Review by Polonius

"Incredibly fun, incredibly short"

What we have here is a rather well polished third-person shooter. There is nothing here that will take you by surprise: the ability to slow down time - dubbed Bullet Time (™ etc.) - has been done not only in the game's prequel, but also in Enter the Matrix (rightly so) and True Crime (wrongly so). The plot, too, is more of an extension of the previous story, and anyone familiar with the original Max Payne will be immediately at home with the cast of characters present here.

The new story is nicely intricate, and uses a similar technique to the previous game, where the narrative flits about time, barraging you at the beginning with events, which are explained as you progress. Investigating a crime scene, Max finds Mona Sax, alive and well. The investigation into a mercenary group covering as The Squeaky Cleaning Company, and Mona Sax's involvement, soon unveils a much bigger, darker, picture. The story itself is in the same noir style as ever, with the same element of humour that made the first game so refreshing amidst so many po-faced gun games. I'd say I prefer the original's storyline, just because it was bigger in pretty much every way. This story focuses on Max and his love interest, with scarce mention to the wider ramifications of these conspiracies. Nevertheless, the plot is enjoyable, told partly by in-game cut-scenes, and by the graphic novel which is even more stunning than ever.

The gameplay echoes the plot in that it is a revision of the previous game rather than a new game. In the story, Max describes life as a ''linear sequence of events.'' Certainly, this thesis holds true for the game, which is as linear as its older brother. Bullet Time returns with a vengeance, and is better than ever. Firstly, shoot dodging is far less important than it was before. So much so that shoot dodging actually doesn't deplete any Bullet Time. What this means is that you'll more often switch Bullet Time on and leg it around the place, and this is rewarded with incremental increases in your speed - or should that be, decreases in the enemies' speed? Basically, the more people you kill, the slower time becomes, and the faster Max moves relative to his enemies. And it is a joy to behold in full effect: the screen takes on a burnt-out sepia tone, with bullet casings gliding serenely across the screen, and enemies falling in dramatic ultra-slo-mo.

Other changes to the mechanics include being able to shoot an entire clip off while still on the ground after a shoot-dodge. There is also now a quick reload that can be used while in Bullet Time, and while it doesn't make any sense whatsoever, it looks quite nice.

These changes to the Bullet Time mechanics have made the game a lot easier than the previous Max Payne, where using Bullet Time slowed you down equally, whereas now Max moves at super-human speed: reloading in the first Max Payne often meant certain death, but the new super-quick reload makes killing enemies a continual experience. It makes things a lot of fun, but a happy medium would have made things feel a tad more dramatic, and maybe kept some of the difficulty.

It's strange how fun the whole experience remains, despite the relative sameness. And it's not all just because of the level of polish - sure, the shooting element is brilliantly crafted, but there are some horrible presentational issues, like poor lip synchronisation, and utterly atrocious fire effects. Also, sometimes the sound is poorly implemented, such as in certain cut-scenes where people get shot, and the gunshot seems distant, and absurdly quiet compared to the volume of the speech.

But this doesn't undermine the sheer satisfaction of the whole thing. One thing that takes the experience well beyond the original Max Payne is the implementation of the Havok engine. That is, plenty of objects have proper physics applied to them - including people. The rag-doll on show is among the best ever: deaths become horribly real and gratifying when bodies bounce along the floor, or are flung out the way by a swinging door. Collisions with boxes, paint cans, desks or whatnot result in them tumbling realistically to the floor. Barrels can even be used to kill enemies, Donkey Kong-style. You can sometimes use these physics tactically, pushing explosive barrels onto enemies below.

Enemy AI is pretty run-of-the-mill. They'll take cover, and throw grenades to lure you out of your own, but to be honest there isn't much scope in the game for fancy AI routines. The most fun thing about the enemies is making them eat your lead. Their animations aren't anything special, either, and they all look fairly generic. Character models in general are an improvement over the original Max Payne, but lacking when viewed close-up. The environments, though, are rather nice. Again, they're similar to the prequel's levels, but there's a lot more detail, with plenty of move-able objects. Of course, with the sophisticated physics engine, it soon become apparent that a lot of objects can't be budged. Some of these are logical, like big crates, but things like mops, lights and TVs are notably impervious to your gunfire.

The guns in the game are superb. Sadly, the grenade launcher is no longer present (a great shame considering the rag-doll element) but there are various additions to the weapons. First of all, grenades, Molotov cocktails, and melée attacks can be assigned to Y, allowing you to quickly lob grenades without selecting them from the menu. Also, dual Desert Eagles can be used, providing formidable firepower. The MP5 has been introduced, which comes with a scope and an exceptional rate of fire, and there's a new sniper rifle. While these new additions may not seem much, it's a shame that you actually won't use them all that much, usually sticking to a few key weapons - for example, it's unlikely that you'll use the sawn-off shotgun for more than a few minutes, given its drawbacks, and relatively plentiful ammo supplies all the weapons.

The Fall of Max Payne is a superbly enjoyable shooter that shows how it's meant to be done. It has its faults, of course, with some below-par visuals and few innovations, but on the whole the level of satisfaction on offer outweighs the poorer elements. The main problem is its brevity, measuring in at around seven hours gameplay. That's seven hours of one of the most fun games to date, however, and because it is short you'll definitely want to plough through it again on all three difficulty levels. There's also a fun mini-game called Dead Man Walking, which pits you against ever-respawning enemies in a small environment. It's nothing more than a diversion, but a welcome one nonetheless. Maybe it is not the best purchase, but it's easily the best rental in existence.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 12/28/03

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