Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne opens with a bang – literally. The opening scene shows our hero being wheeled into an ER, moments from death.
Nurse: Multiple gunshot wounds! pupils blown, head-trauma, God only
knows what else!
Doctor: He’s in shock. Start two large-bore IVs. Get him to ICU, stat!
Nurse: He’s not responding! This guy is a train wreck. We are losing
Max: When I woke up in the hospital earlier tonight, I thought it
couldn’t get any worse.
Happily (for us), I’m here to say that things DO get worse – much, much worse.
But, fear not, for Max’s pain is indeed our gain, as the latest (and greatest) installment in Rockstar Game’s Max Payne series begins. Those that thrilled to the dark hero’s exploits in the previous game will be happy to learn that all the favorites that set Max Payne above the crowd: the seedy, dimly-lit scenery; the top-notch level design; the realistic and believable voice acting; the over-the-top pulp-noir cut-scene dialogue and especially the game’s trademark Bullet Time power, all make return appearances. Those new to the series are in for a treat for the mind and the senses both; as they explore Max’s dangerous and gritty world and learn this latest tale of death, destruction and sorrow.
First, let’s talk about the hard stuff: graphics, game play and effects. Max Payne 2 uses an over the shoulder viewpoint that centers the camera above and slightly behind Max’s back; meaning that no matter where you go or how you turn the camera you always keep Max in sight – adding to the cinematic quality of the game. The only time that this convention is broken is when Max (or Mona Sax, his companion for parts of the game) uses a weapon equipped with a targeting scope, such as the Sniper Rifle.
The set design (I just can’t refer to the levels as anything but “sets”, seeing as how I often felt like I was actually playing a movie for much of the time) is absolutely top-notch, with a wide variety of settings depicted with impressive realism. Expect to help Max navigate locations as diverse as muddy construction sites, posh apartment complexes, burning buildings, dark, brooding warehouses, half-demolished structures, sprawling mansions and, in one particularly genius sequence, a functioning fun house, both in the public areas as well as behind the scenes. Max Payne 2 left me, on several occasions, staring slack-jawed at my PC screen, the only sound my hushed “Wow”, as I absorbed a particularly stellar bit of level design.
This level of craftsmanship extends to all the visual and audible facets of the game. Textures are rich and saturated, so realistic that you almost feel you can reach out and touch them. AI controlled enemies (and bystanders) have convincing dialogue. Weapons effects (particularly the eerie sound of Bullet Time) are a treat for the ears. All this is complemented by the game’s brand new Havok physics engine, which allows the player to interact with the game world in ways that were not previously possible. Max can now push aside objects, explosions can and do hurl debris in all directions and in some levels the walls themselves can be brought crashing down, to either reveal new locations or as a weapon against your many foes.
Max’s enemies fight, for the most part, like real people: hunting you down ruthlessly if they see you, moving to take advantage of cover and even calling out for help (although I admit I was usually too busy circle-strafing like mad to notice if their calls actually summoned assistance – I suspect that they did). Every once in a while, however, a bad guy would start waxing monologues as I approached and would not break off unless I actually shot at him a tactic that I began to exploit in the later game to get close with my more devastating weapons. Other than this slight (but annoying) gaff, I was constantly amazed at how lifelike my enemies behaved. Beating the game on Normal difficulty opens up increasingly difficult replay options (Hard Boiled, then Dead on Arrival modes as well as the New York Minute option which imposes a timer on each level), which make the game very challenging indeed. The reward for beating the game on the highest difficulty level is the unlocking of a special ending cut-scene sequence – one that’s worth the trouble of obtaining I might add.
Bullet Time makes its triumphant return as well. This often-imitated feature allows Max to literally slow time, making what would otherwise be near-impossible fights against multiple enemies challenging and exciting (not to mention survivable). Head shots actually do considerably more damage, so the extra second or two that Bullet Time gives you to aim really pays big dividends, especially in the harder play modes where ammo is scarce. Added in Max Payne 2 is a very cool reload animation: simply issue the reload command while Max is in Bullet Time and he will execute a spinning John Woo-style dodge, all the while getting fresh clips into his guns, a visually impressive and functional touch that I really admired.
So how does Max Payne’s story measure up to the previous installment? Well, not to give away too much (the tension of “what’s going to happen next?” is most of the game’s fun), but this is certainly not another mindless FPS shooter. What has always impressed me the most about Max Payne is not the level design, nor the graphics, nor even Bullet Time (although all that is supremely cool), but rather the game’s heart. The team that crafted this game was genuinely trying to create a believable storyline with characters that the player would care about; and in that they succeeded brilliantly.
Through the course of the game Max will fall in love with the beautiful (and deadly) Mona Sax; will (in the grand tradition of hard-boiled Detective stories), be betrayed by someone close to him; and will embark on a course of revenge that will not only affect his life but the lives of those close to him forever. The nod to the world of cinema extends right to the very end of the game, as the final cut scene fades to black and the credits roll, accompanied by the Poets of the Fall’s aptly-titled song “Late Goodbye”. I’m not ashamed to admit that, after that first play, I felt a tear roll down my face. It was a great gaming moment.
No matter what you want from a shooter, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne delivers the goods. Whether you hunger for action-packed running firefights or a deep, compelling story-driven experience – this title delivers on all levels.
Game Play: 10 Max is back, baby! Bullet Time is simply a treat on so many levels, I cannot even begin – if you’ve never played this landmark shooter then by all means do so immediately (heck, pick up the original Max Payne while you’re at it: you won’t be disappointed). Level design is completely convincing, whether it’s the crumbling interior of a half-demolished building or the paneled halls of a ritzy manor house. Some notable sequences even allow you to play as the lovely Mona Sax, or to have AI controlled allies cover your back, adding to the game’s depth.
Graphics: 8 Some of the in-game models are showing the game engine’s age a bit, but the incredible (one might almost say obsessive) texture work more than makes up for this fact. The Fun House scene and burning apartment building levels are particularly memorable, displaying a richness I’ve not seen before, or since, in any PC title. Cut-scenes are rendered in a graphic novel style that fits the theme of the game perfectly (a welcome return from the first Max Payne game).
Audio: 9 Max’s voice acting is top-notch, as is the work of all the AI characters. The cut-scene audio, combined with the graphic novel feel is particularly effective in evoking a film-noir feeling. The new Max may be sporting a new face (a puzzling design decision) but he returns with his gravelly, wonderfully monotone voice intact.
Value: 6 While the addition of the harder difficulty modes is a welcome addition, replay is not the best I’ve seen. Luckily the game isn’t brutally long (I think I completed the first level in just under 10 hours of game play and subsequently in about 2/3 that time as I better learned the levels). I was hoping that this time around I’d be treated to a longer story than the original Max Payne, but alas this was not to be. However, the game’s overall quality had me missing the short quantity less than it otherwise might have. I hope that the MOD scene for this game is as active as it was for the first title (the Kung Fu MOD would be especially welcome in Max Payne 2? how about it MODders?)
Curve: 7 While Max Payne 2 does not set a completely new standard for this type of game (the way that the original Max Payne did), it certainly expands on all the things that made the first one an all-time classic: deep, interesting characters, brutal and claustrophobic combat set in a grungy world of drugs and violence and innovative game play. As shooters go, you really can’t do wrong by letting this gem take up some hard drive space on your PC.