Max Payne 2 Review
Remedy's Max Payne was released in the summer of 2001 with plenty of hype and five years of development behind it. The game seemed to captivate people with its excellent story, dark sense of humor, film noir style, and of course, the copious amounts of guns all firing in bullet time. The game just didn't seem like it would be that great on paper, but the execution was near-perfect; Max Payne went on to sell several million copies across the PC, PS2, and Xbox.
They've just finished up Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne with their new publisher, Rockstar Games. This time around, we get more of the same intense action with a brand new story, a new look for Max, and an advanced physics system. Much of what made the first Max so unique is being left in: of course the bullet time is here, the voice actor for Max, James McCaffrey, is back, and the graphic novel-style cutscenes are also a major focus again. Rockstar is calling this game "a film noir love story", which demonstrates their attempts to try doing something a bit unique for the plot in Max Payne 2.
Max Payne 2 uses a souped up version of their Max-FX engine which powered the first game as well as the benchmark tool 3DMark 2001. The most obvious new feature is the HAVOK physics engine which results in some very cool deaths for the enemies - unlike many other games, the ragdoll physics here actually sends enemies flying back in a somewhat realistic fashion when they are shot. They don't immediately turn into jelly and slump to the floor, and while it's still not perfect, it's the best I've seen in a game yet.
The system requirements for MP2 are pretty reasonable for today's standards, and it's easy enough to make the game run respectably eve non computers below the minimum requirements. We get plenty of options for tuning, all of which are in a single, quick dialog box. My only complaint is that I can't change these options at any time; I have to quit out to change almost any visual option including screen resolution. Of course, once I set the game up to my liking, it didn't really matter anymore.
A ton of mods were made for Max Payne mainly because the editor suite was easy to use and modmakers could easily build on other authors' previous work. Distribution of mods was also simple, as each one was a single file you just dumped into the game's directory - then you just choose the mod from a dropdown box in the game's launcher. That easy functionality is back, and it really makes juggling them trivial. It's definitely something that at least a few other game developers should consider working on. Unlike the first game, though, Remedy did not include the game's editing tools on the CD - they are committed to releasing them either way, so it's really just a matter of time.
Load times wind up getting a bit long near the end of the game, especially since a single badly-timed shootdodge can get you killed very quickly. Get used to tapping those quick save & quick load keys, as you'll need them pretty badly by the last third of the game.
The action in MP2 is fast and furious, even when in bullet time - more on that later. Max has access to an even bigger arsenal than before, all of which can be pretty easily selected out of the Half-Life-style weapons menus. There are three keys for controlling bullet time, and unlike the first game, you'll probably need to master all forms of using bullet time in order to complete MP2.
The rest of the interface is clean and quick, almost minimalistic; and in this kind of game, it's my opinion that less is more. Only the bare number of the usual keys for standard shooter actions are here, since there are already a few bullet time keys.
Another subtle change is the new secondary fire function - you can set it up to either throw a grenade or Molotov cocktail, or even do a quick melee attack with your gun. I generally found the melee attack to be pretty useless, but being able to throw a grenade without stumbling through the weapon menu was awesome.
While MP2 doesn't excel in brilliant engine features, the attention to detail is excellent anyway. The first game's textures looked great and really brought out the New York atmosphere, and MP2 does this even better - at the same time, most of the characters and Max himself are all highly improved. The more advanced Pixel shading features are implemented, but they only seems to create a slight effect on the character models. Even if you have a two-year-old video card, you can still get great performance with almost all of the visual punch as the better video cards. It just shows that Remedy has focused more on art and texture quality rather than whiz-bang features.
As anyone who's seen a few of the advertisements for MP2 might have noticed, Max has a whole new look; he seems to be about ten to fifteen years older, and while that much time isn't supposed to have passed in the game's story, it seems to fit in with Max's own personality much more. Some would be inclined to say that MP2 did it wrong while the first game did it right, but I think it's the other way around. That is, I find that Max is much cooler as a heavier, slightly-grizzled cop rather than the grinning skinny guy he was in the first game.
The enemies and NPCs all look quite a bit better, especially when it comes to their animations. I still found a few animations that look a bit off, but it's mostly just in contrast to everything else's quality that makes them seem not so great. The environments are extremely detailed, and Remedy has done a great job showing them off to the player without taking away from the gameplay.
The graphic novel-style cutscenes are back, and I'm glad they are; the hand-drawn art adds a unique style that is missing from games nowadays. MP2 does include more in-engine cutscenes than the first game, and for the most part they choose the right style of cutscene for a specific situation in the story. Any action is usually done inside the game engine, while conversations and other drama pieces are done with the graphic novel panes.
The HAVOK physics in Max Payne 2 do affect gameplay somewhat, but I've found that their biggest impact is in a visual sense. The ragdoll character models still don't look perfect, but they're better than some recent games - Chrome, for one, comes to mind. Since many of MP2's environments have a ton of items that can get knocked around, the developers have tried to create a few situations that specifically make these physics a part of gameplay. It seems to have worked, as they didn't go totally overboard with the whole thing; the recent movies for the game showed (in my opinion) an unhealthy fascination with this feature, but they don't push it near as much in the actual game.
Max Payne 2 is all about the action and story, and it delivers an experience that is even more intense and satisfying than the first game. The subtle changes to bullet time make combat even more fun, the new love story angle tries something new that most game developers won't touch, and the style is 100% Max Payne. While the over-dramatic acting seen in both games is a bit of an acquired taste, it is true to the popular film noir over the years - whether this style actually works in a game environment is a matter of opinion, of course. Personally, I think it works beautifully.
Also notable is the presence of a full range of bad words and even some nudity. Honestly, I like seeing this; it just seems stupid having a game with a body count in the hundreds, yet there is no swearing or nudity. For some reason, even rated M games have been held up to this goofy standard for years now, and I'm glad that at least one publisher has no problem breaking that standard.
Most of your time during the game will be spent shooting bad guys, and while we do get many more pieces of story that make the plot more complicated than the first game, there are plenty of explosions and bullets flying to keep the adrenaline going. In just the first half hour of gunplay the body count is beyond that of what many action movies deliver, and you can look forward to about six to eight hours of intense action before beating the game.
At the same time, Remedy has paced the game correctly by using lots of cutscenes and a few slower missions; this allows you to take the occasional breather from all the action. I guess I'd have liked a longer game, as I did beat it in one sitting. At the very least, I had fun the whole time and didn't get bored in the middle like what seems to happen with some games. Also, the additional difficulty & game modes (and hopefully some mods in the future) will add replay value.
Bullet time, which was the flagship feature in the first game, gets a few subtle yet very fun changes in MP2. The more people you kill while in bullet time, the more effective you become - essentially, the enemies slow down even more while you don't. You're also not immediately forced to stand up after a dive, as you can keep shooting from the floor until you have to reload. As insignificant as this sounds, it actually winds up being an important part of the combat.
On top of all this, just doing a dodge will not cost you any of your saved up bullet time, and you can usually go into bullet time for longer periods compared to Max Payne 1. Since the game is generally quite a bit harder this time around, you'll also need this advantage. Overall, Remedy has taken the original bullet time formula and tweaked it in just the right ways.
The new environments in MP2 are a hell of a lot of fun to play through, and we even get to re-visit a level from the first game. The combat is even more furious than before, and the HAVOK physics actually do affect the gameplay. For example, if you dive to the side in MP1 and hit a chair, you would stop in mid-air and the dive ends. Now, though, you will push the chair out of the way while in the air and keep travelling. Another thing you can do is, say, knock out a table that has a gas can sitting on it; the can then slides over and falls into a hole in the floor. You then peek over the edge and shoot the gas can, setting off a series of explosions and killing several enemies.
The enemy AI doesn't seem to have been improved much over the first game; aside from what look to be a few scripted instances, enemies are absolutely terrible at throwing grenades. I'd say that about 2 out of 3 times, they would blow themselves or one of their buddies up with a completely misplaced grenade.
Enemies generally don't do anything particularly smart regarding flanking moves or retreating, but that's because the game just doesn't allow enough room for them to do so. If this had large outdoor environments, then this would be a big deal, but Max Payne 2 has closed-in environments with many highly-scripted encounters.
Almost all of the weapons from the first game are back, and there are a couple of new ones along with variations. The MP5 with the short-range scope is a godsend, while the dual desert eagles pack a very nice wallop. The loss of the grenade launcher is disappointing, though.
Max Payne 2 has five game modes: four of them are difficulty settings and the fifth one is a new mini-game of sorts. You start out on Detective mode, and two more difficulties are available in succession. Beating the game the first time also opens up both the New York Minute and Dead Man Walking modes. New York Minute is the same as in the first game where time is counting down and every kill gains you a few seconds on the clock. And just like before, it's insanely hard to get even a few minutes into without running out of time.
The new mode, Dead Man Walking, puts you in a level against an unlimited number of enemies that spawn one after another - it boils all of the game's action down into a simple shootout where you last as long as you possibly can. While I simply wasn't good enough to get anywhere in New York Minute mode, Dead Man Walking is a blast; it's perfect for a quick shootout without all the story and drama.
All that said, there are still some things I would have loved to see. Anyone who's tried Kenneth Yeung's Kung Fu 3.0 mod for the first game knows what I'm talking about - on top of all the kung fu and stick fighting, it supplied some awesome dodges you could use when specific guns were equipped. Sadly, pretty much none of those ideas have been incorporated into MP2. The melee attack for your guns is pretty much useless; even the baseball bat or lead pipe in the first game were way more fun to use. Let's just hope that Yeung, or someone as skilled as him, goes ahead with a new Kung Fu mod for MP2.
The lack of multiplayer in Max Payne 2 can be explained if you look at the recent Specialists mod for Half-Life. The Specialists tries to incorporate bullet time into its multiplayer modes, but I find it to be disjointed, confusing, and annoying. Theoretically I think it's possible to do multiplayer bullet time and make it fun, but as it is, Remedy has tried focus on delivering a great story-driven single player experience. I doubt we'll see any multiplayer Max Payne any time soon, and frankly that's fine with me.
For those who loved the little details in the first game, MP2 delivers a ton of new stuff that the serious fans will eat up. Baseball Bat Boy, Lords and Ladies, and Address Unknown (the weird show with the pink flamingo) are all back and get even more attention. The appeal of this stuff is hard to explain, but it makes much more sense when you see all the references in the game. There are also a few surprises I won't mention in this review, as it seems Remedy went out of their way to keep a few specific things a secret until the game was released. There's no point in spoiling that.
James McCaffrey is back as the voice of Max Payne, as well as several actors that did work on the first game. It's all done in the same over-dramatic style, with that sly, dry sense of humor getting used once in a while. The music was a bit disappointing for me, because while there were some great songs, that's all there were. The occasional time I did hear music, it was consisted of the same few repeated tracks.
Sound effects are a different matter, though. While some sounds from the first game are back, Remedy went through the effort to redo a bunch of the audio, and it really helps. This game has excellent ambient sound, rivalling even System Shock 2 - on top of this, enemies have lots more to say than "It's Payne!" and those same two death screams you heard every damn time someone got shot.
Max Payne 2 retains or expands on almost everything great from MP1 while adding new features, an intense story, an insane amount of detail, and even more wonderful gameplay. Those looking for a revolutionary change might be disappointed, but if you loved the first game, you can't go wrong with this one.