Summary: In the immortal words of Vladimir Lem: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present Max Payne, New York’s finest, with the biggest mobster body count ever. Dearest guests - prepare to die!
We've also got 68 screenshots to prove that body count (we took one out because 69 is a dirty number, and we ph34r the wrath of John Ashcroft.) But Tom... well... he's Tom, and he's got the cajones to say it like it is. 90% and Editor's Choice? He don't think so.
Same as it ever was
Max is back. And, boy, is he the same as he ever was. Although the cover of the box promises "a film noir love story", all that's really delivered is the same shootouts, the same slick graphics and animation, the same limited replayability, and the same bad writing. In brief, Max Payne 1.1. Luckily, the first Max Payne was pretty good for what it was, so more of the same isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Max factor
Say what you will about Max Payne as an intellectual property (reportedly purchased for $10 million), but this is really about the gunfights. The characters, the locations, the comic book -- excuse me, "graphic novel" -- style cutscenes, and the plot are all incidental. Everything is designed to get you into gunfights, doing that bullet time thing, and wasting bad guys by the dozen, one fight at a time. You're relentlessly shunted past a thousand fake doors that lead you always to the next flashpoint. As Max himself sagely notes about a funhouse, it's just "a linear sequence of scares". Similarly, Max Payne is just a linear sequence of gunfights.
In this regard, Max Payne 2 is entirely successful. Although it's fairly short (you could plow through it in a weekend, easily), there's not a lot of filler. There are perhaps a half dozen walk-around sections that advance the plot, and most of these are trippy dream sequences or an attempt to establish a location you'll be visiting later. But on the whole, Max Payne 2 goes like this: okay, these two bad guys; now these four bad guys around this corner; now this room with these three bad guys and three more bad guys who come from above; then down a hall with these two bad guys...and so on. As the game progresses, there are an increasing number of dirty tricks with guys popping out behind you or lurking behind blind corners. A lot of the challenge involves 'gotcha, now you have to reload so you can anticipate it next time!' gimmicks.
There's not a lot of variety in terms of locations or enemies. In fact, you're basically fighting the same guys the entire game, but two thirds of the way through -- surprise! -- they change costumes. Locations are frequently re-used. In one case, it's a clever example of before-and-after. But the world of Max Payne 2 feels less like New York and more like one big construction site stuffed with scaffolding and cardboard boxes that will eventually catch fire so you have to run out before it all blows up. The place where Mona, Max's love interest, lives is actually pretty clever. Otherwise, the levels are non-descript and as linear as a funhouse.
SIDEBAR: Max Payne 2 is a 6 hour game. In what must be a first for the industry, it makes it less of a value than a movie
But what makes the game compelling are the dynamic shootouts. There's an entirely new physics system since the last game. Most notable are the new rag doll physics for bouncing jangling meatsack bodies smacking into obstacles and slouching down walls. Slightly less dramatic are the new furniture-kicking physics for when Max walks around and knocks over chairs, garbage cans, and traffic pylons. This comes in particularly handy in Max Payne 2's construction sites, where boxes are stacked high and scaffolding is ready to collapse the moment an errant limb brushes against a support beam. It's all pretty gratuitous, as you'll note when the developers go out of their way to script a camera view of a bad guy falling into a bunch of boards like something out of a Half-Life 2 demo. But it works and it's dynamic enough to make the firefights play out differently each time.
Unfortunately, the physics of living bodies aren't nearly so refined. Jumping in Max Payne 2 is weird and unnatural, as if Max briefly becomes a floating and weightless entity whenever his feet leave the ground during a jumping puzzle. Bad guys drop down onto lower levels as stiff as boards until you kill them and they go rag doll. Running over a small obstacle like a gas can lying flat on its side makes you realize that although rag doll physics do some pretty neat things, the physics of a living guy walking around a cluttered environment aren't quite ready for prime time.
There are, to be fair, more animations this time around as Max fights. You might be pleasantly surprised to see Max interacting with objects during bullet time slow-mo. But on the whole, the gunfights play out the same way they used to. They're visceral, exciting, loud, and satisfying. Sometimes, they're a bit too confusing, as it's hard to tell where shots are coming from. And sometimes, the deck is stacked against you as Max is funneled through tight areas with no room to dodge. Sometimes, Max's fat NYPD head gets in the way when you're back up against a wall. Maybe you're doing a flying leap and suddenly the screen is filled with nothing but the pattern of the tread on Max's shoe. I suppose these are the perils of doing third person, where the trade off is that you can see Max's leather jacket flapping noncommittally while he saunters around yet another construction site.
SIDEBAR: Jakub thought the writing in the first Max Payne was deliciously bad
With practiced bravado
The writing is less aggressively bad than it was in the first game, but it's still bad. Ironically, the shows playing on television throughout the world of Max Payne 2 demonstrate that Remedy is capable of writing parody without simply being bad. There are a few moments of sly humor, such as coming across some henchmen playing a piano or an Italian gangster's "I'm not a nerd, lots of people collect this stuff" confession. But most of these clever touches are drowned out in bad attempts at Chandler-esque prose with lines like "the flames couldn't burn away my past; they only made the shadows behind me leap higher" or "when you look back, you see the branches, like a pruned bonsai tree, or a forked lightning". It's not worthy of a wince this time so much as a simple 'tsk'.
Worse than the writing is the weak and convoluted storyline. The first Max Payne had a Mad Max simplicity: average cop's family is killed, vengeance ensues. Max Payne 2 has some stuff about conspiracies and double crosses; it even slathers a layer of revisionism over the first game. Plus there's the silly romance angle, which simply translates into 3D models of 1D characters kissing each other. It has all the depth of feeling of something with Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock. Its biggest impact is that you get to play as the love interest in some ill-conceived "Cover me!" missions, but the differences between Max and Mona seem strictly polygonal.
It's no great crime that Max Payne 2 is as short as it is, since the firefights are so dynamic and there's really not much else to the gameplay. In fact, there's one level where you have two perfunctory 'pull the switch' puzzles within ten minutes of each other, which is about as cerebral as Max Payne gets. Once you've finished the game, you unlock harder difficulty levels with different objectives.
SIDEBAR: There’s a nudie cheat for Mona. Oddly enough, she’s the only character with a nude model
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Personally I think Tom’s being generous. I mean, you get a 6 hour game with repetitive gameplay. The fancy trick that made the first Max Payne interesting is getting old. The jumping physics alone cost the game 5 points off the score. The plot and writing are much more blasé… not as adventurous or entertaining. At least the first Max Payne’s writing had the hilarious quality of being one long cliché. Now it’s just a bland attempted tragedy. Where’s the fun? Got a clue? Then Sound Off! in the news comments and let me know, because I want my money back. OK OK, the Captain Baseball Bat Boy sequence makes up for all of that. Tom does have a point.
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