Review by AutoRock

Reviewed: 05/17/04

Senor Payne returns for another round

Max Payne 2 is a really cool game.

To the seasoned gamer, that doesn't mean much; a good game needs a lot more than 'cool.' Max Payne 2 is an odd beast, though. While other games are determined to give some impression of depth to their gameplay, MP2 instead revels in the simple and addictive nature of it's game mechanic. It's an interesting design, and one that results in the game being very much a 'love it or hate it' kind o' thing.

It's a few months on from the end of the first game, and Max Payne hasn't changed much. He's still sore over the death of his wife and kid, he's still terminally depressed, he still bleeds from the eyeballs at the sight of the sun. The only change is that he's no longer a 'fugitive on the edge with nothing to lose.' He's now back to being a cop, who is on the edge, but now has some stuff to lose. While investigating a disturbance Max runs into old lady-friend Mona Sax, which gives him something else to angst over, and also a new bunch of perps using a cleaning company as cover. Needless to say, Max ends up with all sorts of new crap to deal with.

This story basically sets us up for 24 levels of third-person action gameplay. MP2 works on the age-old game setup of making your guy travel through levels while shooting the other guys - your guy being Max, the levels being various buildings ranging from scumhole crackhouses to stately manor homes, and the other guys being all manner of vicious crook bastards. Where the game differs from others is in it's Bullet Time feature. Essentially, you whack a button and everything except your crosshair slows down, allowing you to pick off perfect shots at your enemies as they slo-o-o-wly shoot back. As well as this, other moves such as dives and rolls provide brief moments of slow motion that allow you to take a shot or gather your senses. The controls for these moves are pleasingly responsive, allowing you to pull off the sleekest dodges with ease. Bullet time is a great device, that makes for some interesting and original action scenes.

It would, of course, be worthless if not backed up with decent enemies. Fortunately, the enemy AI is superb. Rarely do the scumbag perps do anything cunning, but their constant competence and ability to handle anything you do is impressive - there's no stuck-in-a-doorway crap here. They're not perfect - they occasionally shoot each other in their desperate attempts to kill you, and they rarely run away from grenades fast enough. Despite this. they're the videogame recreation of the action movie goon - a little bit too simple to defeat you, but powerful enough in numbers to be a big threat. There's also a nice sort of personality to the game's enemies - there's lots of scripted incidents where they chat about TV shows, set up crappy ambushes for you, and generally screw around. Moments like these elevate them above the faceless hordes seen in most other games.

MP2's gameplay excels in the quality of it's shootouts. There's a kinetic energy to the battles that's massively exciting; the way you flit gracefully between the comfort and serenity of slow-motion, and the frantic intensity of real-time is extremely absorbing. As I said before: it's cool. The gameplay's main draw is in the satisfaction that comes from doing something cool or impressive in a videogame. In Max Payne 2, death isn't a setback - it's an embarrassment.

A lot of this cool value is due to the game's visuals and audio. Simply put, they're both flawless. The locations are brilliantly atmospheric, with tremendous attention paid to minute detail. Characters models are well animated; it's worth mentioning here that the 'holy hell there's a hardback copy of War and Peace stuck in my anus' face Max had in the first game has been replaced with a new one. The Havok 2.0 physics engine is also put to outstanding use; explosions and bullets send chairs and boxes and corpses bouncing and flopping all over the place. Put simply, sickening violence and heinous property damage have never been rendered so elegantly.

The same standards are kept on the audio front. The weapon and environment sound effects sound great in realtime, but they sound heavenly when slowed down in Bullet Time. Music is pleasingly atmospheric and the opening and ending themes are superb. The voice acting is surprisingly good, especially Max's subtle emotion and Vinnie Gognitti's hilarious theatrics. Quality around the board in the audiovisual department.

Impressively, you don't need a monster PC to run the sexy thing. Run it on a middling system (I use a Athlon 1700+ with a Geforce2 card) and keep the resolution low, and it runs smooth like silk, even with the settings on high. You might miss out on a few of the fancier details (mirrors, shadows, etc) though. Of course, play it on a computer with the power of a million men, and it becomes difficult to avoid stroking the screen lovingly.

Back to game itself. Aside from the superb gun battles, it's held together by the storyline. It's obviously a very important aspect of the game, and is told in the same film-noir style as the first game, using graphic novel scenes narrated by Max. Many have attacked the series for it's corny monologues and extended metaphors, but those criticisms are unfair. Say what you will, but the hackneyed dialogue is clearly intentional, and the game is damn proud of it. It's nice to play a game that's not afraid to get lost in it's own style. There's also a satisfying maturity to the proceedings - there's some sexual content and foul language, but never for the sake of being shocking; I like how Max himself never swears at all. As well as this, the game has a great sense of humour and self-parody, with some genuinely hilarious moments. Overall, the game's storyline is accomplished and sophisticated.

And that's basically all there is to it. The shooting, and the story. If you're not grabbed by either of these, then there's really very little reason to play it, unfortunately. However, if you find the shooting mechanic itself entertaining, then there's practically limitless entertainment here. It's massively enjoyable to just play certain areas over and over - it's addictive enough to keep pulling you back, and the combination of the sharp AI and the physics system mean that no battle will go the same way twice. Personally, I've used quickload to fight through single rooms over and over again in the pursuit of the coolest way to do things or to find cool screenshots. The main story mode itself is pretty short, but if you enjoy the gameplay in the slightest, there's basically endless replay value in the different difficulty modes and survival game, as well as a whole load of little details, easter eggs, and secrets to pick up.

So. Superb, then. It's hard to see where the series goes next, as, without spoiling anything, this game nicely rounds off the story arc from the first game. The grim spectre of cynicism tells me that we have only derivative sequels (Payne vs Shaft?) and inane prequels (Max in Vietnam - actually that one sounds quite good) to look forward to. The Fall of Max Payne, though, is outstanding. Perhaps it isn't the best game ever made, but it is, without doubt, the coolest.

Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

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