As a John Woo fan my expectations towards Max Payne were already off the scale, and as a Finn my expectations were doubled for obivious reasons. And when you add my Waltari fandom to this function it becomes with no surprise I almost couldn't sleep for last two weeks of waiting.
Now, to the music. The score reacts to the gameplay adding even more cinematic atmosphere to the game, even though I think it is based scripting instead of being completely dynamic. The music of the score can be split into three categories; ambient tracks, scenery music and action cues.
Theme song of Max Payne (Max Theme) hits the player right away in the main menu (or even earlier if you saw E3 2001 promotion video). This is perhaps one of the best theme songs I've heard in ages, beating other it's competitors with originality and the most beautiful solutions I've ever heard on a computer game soundtrack. It is interesting and sad piece composed mainly for piano, strings and haunting guitar wows that fits perfectly into the games main slogan "Man with nothing to lose". Nothing left but revenge and Kärtsy has brought it up in extremely beautiful fashion. There also is a shortened version of the theme that is played during the ending sequence.
The background tunes are pretty intense, but not too intense to distract the player from the game. Graphic Novel is, like the name says, the background tune for graphic novel pages. It is more like darker, less melodical and more ambient version of Max Theme. Haunting as hell, it gives the graphic novel just the additional depth it needs. Track called Nightmare works as the tune for Max Payne's surreal nightmares, where he most experience the death of his family all over again. This is perhaps the most ambient track in the game and it works extremely well there. Those spooky-as-hell haunting baby cries and Max's wife crying depsrately for forgiving give the track the horror atmosphere quite unbeatable, but those sounds are played from separate files by the game, so if you rip the soundtrack you'd have to mix them into the song by yourself. Just Forget About It is used as backround for the bank heist. It works well in the game and builds the atmosphere for the bullet-ballet about to break loose. Byzantine Power Game, background tune for level, where Max escapes the assassins that killed the Inner Circle, is mainly built on a base key that keeps the sweat and adrenaline pumping as Max tries to escape alive. And the backround for final levels (and the opening movie as well), Ms. Valkyr can also be considered as the theme of Nicole Horn and Aesir Corporation. It has just the right tone of unavoidable destiny, darknes and gloomines, as it is the for the final conflict.
The action cues are more Waltrai alike. The main action cue, Whack Him is fast and atmospheric industrial theme. Nothing surprising, though, but pretty neat into for things ahead. Mr. Big is cue for Max breaking into hotel room of Rico Muerte. Being pretty weird, having guitar riffs that somehow bring term "gangster-guitar" to my mind. The theme of Jack "I am the wolf" Lupino, Flesh of Fallen Angels, is quite short and perhaps the dullest industrial loop of the game. The Killer Suits, however, saves the day, as is a lot rougher and heavier tune for Payne's battle against the Aesir Corporation's commandos. Reminds me about the famous Spybreak! (short one) from the Matrix only performed in a Waltari-way. Men in Blue continues on the same line, although it is pretty similar to Teque's Cop Chase (with cop car sirens and all), only this one is much more movie score alike. I believe this is the replacement for that particular song.
There isn't a lot of scenery music, only one TV theme (for soap-opera "The Lords and the Ladies"), one elevator song and the night club music Ragna Rock. These songs do not disturb the player from the game and they give the places the additional spice of realism. Onto the "bonus tracks" then. These two tracks, Cop Chase and Max Payne E3 2000 are both made by the original composer of Max Payne project, Teque, and were released as MP3s when the '99 and '2k E3 videos came to public. They are available for download at 3-D Realms download site (www.3drealms.com). The first one is, like the name suggests, similar to Kärtsy's Men in Blue with haunting sirens, only that this one is more like industrial metal and therefore ideal for promotion videos. The other one, Max Payne E3 2000 is shorter one and a lot heavier one, which doesn't suite for Max so well. Its good industrial metal, anyway.
So as a final verdict I'd like to say that this goes almost to the top of modern, original computer game soundtracks, in fact to the second place on my Top-10-Original-Computer-Game-Soundtracks list. On that list only one score is ahead of Max and that is Trent Reznor's breathtaking score for id Software's Quake (right after these two comes Chris Vrenna and American McGee's Alice). I am very pleased to see most of the game developers and producers are understanding the meaning of music; the music can portray an inmportant role besides of being just something to be played while shooting things. Even though Kärtsy Hatakka's and Kimmo Kajasto's masterpiece might drop as number #3 as Trent Reznor is doing second arrival to the computer game scene (with id Software's new 'yet-to-be-titled' part of DOOM saga), it still remains as one of the most entertaining game soundtracks to date.