Max Payne 2 review
If this is the first Max Payne related review of mine that you're reading, then you've missed my review of the first game. You can check it out here.
Assuming you're all caught up, you saw that I was raving about the original Max Payne. Well, two years later (in 2003) the game got a sequel. It was called "Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne". It was again developed by Remedy and published by Rockstar. Max Payne returns as the main playable character who is, again, voiced by James MacCaffery. The game is still a shooter played from the third person perspective and the titular game mechanic "bullet time" makes a return with a few improvements. Now, onto the review.
One flaw of my review for the original Max Payne, was that I totally left out the character of Mona Sax. I wanted to focus on Max as a character solely and I also wanted to avoid any potential spoilers in the storyline. Mona Sax plays a much larger role in this game, so my lack of description the first time around has come back to bite me. Mona was an assassin who was hired to kill Max in the first game. The first time they meet, they have a flirtatious encounter, while pointing guns at each others' heads. Eventually Mona backs down and starts being friendly towards Max. It turns out that Mona was simply trying to gain his trust because shortly afterwards, she pours him a sedative-laced drink. Max then wakes up in a basement of a Mafia owned building, but he escapes. When word gets out that he's still alive, she's still tasked with the job of killing him. Without spoiling too much, she refuses which makes Max more inclined to trust her.
Fast forward two years and Max is working at his old job at the NYPD. His present case is to investigate some murders by a group known as "The Cleaners". While investigating one location, he finds Mona Sax at the scene of the crime. She gets apprehended by the police, but Max lets his feelings get in the way and protests, to no avail. I'm cutting the amount of plot details short this time as well so I can minimize spoilers.
The mystery of who The Cleaners are and who they work for is the overarching plot of the game, but Max's love and strange relationship with Mona is the main character motivation. That's where my major problem comes in. The reason Max does most of what he does in this game is because of love. I'd argue that it's a rather weak driving force in an action game. Love is only a strong emotion to the people involved. It's not me that loves Mona Sax...It's Max. In the first game he was driven by revenge to get back at the murderers who killed his wife and child. Anybody can relate to that. To give you an example, if your best friend came to you and said "I really love my girlfriend", you'd be happy for him, but mostly you're mind would think "That's nice....hmmm, I wonder what's on TV tonight". Even though you care for your best friend, his love for his girlfriend doesn't mean much to you. However, if your best friend came and said "Someone just murdered my girlfriend", suddenly you're totally invested. Even if you don't really like his girlfriend, a loss so extreme is cause for righteous anger. You don't need tons of selfless empathy to feel for your friend in that situation. This is why I was less invested in Max's story this time around. It was harder to feel what he was feeling.
That's not to say the story wasn't good or wasn't told well, because it was. On its own, the plot is a few steps above the average game, but compared to the last game which was perfect in both story and character motivation, this one falls short.
While I complain that the story was a step down from the first one, it's not the only thing that left something to be desired. The first game was chocked full of atmosphere. The stains on the walls, the items on the desks and the junkies hurdled up in the bathroom all communicated something about the world you were in. This game didn't totally ditch all that, but it definitely seemed to have fewer memorable and less detailed environments.
The exception though is the funhouse levels in the game. A few levels take place in Mona Sax's hideout which is an abandoned funhouse based on a cancelled TV show. A TV show that mirrors Max Payne's life, I might add. The complaints I had about lack of atmosphere don't apply to these levels. The funhouse is incredibly well designed and in working condition. The first time you walk through the level is a strange and unique moment in gaming. There's not a single enemy and it's just walking through a maze of cardboard cutouts of people and environments with no music. If it sounds boring, I can promise you that it's not. It's creepy and it sells itself on atmosphere alone like the first game did in many ways.
Returning to the sequel are the comic book cut-scenes that tell Max's story. I feel that these too were a step down from the first game. The art style of the first game's comics seemed raw. Colors consisted of dark reds mixed with black, and colors would bleed into each other. The art was used to capture an emotion as much as it was meant to tell a story. This time around the art style is detailed and clean looking. There's far less emotion to the comics. It looked more like someone took a picture of the characters and then added a blue hue to the photograph, whereas the first game's comics look more like actual art work.
Max Payne 2 uses the same engine as the first game, but with some major improvements. While I don't know the technicals behind the graphical upgrade, I do know that it looks fantastic. Character models look much better this time around. Max and the NPC's (non-playable characters) actually have more than one expression this time around.
Besides the characters, the environments are very polished as well. Surfaces have a good amount of reflection, the lighting is solid and the particle effects are high. Explosions in particular look great. Depending on what blows up, it can light up the screen. The first game looked good enough, but apply the highest settings to the PC version of this game and it nearly looks on par with early Xbox 360 or PS3 games.
The same theme from the first game returns, although this time it's remade with a cello. While I prefer the raw and understated sound of the first game's music, this one is great for different reasons. With a title called "The Fall of Max Payne" it's appropriate that this piece would take the tragic undertones of the original theme and bring them to the forefront. Here have a listen.
Now we come to the real meat of the game, the gameplay. Max Payne 2 offers quite a few improvements to the original game. First of all, the level design. I feel it's much better this time around. The original game had a lot in common with DOOM or other old school First Person Shooters in that the levels were blocky and straight-forward. This time around, the environments seem more dynamic and hide their linearity much better. Despite having some mechanics such as non-regenerating health and unlimited carrying capacity of weapons, this game seems to share a lot in common with modern games. Where the first game had you go room-to-room and clear out a number of enemies, this game seems to stress action set pieces more. This game introduces waves of enemies to clear out in certain sections, which is not unlike Call of Duty or other modern shooters.
Another advancement made to the gameplay is the one done to "Bullet Time". If you don't know, Bullet Time is a slow motion mechanic that slows everyone, including their bullets, down to a crawl while you move at normal speed. Anyways, Bullet Time 2.0 as the developers refer to it, keeps the signature shoot dodge, but the real improvement comes when you slow down time while upright. Now when you empty a clip while in slow motion, you'll do a 360 camera spin allowing you to survey the area for enemies and assuming you killed enough bad guys with that clip, time will slow down even further. Eventually time can be so slow that enemies will be falling in midair and you can run circles around them. Bullets will also appear to be hanging motionless. It's like when Neo stops bullets and they freeze for a second before they drop. It's a very cool effect.
One drawback to the gameplay is there is at least one escort mission which never is very fun and also a mission in which you play as Mona Sax who has to save Max Payne. The Mona Sax mission is the worst because Max Payne is at its finest when you're creating movie like shootouts while diving through the air. The Mona level dials it back and has you playing guardian angel with a Sniper rifle in a building. I don't care for Sniping missions in video games. I prefer to be right there in the action. It's worse when you're not protecting yourself, but rather having to make sure someone else doesn't die. I think the worst aspect though is that you're trying to save the main character. It takes the power away from Max. Here's a guy who single-handedly took down crime organizations and even bigger groups (without spoiling anything) with just his wits and weapons. Now we're given the implication that he can't survive a wave of enemies without a secondary character's help. Other than that small gripe, the gameplay is fantastic. There are dream sequences this time, but they aren't a nightmare to play like the original.
By far my favorite addition to Max Payne 2 is a bonus mode called "Dead Man Walking". It puts you into an arena where bad guys will infinitely spawn as you try and survive as long as you can. It adds a ton of replay value to the game and cements Max Payne 2 as the game I keep coming back to if I want a quick action fix. Dead Man Walking is unlocked after you beat the main game.
I've said before that I usually don't care at all about the stories in video games and care solely about the gameplay, so it may seem slightly hypocritical that I don't prefer the second game with its improved gameplay. If there's a small exception to my rule of gameplay first, then Max Payne is it. I usually don't get invested to the main characters of video games, but I did with the first Max Payne. It was the perfect balance of solid character motivation that I could get behind and a setting that was dripping with atmosphere and mood. I've never experienced a game quite like it. While I often come back to Max Payne 2 for its gameplay, the game that made a lasting impression in my mind was the original. When compared to most games Max Payne 2 is a leader of the pack, but when stacked up to the modern classic that is Max Payne, it's a somewhat disappointing sequel.
Be sure to check out my next review where I take on the fairly recent Max Payne 3 and analyze whether it is a worthy sequel. Thanks for reading.