You're hurtling through a corridor - thigh deep in armed thugs - with only a fraction of your health bar left when suddenly everything seems to stop. The dull, elongated thuds of a half dozen gunshots and the bell-like ringing of 9mm casings cascading to the floor fill your ears. Bullets glide through the air like paper airplanes - the idea that one of these sluggish specks could kill you seems almost comical. And then, with a pronounced whoosh, everything's back to normal. The thugs keel over one by one as you rush past without so much as a second glance - you're too busy scouring the next room for a medkit.
Nowadays, this minor videogame miracle rarely elicits more than a half-hearted nod of approval - or, depending on the execution, a groan of disillusionment. Another lousy shooter with "Bullet Time?" Haven't developers figured out more interesting ways to give players the leg up on their opponents? It's been the better part of a decade since Max Payne. Hasn't the novelty worn thin?
Maybe not. Looking past all the Max Payne derivatives that have flooded the market in the intervening years is to realize there was something revolutionary about that trench coat-wearing, pill-popping, slow-mo diving bastard. Certainly, there was more to Max Payne than Bullet Time; the game oozed noir atmosphere and told a compelling story (blood-drenched drug sequences notwithstanding). Nor was it the originator of the concept; movies like Blade and The Matrix predated Remedy's break-out hit by a couple of years. But Max Payne's interpretation of temporally-enhanced gunplay managed to crystallize everything that was appealing about the concept - and place an indelible mark on the shooter genre in the process.
Let's Do The Time Warp Again
There's an obvious reason why the Bullet Time effect was such an immense part of players' overall enjoyment of Max Payne: the eye candy. There was simply no other game at the time that made it possible to enjoy watching the bodies hit the floor the way Max Payne did. But slowing things down is only part of the equation; the game's brutal physics takes care of the rest of the show. What might have been little more than an expeditious way to clear a room instead becomes a rare instance of poetry in motion.
For a slightly more mainstream take on slow-motion physics porn, watch an episode of Time Warp, an ongoing Discovery Channel series that pairs an MIT-trained physicist with a high-speed camera technician in the name of science. Out of their entire body of "research" - including holding propane-filled balloons next to a Tesla coil and recording the (rather predictable) results - it's the footage involving humans that stands out. Whether you watch the precisely coordinated movements of a pair of swing dancers, the immense force of a Muay Thai knee-strike or the fleshy shock waves after a solid punch to the gut, you're left with the startling realization that our bodies are just as susceptible to the laws of Newtonian physics as trebuchets and watermelons. It's weirdly exhilarating.