Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment's embittered vigilante cop has put his troubled past behind him and is ready to begin a new chapter in his life with Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. The stylized third-person shooter, which initially turned heads with its combination of gritty environments, film noir style, and use of bullet-time effects for dramatic shootouts, returns with an enhanced graphic engine and completely new storyline. The Fall of Max Payne chronicles the title character's romance with a sultry siren named Mona Sax. Things are never easy for Payne, however, as Sax just so happens to be a murder suspect who leads him down a dark path from which he may be unable to walk away from.
The new graphic engine allows for motion-captured movement, facial animation from a cast of professional actors, lip-synching, new lighting techniques, a rag doll physics model using the licensed Havok development kit, and redesigned 3D characters. Players will walk through cities as rain splashes down onto the streets with puddles reflecting the glow of neon signs, streetlights, and other details of urban life. The groundbreaking use of bullet time effects for slow-motion combat has been redesigned to incorporate different rates of speed for more theatrical gunplay. Max Payne is now a member of the NYPD, so missions involve interrogating prisoners, speaking with witnesses, and more.
There seems to be no end of bad things in Max's life, but we don't mind. Since his explosive debut in 2001's original Max Payne, the title character has had his family murdered, his career shattered, his friends gunned down -- and he's been filled with more bullets than the stockroom of an Appalachian Wal-Mart during hunting season. Through his inner monologue and gravelly voice, we see Max Payne filled with self-doubt and an almost suicidal depression that's more dangerous to his enemies than it is to himself. Somehow, he perseveres, driven by either his anger or want of justice. The end result? Bad guys in bodybags and burning buildings up and down Manhattan ... as well as some of the greatest action gaming you can find on any system.
Max Payne 2 adds a little more to the magic of the first game, although it retains the same core gameplay and storytelling tactics. The graphics engine is more polished, with more special effects for realistic rain, lighting, and explosions. A new underlying physics engine powers everything from falling bodies to flying debris, making the entire experience more lifelike and interactive. And the narrative splits at times, telling the story from multiple angles and allowing you to play as more than one character.
Although it's lacking in length and replayability, Max Payne 2 is one of the most memorable action titles this year (see sidebar on this page). Many gamers will be able to slam through it in a weekend, but it'll be one hell of a roller-coaster, plot-twisting, bullet-dodging couple of days.
Max Payne, for those of you new to the series, is an action game built around a solid gimmick: players can press a key to go into "bullet-time," where everything moves in super-slow motion. In bullet-time, spent shells seem to hover in mid air and explosions mushroom slowly upwards in striking clarity. It's not just a gimmick ripped off from the movies; it actually affects gameplay. You're able to aim with precision while in bullet-time. Often it's the only way out of a tight spot. It also gives you seemingly superhuman powers, which is fun!
Building off of bullet-time is a special "shoot-dodge" key, which (depending on how you're moving when you press it) performs any number of "leap through the air" stunts. Combining a spectacular leap with bullet-time allows you to -- for example -- jump through a window and blast apart six guys with submachineguns akimbo, the shattering glass hovering around you like twirling jewels. And of course, the action is all filmed in third-person (looking over your character's shoulder) so you can see every bit of the stuntwork. The end result is a game that superbly simulates the sexy glorified-gunplay of action movies by the likes of John Woo. It's a feel that no other action game can come close to.
It helps that Max Payne 2 has a very tight graphics engine, whose hi-res textures and clever level design make every location feel like a real place -- or the set of an action movie. Of course, the original Max Payne had all these things; let's talk about what's new this time around...
Gamers nowadays are probably already familiar with "ragdoll physics." It's a technology where the game uses a realistic physics model to simulate a falling body (sometimes with comical results) so that, for example, they'll fall properly down a stairwell or won't land with their head clipping through a wall. The designers of Max Payne 2, focused as they were on cinematic action, knew that ragdoll physics on dead bodies alone wasn't enough. They implemented real physics modeling to every object in the game, including the 'live' characters. If you hit someone in the arm, they'll flinch accordingly before firing back.
More importantly, all the objects in the game have their own weight and behavior. No longer are rooms built by the level designers with furniture that appears bolted to the ground. No, Max Payne wades into a room like an action hero, kicking over chairs or knocking boxes aside. This accomplishes two things: For one, screenshots don't do the game justice, because it looks incredible. Every room is filled with clutter that'll be knocked aside as characters careen into it or grenades blow it across the room. When you go into slow-motion with an assault rifle, blasting five or six guys into a pile of boxes or shelves full of paint cans that clatter to the ground around them, it's immensely satisfying.
To a lesser extent, the new physics also impact gameplay. Although you won't be pushing around furniture to block off doors (it's just not that type of game -- guns talk, not brains!), you will constantly wrestle with a changing environment. You can hit bad guys in the face by smashing open doors, or blow away their cover with explosives. Stuff will fall in your way as you're trying to make your way across a cluttered room, and you'll have to leap over it or find other sources of cover against the constant hail of bullets. The physics are so well integrated into the gameplay that you'll wonder how you ever played games without it. The locations in Max Payne 2 simply feel more real than in other games; they feel lived in, cluttered, and genuine.
The environments in Max Payne 2 aren't destructible by the player, but the designers found plenty of excuses to blow them up around you in any number of carefully scripted sequences. With all the cinematic flair of Die Hard, you can send an elevator to the bottom of a shaft with explosives, then jump down into it and kick aside the heavy steel doors with a crash. That's just good gaming.
The attention to detail with the game engine extends to the storytelling as well. As in the previous game, the action is divided into chapters, each one glued together with a mix of in-game cinematics and "graphic-novel"-esque art panels. Game designers would do well to take a page out of Max's book; the storytelling is excellent. As in Carlito's Way or Goodfellas, the action begins in the middle, tantalizing us with glimpses of what's to come: Max in the hospital, a dead cop, a love spiraling out of control. Discovering how Max got there (and how he's going to get out of it) pulls you into the game more quickly than the best graphics in the world.
To be clear, we're not talking about high literature here. But the writing in Max Payne 2 has all the twists, explosions, surprises, and macabre humor of several Lethal Weapon movies combined. The game is billed as "A film noir love story," and re-introduces us to Mona Sax (presumed dead after the first game), a tough-as-nails assassin wearing the luckiest pair of jeans in videogaming. Max and Mona's unlikely romance is made believable by good-quality voice acting (James McCaffrey returns as the gravelly voice of Payne). Max's overblown, metaphor-laden dialogue may lend itself to parody, but the game never breaks character. And in context, it works. We ate it up like candy, playing level after level to find out "what happens next."
At times, the narrative splits, so for the first time you won't just be playing as Max Payne throughout the game. Parts of the game even have both main characters on the same map, the action weaving between the two of them (with Max narrating throughout.) It's a tough trick to pull off, but the designers made it work.
Max Payne 2 is a quality game all around, but gamers deserve fair warning: This one is short! Some claim to have breezed through it in four hours, which is certainly possible if you're a veteran gamer blasting recklessly through every level. If you, like this reviewer, take the time to rummage through every desk, watch every TV program, and listen to every conversation, you'll clock more like eight hours. It's worth it to explore: the writers manage to tie even little side conversations and snippets on answering machines into the big picture, with ominous foreshadowing around every corner. (As well as some truly comical moments, such as a transcript of deadpan-serious Max Payne calling up a phone sex line looking for redemption.)
Beating the game once unlocks special modes (such as "Dead Man Walking," where you try to stay alive on a level as long as possible while bad guys pour in from all sides), but none offer a whole lot of replayability. There's no multiplayer mode ("bullet time" just doesn't lend itself to multiplayer). However, Remedy is planning on releasing modification tools sometime in the near future along with documentation. That's promising, because Kung Fu Max Payne, a modification for the original game, remains one of our all-time favorite mods. But it's hard to tell this early if there will be significant community development to add to the life of this game.
Everything about this game is absolutely top quality: in our testing we didn't spot any bugs or compatibility problems, it runs silky smooth, and even the packaging is slick and well-designed. Nowadays, when a 90-minute movie and snacks can run you nearly $20 bucks, the eight hours or more of top-notch gameplay that Payne serves up is starting to look like a bargain. The action in Max Payne 2 is as adrenaline-pumping as anything you'd see on the silver screen, and you're in control. Or dangerously close to spiraling out of control, as Max often is. Despite the length, this is top-quality entertainment.
People who downloaded Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne have also downloaded:
Max Payne, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Mafia: The City of Lost Heaven, Half-Life, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Halo: Combat Evolved, No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s Way, Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault
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