Max Payne was one of my favorite games when it first hit. I love film noir and Hong Kong action flicks, so combining the two as brilliantly as Remedy did made my life very, very good. I grabbed Max Payne 2 for the PC the second it hit shelves and despite being able to beat it in an afternoon, it’s proven to be an extremely enjoyable title. It’s a complete film noir, with the main character, Max Payne, as a hard-boiled New York detective with a penchant for getting in trouble with the mob and assorted bad guys. The story is told through graphic novel-style cut scenes with the most melodramatic dialog I’ve ever heard. The metaphors come fast and thick, slathered over the story with a big side of ham.
One of the big draws of the original was “bullet time,” which Max could go in to at any point. If the player was in a firefight or just running down the street, you could hit a button and Max would launch into a slow-motion leap which gave the player a huge advantage when surrounded. It also just looked ridiculously cool leaping through a window in slow-mo while blasting gun-toting mob guys. For the sequel, Remedy decided to up the ante by including an additional mode called Shootdodge, which slows down time the more guys you shoot. In keeping with the cinematic flair, the camera will swoop around Payne as he crouches, spins, and reloads while in Shootdodge. It’s supremely cool.
If you haven’t played the first game, let me catch you up, otherwise you will be missing the entire point of the sequel. Max was a New York detective whose wife and baby were killed by drugged-out thugs. He went undercover and found a conspiracy involving a highly potent designer drug called Valhalla, a secret organization called the Inner Circle lead by Senator Alfred Woden, femme fatale Mona Sax, and a conspiracy that went up to the top of one of the largest businesses in the city. When all was said and done, Max was the last one standing, and he felt his family was avenged.
Apparently, Remedy’s story was only half over.Max Payne 2 looks pretty good on the Xbox, with the models all having realistic skins. The countless gunfights look really cool, the explosions are nicely rendered (I love the fire effects), and the infamous dream sequences are as surreal as possible. Some models are better than others (with special care given to Mona, but who could complain?), but the details are solid across the board. One of the biggest draws for Max Payne 2 was the incorporation of the Havoc physics engine from “Half Life 2” which uses ragdoll physics on the models. As such, if Max shoots someone in the knee, then that leg is going to go out from under them. Watching bodies go flying from explosions is a hoot, but the way they can land is where the real fun comes from. Notice the way I phrased that last sentence, and my word choice. Flying bodies can land in one of countless ways, which lead me to replay dozens of gunfights just to watch the show. The graphics aren’t quite as impressive as they are on the PC, but they still look pretty dang good. I would also like to point out that model Kathy Tong (Mona Sax in the cutscenes) is so blindingly hot I’m frankly stunned I’ve not seen her used more. Attention Victoria’s Secret, please recruit her ASAP!
The sound is where I have to take my shots at Max Payne 2, because this is not a very good job. There were several instances I encountered where the audio would loop over things that had already happened. For example, at the start of the board where the under construction building blows up, enemies run into the room where Max is and shoot at explosive barrels and this starts off a chain reaction. If you skip past that cinematic, the audio for it still plays while Max is running down an empty hall trying to get out. There are quite a few instances like this throughout, and I was really disappointed that audio glitches this glaring are in the game. The music, at least, is really cool, with a special nod going to Poets of the Fall for “Late Goodbye,” a song that features prominently into the story. I also loved the theme music, but especially during Max and Mona’s final siege when it plays as the both of them are running through the last board on either side of the rooms guns blazing.
The voice actors are also perfectly cast, but you’ll either get into the style or you won’t. To say James McCaffrey’s performance is morose would be putting it mildly, but it works in the context of the story. Wendy Hoopes also lends the right kind of smokiness to Mona Sax, a dangerous assassin who just might be more interested in Max than she lets on. The story rides entirely on these two, and they rise to the occasion. The script lets them down here and there, but McCaffrey and Hoopes do a strong job.
The controls are where I was most concerned regarding “Max Payne 2” being ported, because the gameplay centers on quick reflexes. Since turning the camera with a controller is substantially slower than on a PC, different tactics must be adapted. For example, on the PC I rarely employed the Shootdodge ability, as plain ‘ol Bullet-Time sufficed for me just fine. On the Xbox version, Shootdodge becomes absolutely essential. Since the player cannot turn the camera as quickly as with a mouse, activating Shootdodge will make the difference between life and reloading more times than not. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you’ve played the PC version then be aware that your strategies will need to change accordingly. This actually made the game a lot more challenging, but there are some situations where Bullet-Time will actually hurt you. For example, once I went into Bullet-Time to shoot at a guy standing at the top of a staircase. Once I landed at the foot of the stairs, I kept shooting but all I was hitting were stairs since the aiming wouldn’t go that high. I reloaded then went into Shootdodge, and charging up the stairs I was able to take him out along with his three buddies. Also, controlling a precision sniper rifle with a thumbstick is neither fun nor easy, and there is one major mission where Mona must be the guardian angel for Max which is a lot tougher than on the PC.
Max Payne 2 deserves to be played by anyone interested in a good film noir and heavy action. There are so many different gunfights you can get in to its unreal. You’ll feel like a bull in a china shop just walking around because everything you see in the game can be affected. For example, when Max walks into a construction site, he can knock over boards or cans or anything else he may touch. Alternatively, he can throw a grenade in that same room and watch those same boards and cans go flying. It’s a great element to bring in, though there are only a few levels with destructible terrain.
The love story is especially good considering where it started and where it ends. Max felt that revenge was satiated at the end of the first game, and whatever else happened would just happen. He felt neither alive, nor dead, just vindicated. Max Payne 2 actually has the guts to bring this man back to life, and without giving anything away, he’s at least made a few steps in the right direction by the end. Like a Phoenix, Max is able to rise from the ashes and be reborn through both his lost love, and his newfound one. I may be getting more out of it than most, who might discard it as a stylish shooter and nothing more. But they would be missing the point. Ten thousand bullets is what it takes for Max to find peace with himself and the world around him. It’s indicative of the journey he’s on when you compare his hilarious-but-sad call to a phone sex line at the beginning to what he says about his final dream.
The game is trickier than on the PC, but a quick changing of tactics gives beautiful results. Alternating between Shootdodge and Bullet-Time is the only way to survive most firefights and it’s a good thing this isn’t an ability in the real world, otherwise I’d be shopping for groceries in slow motion. I can see the cashier ringing up the tab, then I whip out my MasterCard in Bullet-Time… but I digress.
The replay on this is huge, especially considering there is another ending on the higher difficulty modes. Also, Max Payne 2 can give you and your friends bragging rights over the mode Dead Man Walking. In this mode, you can select from a pool of game maps, then enemies start to spawn in and you have to stay alive for as long as possible. The longest time I’ve heard of is over seven minutes, but that had to be one of the developers because I can barely hold out for 60 seconds. This is great stuff, and I’ll be playing through this time and again.