Reviewed: December 17, 2003
Released: December 2, 2003
With a badass main character, stylish presentation, and frantic gunplay, Max Payne went on to become one of the best games of 2001, despite a rather lengthy and tumultuous development cycle. The game’s noir-like storyline and pulpy feel helped set it apart from other action titles, as did the presence of bullet time, a feature allowing players to slow down the action in real time. Thanks to the inclusion of bullet time, gamers could engage in firefights seemingly ripped straight from The Matrix and various John Woo films.
Remarkably, Xbox and PS2 versions of Max Payne followed less than five months after the PC release. While the Xbox version proved to be a faithful port, the PS2 version was a substantial downgrade. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this holds true for the sequel, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, as the PS2 version is notably less refined and visually impressive than its Xbox counterpart. Not all is bad; the gameplay has not been terribly compromised – although technical issues do interfere – and the storyline remains intact.
Most gamers probably would not associate a love story with an action game, but Max Payne 2 does indeed have romance, even if it’s bittersweet. Beneath all the violence and mayhem lies a strong bond between Max and Mona Sax, a returning character from the first game. These two lovebirds put the wining and dining aside in favor of a romantic killing spree, all in the name of revenge. Sadly, much like their fleeting romance, this game ends much too quickly and is riddled with complications.
Max Payne 2’s excellent storyline is filled with twists and told through a series of graphic novel sequences and in-game cutscenes. The story is the game’s best aspect and should be experienced firsthand, so we won’t reveal too much. All you need to know is Max – a former DEA agent battling personal demons and struggling to cope with tragedy – has returned to his roots as an NYPD detective, with things turning ugly once the past comes back to haunt him. Those who have played the first game will recognize certain characters and locations (and appreciate the many references), while those who missed out can catch up via the game’s backstory segments.
Even though Max Payne 2 is a third-person action game, the layout of the controls resembles that of a console-based first-person shooter. In other words, you use the left analog stick to move/strafe and the right stick to aim. The shoulder buttons control bullet time, trigger shootdodging, and fire weapons, while the face buttons handle functions such as jumping and reloading. You switch between weapons using the digital pad and crouch by pressing L3.
There are options to customize the controls and gameplay experience, but strangely, you cannot adjust the sensitivity of the analog sticks. Some may find the right stick to be a bit slow and imprecise in terms of aiming and maneuvering. You can hold down the R3 button to aim faster, but that’s counterintuitive and does not improve precision. Although Max Payne 2 lacks a tutorial, the game slowly eases you into the action and adjusts the difficulty according to your playing. Beginners, nevertheless, will need to take time out to familiarize themselves with the controls and gameplay functions.
Naturally, bullet time returns and is an essential part of the game. It works in much the same way it did in the first game (i.e., by slowing down the action), except now Max moves more quickly while in bullet time and can enter a deeper zone for an even deadlier advantage over enemies. Enabling bullet time lets you spot and dodge bullets, shoot more accurately, and tackle situations you ordinarily would not be able to survive. Bullet time is a limited resource, but it slowly replenishes as you take out enemies.
Shootdodging is another stylish way to kill enemies, enabling you to dive in slow motion with guns blazing. It actually plays a smaller role here than it did in the first game, mainly because bullet time is much more effective now. Thankfully, shootdodging does not drain your supply of bullet time, and you can continue to shoot in a prone position. Aside from shootdodging, you can also perform regular rolls and dives to avoid danger.
Max’s stockpile of guns has not grown much, though certain weapons from the first game have been replaced. Weapons include 9mm pistols, Ingram, shotguns, sniper rifle, MP5, and more. Smaller guns, such as pistols, can be doubled up, letting you fire two guns at once. Although dedicated melee weapons (e.g., baseball bat, lead pipe) are absent from Max Payne 2, each gun functions as a melee weapon via the R2 button. This button also lets you throw grenades and Molotov cocktails, conveniently eliminating the need to unequip your gun.
Ammo is finite, but you’ll find plenty lying around the environments and can retrieve guns from fallen foes. Likewise, Max’s health is limited, and although it regenerates a bit when dangerously low, taking painkillers is necessary to avoid death. You can carry up to eight at a time, pressing the circle button to use one and slowly regain a portion of health. Painkillers are scattered throughout the levels and occasionally relinquished by deceased enemies.
You usually need all the painkillers you can carry, too, because most of the enemies are relentless. While some are rather dumb, the smarter ones skillfully evade bullets, take cover behind objects, and trigger explosions with gunfire. Fortunately, you can do the same, and a bullet to the head will silence even the most stubborn thugs. At times, it is easier to mow down enemies by luring them to you instead of jumping headfirst into their territory. But with bullet time on your side, the latter option is completely viable – and often necessary.
As was the case with the first game, stripping away Max Payne 2’s bullet time feature and engaging narrative reveals a merely basic action game. Yet, there is quite a bit of variety to help you look past that. Aside from participating in awesome gun battles, you’ll be protecting characters, traversing burning buildings, and taking trips through Max’s diseased mind (in the form of nightmares and hallucinations). In addition, there are instances when you will work cooperatively with computer-controlled characters, as well as times when you play as Mona.
Furthermore, the game places you in some interesting situations. One of the more memorable scenarios has you unarmed and desperately searching for a weapon in a well-patrolled hospital. Other places you get to explore include desolate buildings, dilapidated apartment complexes, and an ominous fun house. Each area presents a fresh experience and unique set of challenges, which unfortunately include some bothersome jumping and balancing elements (the game’s controls and camera are ill-suited for them).
Regrettably, serious issues prevent the PS2 version of Max Payne 2 from being as fun as it should be. The biggest offender is the unstable frame rate, which tends to drop significantly during intense action sequences. This causes disorientation and makes it difficult to shoot accurately. Factor in the poor aiming, flawed save system (you must manually save upon reaching a new level because the game won’t restart you at the beginning of it should you die), and annoying load times and it’s difficult not to feel some sense of disappointment.
Max Payne 2 is a great-looking game…just not on the PS2. Considering that even the graphics in the Xbox version have been scaled down from the PC release, the diminished visual quality of the PS2 version is hardly shocking. Just about every area of the graphics has been reduced to accommodate the PS2’s somewhat dated graphics capabilities, including the resolution, texture quality, character models, and environments.
The only truly disruptive diminishment, however, is the inconsistent frame rate, which is frequently choppy and occasionally cripples the gameplay. Sometimes the game stutters for no apparent reason, with things becoming disorienting and unsightly during intense scenes. While the unstable frame rate may not deter you from finishing the game, it will more than likely affect your overall enjoyment of it. Mostly, though, the frame rate is tolerable (it’s actually pretty smooth in spots), but just barely.
Deficiencies aside, Max Payne 2 is an adequate-looking PS2 title, and its graphics improve on the first game. One of the most noticeable changes concerns Max’s appearance. Although he is dressed similarly, he has a new face and a couple of new moves. The quality of the animations and facial textures has improved, too. Meanwhile, environments range from gritty to grandiose and contain a variety of animated and destructible elements. Another plus is Max Payne 2 supports widescreen, unlike the first game.
Special effects are easily the strong point of the graphics (the trippy nightmare sequences go all out). The revamped bullet time – or bullet time 2.0 as it is referred to – is much slicker than the bullet-time effects in other action titles, specifically Enter the Matrix and the original Max Payne. Additionally, the game’s incorporation of the Havok physics engine and rag doll physics makes shooting up the environments and killing baddies extremely satisfying. Cinematic camera views, such as the Matrix-like panning effect and sniper rifle’s “bullet cam,” dramatize and intensify the action.
Unlike the graphics, the audio in Max Payne 2 has made the transition to the PS2 mostly unscathed. There are a few minor glitches (sounds sometimes cut out, dialogue repeats on occasion, etc.), but the music, voice acting, and sounds effects are very well done. Audio options let you adjust the volume of the music and sound effects, as well as enable mono or surround sound (you can also enable subtitles).
Many of the sound effects from Max Payne have carried over to the sequel, though gunfire seems a bit more pronounced, particularly during bullet time. All the different weapons produce authentic sounds, with explosions and shotguns providing plenty of punch and bullet time creating cool sound effects. Environments contain various ambient noises (it’s fun to listen to the televisions and radios), but unfortunately, there are times when all you will hear is the grating sound of Max’s footsteps. Luckily, you will also hear the footsteps of enemies, which give away their position.
Another thing that gives enemies away is their chatter, as they carry conversations amongst themselves. Eavesdropping on enemies lets you get a jump on the action and possibly learn an enemy’s next course of action. Moreover, the game is wonderfully encoded in Pro Logic II surround sound, so if you have the proper setup, you will have an even greater advantage in pinpointing enemies and objects.
Max Payne may have a different face, but he still has the same voice, provided by James McCaffrey. The other returning characters are voiced by new actors, each of whom delivers a solid performance. Anyone who found the voice acting in the first game to be a little too hammy probably won’t be any more fond of the sequel’s voice-overs, though. Still, the voice acting here is much better than what you would find in a typical action title.
Musically, moody instrumentals set the tone of the game, and energetic beats punctuate the action sequences. All the music is well composed and suits each scene perfectly. The game’s theme song will be instantly familiar to anybody who has played the first game, while the song that plays during the credits, “Late Goodbye” by Poets of the Fall, is a pleasant surprise.
There’s no escaping the fact that Max Payne 2 is a short, linear game with zero multiplayer options. (Skilled gamers should be able to complete the main mode in the span of an evening.) However, that doesn’t mean the game does not have any replay value. In fact, most will probably want to replay it to receive a clearer understanding of the story or to relive particular moments (you can revisit individual sections). Plus, once you complete the story, extra modes and difficulties become available.
Completing the game once unlocks the more challenging Hard Boiled difficulty setting, in which enemies are tougher to kill. Clearing it unlocks the most challenging difficulty, Dead on Arrival – a fitting title, indeed. This difficulty setting limits the amount of saves you are allowed but rewards you with an alternate ending. You will need to be sharp with your shooting and conservative with your saves if you hope to see it.
If you are the type of gamer who only likes playing through a game once, Max Payne 2 may still have something extra to appeal to you. Two additional modes become available once you finish the main game: New York Minute and Dead Man Walking. Max Payne fans should be familiar with the New York Minute mode, since it was present in the first game. For those unfamiliar, though, this mode challenges you to complete sections as quickly as possible – think of it as a time trial. Dead Man Walking, on the other hand, is brand new and akin to a survival mode in a fighting game. You must brave an endless onslaught of enemies in specific settings, trying to stay alive for as long as possible.
In the end, your mileage with Max Payne 2 will depend on how much you enjoy its short but sweet story. If you are not into the story, you’re probably not going to want to play through the other difficulties, thus limiting a great deal of the replay value. And as cool as bullet time is, disposing of the same waves of enemies repeatedly quickly wears thin in the other gameplay modes.
Experiencing Max Payne 2 on the PS2 is less than ideal, but if it’s your only option and you’re a diehard action gamer, this version is worth a look. A purchase is not recommended, however, due to the game’s short length and considerably degraded graphics and gameplay. After all, 50 smackers is a lot to invest in such a short-lived game, especially when it’s an inferior port of a PC title (largely the result of the PS2’s technical limitations).
Nevertheless, Max Payne 2 has some of the most intense and cinematic shootouts found in a video game, and that alone may be good enough for action-hungry PS2 owners to overlook its shortcomings.