STAFF REVIEW of Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Xbox)

Sunday, December 7, 2003.
by Stacy Code

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne Box art Remedy and AC/DC have a similar outlook and that?s a good thing. If it isn?t broke, don?t fix it, don?t screw around with it, don?t monkey with it or mess with it ? just give us more of the same, and make it a tiny little bit crazier and a little bit louder the next time around. That?s probably why Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was as enjoyable as it was ? it was like any good action movie sequel in that it served up more of the same, brought back the familiar characters and faces in some new situations, and it let us carry on as though the first game never left off.

I will warn you, the game is short, a (supposed) failing of the first that reviewers and critics were quick to jump on a few years ago. Clocking in somewhere between 10 and 20 hours divided into three acts, I finished the game in two afternoons. I?d argue, though, that the game is appropriate in length, as this style of constant run, dodge, and shoot game play wouldn?t hold up interest for an extended 60 hour story arc. I will ALSO warn you that the game is definitely targeting the mature gamer, as the dialogue is laced with as many screamed ?f-bombs? as you?ll hear in Reservoir Dogs. Additionally, there?s some in-game sex ? fairly stylized and not too graphic, but the audio is pretty convincing.

For those new to Max Payne, the story of the first game is compressed into a graphic-novel-style synopsis available on the front menu of the game, bringing players up to speed with why Max is so cranky and has to shoot so many people during the course of his usually disastrous work days. The game play is identical to the first, with the game played exclusively in third person and following Max?s gunfights through packs of heavily armed bad guys in a multitude of urban settings. The gunfight game play relies heavily on the bullet-time play mechanic, which has only been slightly tweaked and modified since the first game ? essentially, at a button press, Max can go ?into the zone?, and do a matrix-style slow-motion bullet beat down on his surrounding enemies. Time slows down further and further as you rack up the kills in bullet time, and, in a new touch, if you happen to run your gun dry in bullet-time, you are treated to a visually spectacular Chow-Yun-Fat-style swooping pirouette of a gun reload animation, with empty magazines flying and coat spinning.

In a new twist, the game allows you at various points during the story to play as different characters ? usually Max himself, but at times you?ll take up the fight as Mona Sax, Max?s love interest and a carryover character, supposedly killed in the first Max Payne but now back and causing him all kinds of consternation and concern. As Mona, you?ll frequently be called on to protect Max with surgical sniper fire as Max carries on about his missions, and as the two characters banter with each other over the radio during the course of missions their relationship develops into the ?film-noir romance? indicated in the game?s title.

Level designs in the game are again gritty and extremely believable ? I think most of us are still getting over first seeing the initial subway level in the first Max Payne. The game environments in the sequel still impress, both in their technical execution (the amount of detail is stunning, down to trickles of water running from rooftop gutters) and in their choice of subject ? my favorite level concerned an abandoned funhouse based on a cancelled David-Lynch-esque television show. Your first visit to the funhouse involves no combat whatsoever, but just a slow, very unnerving navigation through the funhouse animatronics and ambient sound recordings. By the third act of the game when you?re fighting your way through the level again (now in flames and coming down around your head), it?s all the more real because it?s an environment you?ve been in before at several different points in the story.

Game graphics are every bit as impressive as the first Max Payne and jacked up to a new level ? where the first was pretty much a straight-out port of the pc title with no tweaks or enhancements whatsoever, this one takes better advantage of the horses under the Xbox?s hood. There?s HDTV support, and within the game graphics themselves there?s a greater, far greater degree of detail now ? characters have animated faces and expressions that are more lifelike, textures are more detailed (there?s a torched apartment in the game that is simply stunning) and enemies are animated in a much more realistic fashion, getting blasted into walls and railings with weight and articulation. A really nice graphical touch I was particularly pleased with was that when the gamer triggers bullet-time in a gunfight, the world blurs into a sepia-tone, adding to the surreal extended-moment of that instance of combat.

Sound is a critical part of Max Payne?s universe, as the somber mood and dark setting are illustrated as much with the music and the ambient sounds of the city at night as they are with the exposition and dialogue. Max carries on a spoken narration over the gameplay as before in the first game, in the same metaphor-laden Raymond Chandler style as the first game, but more seamlessly now, with the graphic-novel cutscenes bookended to the chapter beginnings and ends now instead of breaking up the gameplay. The music score is heavy and dark, and appropriately dynamic ? you feel damn cool when the synths and strings kick in heavy as the thugs storm your position and you begin mowing them down. In short, the music does what it is meant to do but often fails in many games ? it enhances the mood and atmosphere of that moment in the game, pulling you further into the suspension of disbelief, and is not just window dressing to keep the audio processor busy. Special callouts to the beautiful pitch-shifting that occurs when time slows down, from the clink of the shell casings hitting the floor to ambient sounds like approaching police sirens.

Where the game does fall short, in the instances where it does, it at least falls short consistently in the same ways as the first. Enemy bullet path and timing during bullet-time seems a tiny bit random (it could be argued that it?s a lot more random in real life) and you?ll find yourself reloading a quick-save frequently during some larger gunfights as you watch Max get arbitrarily smoked upon walking into an unseen or unexpected spray of shotgun pellets or something similar. I don?t know if I can really call this a fault ? it IS frustrating at times to replay the same sequence a half-dozen times trying to kill three or four enemies and survive with an acceptable amount of health left to finish the level, but at the same time, I like the idea that the battle will unfold slightly different every time ? that says ?A.I? instead of ?scripting? and I like that every time. The player, still, will be well-advised to follow the computer-operator?s maxim: ?Save early, and save often?. The storyline of this game is engaging, and you don?t want to break it up by replaying large portions of it over and over like some strange deja-vu.

Also, and though I applaud the developer's trying to take visual character presentation and storyline maturity to the next level, I have a pet peeve about in-game character models making out. It's kind of strange and unnatural and weird, like old people having sex. Can we relegate all of the hot 'n' heavy stuff strictly to the graphic-novel custscenes next time, maybe?

In conclusion, Max Payne 2 is a sequel in every sense. For those who liked the first in the series, it is another generous helping of the same with improvements, tweaks, and enhancements but the same core essence ? same characters, same voices, same musical themes, same technical gameplay elements. Also the same melodrama, the same short gameplay duration, and the same lack of gameplay variety return for a second go-around, so if you aren?t cool with lines like ?The sun went down with practiced bravado? growled out in gravelly tones, I?d suggest that the snicker factor might kill this game for you. (Personally, I love the heavy cheese, absolutely. I don?t think it takes itself seriously and I don?t take it seriously either. It is, after all, a game.) It is very short, but it?s good, and I?d sooner drop my coin on 15 hours of game that I can?t put down, than 60 hours of game that leaves my attention wandering and makes the flaws stand out more.

Overall: 8.6 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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