Review by Starwind

"Further blurring the line between cinema and video games"

Max Payne's foray into both the fictional underground criminal network of New York and his own damaged psyche continues in the sequel to the game named after the protagonist. In what may, without exaggeration, be labeled an ''interactive movie,'' Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne has successfully managed to combine slick cinematography with frantic run-and-gun gameplay to produce a video game worthy of an Academy Award. Though many may point out its inherently short length and overly difficult gameplay, it remains one of the most entertaining games of 2003.

GRAPHICS: 10/10 The first Max Payne had superb graphics for its time, and the sequel improves greatly on the graphics engine. The most notable change in graphical flair is a surprisingly accurate physics model, which has been applied to both environmental objects and characters; stray cans and wooden boards will move, twist, fall and collide with other objects with convincing realism, while enemies' bodies will exhibit true-to-life ''ragdoll physics'' when falling from boxes, ledges, banisters, and other objects. Their bodies will also move based on where bullets strike them (examples of this can easily be seen in cutscenes, where bullets strike enemies, causing them either to fall backwards or trip over their own feet and land flat on their chest, based on whether they were struck on their chest or their foot, respectively).

Along the same lines, most every object in the game reacts to bullets; chairs will flail in the air as they are struck with a barrage of gunfire, and most everything made of glass will shatter realistically. The level of interaction is unlike anything I have seen in recent times, surpassing that of the Tanker level of Metal Gear Solid 2 (which, by the way, exhibited excellent attention to detail--for the first 10 minutes of the game; Max Payne 2 remains a visual powerhouse throughout the entire game).

The environments are lush with detail; for better or for worse, the seedy apartments of crime-laden New York sport such details as highly detailed walls, pipes visible on the ceilings of hallways, and garbage strewn along the streets. Suffice to say it captures the mood of the game precisely; there is no mistake that you are living in a post-apocalyptic version of New York.

If I had one complaint about the game, however minor, it would be that the appearances of the characters has changed slightly. Max no longer wears the tilted smirk he did throughout the first game; with that, it almost looks like a different person. Mona Sax and other returning characters look slightly different, too. This observation applies to both the 3D models and the cutscenes in the game.

SOUND AND MUSIC: 9/10 No expense was spared in the sound effects department. Max Payne 2 contains hundreds of sounds, ranging from differing bullet ricocheting noises to varying footsteps on gravel, wood, concrete, etc. Ambient noise is clear and precise, changing as a player enters and exits buildings and alleys, differing when the weather is clear or when there is rain. Players with EAX and surround-sound are in for a real treat; in fact, I would go so far as to say it would be a crime to play without them.

Character voices are very well-done, as well. The characters retain the same voice actors as the game's predecessor, which is good news, to say the least. Max maintains his dry, almost monotone voice throughout the game, while characters like Vinnie Gognitti sport (stereotypical) New York gangster voices (Gognitti, in particular, is a delight to hear in-game).

The music in the game is also of high-caliber; however, a good portion of it is borrowed from the first game, and some of the new tracks are remixed from the original. The main theme is remixed, however it is much more dynamic and ultimately stirs the player's emotions. I do feel as though the music played during battle could have been more lively; it is a bit tame compared to that of the first game. It is the music which pulls down my sound score a bit, as the auditory features otherwise exceed expectations.

GAMEPLAY: 9/10 Gameplay is largely unchanged from the original, save for a few changes in the game's most unique feature, ''Bullet-Time.'' The game is played from a third-person perspective, the camera following Max Payne from behind, normally situated just above his head. Being that it is not a first-person game, the very presence of Max's body on-screen does introduce visual problems for the player, as it will block some of the action, particularly in narrow spaces, where the camera will move closer to Max's body so as to not pass through walls. In tense situations, this can mean the difference between survival and failure.

Max now carries melee weapons as a secondary attack to his normal assortment of pistols and submachine guns; hand grenades and Molotov cocktails are immediately accessible without holstering a firearm, which ultimately makes it easier to defend oneself against the onslaught of mobsters.

Bullet-time, the game's ''slow-motion'' feature, has undergone a slight overhaul, as well. During bullet-time, reloading is instantaneous; the game will either reload in a flash, or stop all the action and perform a fly-by around Max Payne as he ever-so-gracefully spins his weapons and reloads his gun--very, very cool. The duration of bullet time can now be increased by defeating enemies during its usage, which means that, in heavily populated areas, it can be used almost throughout the entire length of a stage. This may seem like an easy way through the game, but this does not take into account the inherent skill in the game's computer-controlled adversaries.

The enemies in Max Payne 2 are now more intelligent than ever before; characters will now cover their allies as Max attempts to disrupt their teamed assaults. Boxes, corners, and other parts of the environment are used quite well in defense. Proper usage of bullet-time is crucial to successfully guiding Max through the game, as are the carefully-placed painkillers.

In fact, the game's AI can be too good at times. Enemies are very adept at hiding behind objects and taking pot shots at Max, particularly from afar; oftentimes, you may need to listen carefully to your speakers to judge where enemies are hiding. Later on in the game, bullets tend to inflict more damage on Max, which inherently increases the game's difficulty, right down to the final battle. The game is by no means impossible, but it can be frustrating (read: make good use of the quicksave and quickload buttons).

PLOT: 9/10 I will not divulge details of the game's plot, as it would ultimately spoil the experience for new players, however it is suffice to say that anyone who knows what to expect will be thoroughly impressed with the progress made on both the problem at hand and in Max's personal exploration of his life and mind. I would say that the interconnections between the game's various antagonists does become a bit convoluted towards the end; it may take a few games before the plot really makes sense.

All in all, it is very satisfying to play, if only to learn what happens to Max and the rest of the cast. Though it is short, it is very, very sweet.

OVERALL: 10/10 No doubt any avid video gamer has noticed the recent trends in the production of video games on consoles and PCs over the past few years. As consumer demand increases, developers are forced to increase the amount of work involved in producing anything new in the industry, and while most manage to keep up with consumer expectations, few manage to surpass them, and only the best and brightest stars of video gaming can re-define those expectations entirely.

It is disheartening to hear that Max Payne 2 is not as critically acclaimed as other games such as Metal Gear Solid 2. While it may be painfully obvious, I must mention that I am very much a fan of cinematically-inclined video games such as Shenmue and Metal Gear. Max Payne 2, in almost every conceivable aspect, exceeds every one of my expectations and will probably be my long-time favorite, and while the rest of the world may not share my views, I should hope that the quality of this production will be noticed by tomorrow's game developers.


Reviewer's Score: 10/10 | Originally Posted: 01/09/04


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