Reviewed: December 26, 2003
Released: November 25, 2003
Born on the PC and ported to the Xbox, Max Payne stormed the console scene Christmas 2001 to become one of the first third-person action games for the Xbox. Two years have passed and Max is back on both the PC and consoles in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. While the PS2 version was admittedly a letdown, the Xbox port manages to live up to the legend and maintain the same quality of its PC cousin.
Max Payne is true film noir told in a self-narrating style much like Mickey Spillane's, Mike Hammer or countless other detective movies. The original game setup a realistic, dark, and very deadly game world and introduced an eclectic cast of supporting characters. Everything you loved about the original is back, bigger, and better than before in Rockstar’s latest installment in the adventures of Max Payne.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is billed as a “Film Noir Love Story”, and while that premise does play a small underlying part of the game’s plot most of the story has to do with betrayal, corruption, and plenty of good old-fashioned violence. Without recapping the story of the first game or giving away too much of the new plot, suffice to say that many of your favorite characters are back and their parts in the story all come together in a well-crafted jigsaw puzzle worthy of a major motion picture.
Everything about Max Payne has been improved starting with the presentation. The paneled storyboard movies still tell a majority of the plot, but these are all much better quality and feature a polished artistic flair. There are also many more game-engine cutscenes that tie the action and gameplay sections together nicely creating an interactive movie experience. The story is also told in a disjointed manner starting somewhere in the middle, then flashing back to earlier then picking up and continuing to its ultimate conclusion.
If you liked the gameplay mechanics of the original then you are going to love the enhancements to Max Payne 2. The Havok 2.0 physics engine (the one being used for Half-Life 2) is an amazing achievement, and you can now interact with (knock over) just about any object in the game. Kick down a door and anything on the other side will go flying into the room. This lends a certain unpredictability to what would otherwise be a typical scripted event. In some action scenes there will be explosions that send debris flying in random directions. Fire spreads randomly and barrels might explode and fly in a new direction each time you replay the level. It also creates some unique environmental puzzles where you have to shoot, burn, or explode objects to advance.
Porting a game like Max to the Xbox offers some interesting control challenges. To compensate for the lack of precision the mouse and keyboard offers the designers have implemented an auto-aiming "assist" function. There is also an "auto-lock" option that will lock your sight on any enemy that crosses your path. With either or both of these options turned on the game become way too easy, but turning them off requires a level of precision that just can't be achieved with twin analog sticks. I never did find a comfortable medium so depending on your skill and your chosen options you may be in for a rough or easy ride.
For this adventure Max teams up with sexy hit-woman, Mona Sax (you might remember her from the first game) and she actually becomes playable in several levels later in the game. This transfer of command is nicely integrated into the story and never seems forced upon you. In one scene Max is trapped in a courtyard and must escape through one of four possible exits. As Mona, you must find suitable sniper vantage spots to cover Max as he makes his escape. Of course, dozens of enemies lie between Mona and each of these sniper locations and Max’s slowly increasing damage meter creates an undeniable sense of urgency. In another exciting level, Max is wounded and unconscious in a burning building and Mona must navigate the flames and explosions to rescue him.
Speaking of burning buildings, you may remember a few levels from the original game that were almost arcade in nature. One had Max trying to escape a burning restaurant and was one of the most criticized levels in the game. Remedy must have been listening because those levels are still here but they have been tweaked to include trigger locations. This means that while the building is exploding and burning down around you, you still have time to breath and plan your next move. In some instances you might even have to wait for the fire to burn (or explode) open the next part of your escape route.
Another highly criticized element from the first game were those annoying dream sequences where you had to navigate Max along a narrow beam that created a maze over a black abyss. One wrong step and you were dead. The dream segments are back, but they have been totally reworked and are actually some of the highlights of the game. They come complete with Hitchcock camera work and streak and blur effects that really sell the experience. Similar effects are used for quick flashbacks and non-interactive dream sequences.
Level design is also greatly improved with clever locations like the funhouse that Mona uses for a residence. You first visit this location and experience all the fun and quirky thrills much like any patron would, but later you get to go behind the scenes and use many of the funhouse “features” to dispatch an invading army of bad guys. Later, that same funhouse is burning down and you get to experience it in an entirely new way.
The core element of Max Payne 2 is combat and once again you have an impressive arsenal at your disposal. You can wield a primary weapon and a melee weapon like a grenade or Molotov cocktail and use them independently of each other. This makes it easy to lob a grenade through a door then quickly follow up with gunfire without having to cycle through a dozen weapon icons. Most of your favorite weapons are back and some new ones are added like the powerful MP5 complete with scope. Many of the guns like the Desert Eagles and Ingrams can be used two at a time, but there is still no independent targeting, so these merely use twice the ammo and do double the damage.
Of course Bullet Time is still the major hook of this title and even that has been tweaked and refined so that it becomes a seamless and integral part of the game. Most of the time Max and Mona are severely outnumbered and slowing down time is your only advantage. As before, you can toggle Bullet Time to slow down time (and your enemies) for the duration of the hourglass that slowly refills over time. You also have the much more useful Shoot Dodge that allows you to combine a slow-motion jump, dive, or roll while unleashing several clips of ammo.
While it is possible to play this game and never use the Bullet Time or Shoot Dodge features, there is an unmistakable guilty pleasure in mowing down your enemies three or four at a time in slow motion as incoming fire streaks by with ripple effects. You are even treated to a nifty 360-pivoting reload animation when you auto-reload in Bullet Time.
Objectives usually revolve around simple survival against impossible odds. There are a few interesting twists thrown in like an escort missions for a two-bit gangster trapped in a booby trapped costume, and another mission where you join up with several “friendly gangsters” for a mini-mob war out on the streets. These combined with the Mona missions really give this game some much-needed diversity.
The final thing to discuss is the enemy AI. Admittedly, this game relies more on sheer numbers than tactics. Dozens of henchmen will swarm while snipers will take up strategic locations offering plenty of challenging combat scenarios. Even the most difficult encounters can often be overcome by simply finding a good location and executing a series of shoot-dodge dives until everyone is dead.
While it can't compete with the photo-realistic textures of the PC the Xbox comes mighty close. There were certain objects and textures in the PC version that really caught my attention and when I examined them on the Xbox those same textures were in place but just not as sharp. A quick examination of any can of soda that drops from a vending machine will show you what I mean. The Xbox version does support HDTV 480p for crisp graphics that look just as sharp as the PC running at the same resolution.
The textures in this game are excellent and the faces are eerily photo-realistic right down to visible pores in the skin. Motion capture was used to recreate realistic movement and motions, even for simple things like gestures during conversations. While other developers are investing huge amounts of cash in pre-rendered movies, Remedy proves that high quality textures and a good game engine can do just as good a job. It also allows them to start and stop the movies right in the game for seamless integration.
Textures like Max’s black leather jack or Mona’s red leather outfit are shiny, wrinkled, and look and move just like the real thing. Even background textures like a shipping label on a crate or employee safety posters in the warehouse are all high-res scans, and architectural materials like brick, stone, and wood are totally realistic. In a room with boarded up windows and doors I had trouble seeing any repeating patterns in the 2x4’s nailed to the wall.
Of particular note is the funhouse level that features brightly lit, almost cel-shaded textures that offer a contrasting backdrop around our photo-realistic hero. Walkthrough through this sinister maze offers some haunting dialogue and interesting visuals where harmless cardboard-cutout killers leap out from behind close doors.
Special effects like fire, explosions, muzzle flashes, shell casings, bullet trails, and picture-perfect reflections in both water and mirrors round out the flawless presentation. The color lighting, shadows, and special motion-blur effects are excellent. One of the most impressive visual moments for me was returning to my burning apartment and seeing all of the charred walls and floors burning with a pulsating glow.
Camera effects definitely come into play with the excellent slow-motion moves when flying through the air unleashing hot lead. A successful sniper shot is rewarded with a bullet-view cam that follow the gold slug from the end of your barrel into the recently deceased. Other nice camera effects include a slow-motion hit-reaction animation that spins the view around your target when you make a great shot. As previously mentioned, the comic book interludes are all much nicer looking with stylish artwork and a nice flow to the panels. VCR controls allow you to skip or page through the story quicker by disabling the narration, although you should probably listen to it at least the first time through.
Max Payne 2 brings you into its world with a crack of thunder as the opening splash screen appears. That’s just a taste of things to come as you are treated to some of the best sound effects and music available for an action title.
My compliments for including “Late Goodbye” as the music backing up the end credits. This song, by Poets of the Fall, is so good you will actually stick around and watch the credits. The in-game music is the haunting strings melody that gave the original game its ambience and it is back to set the mood once again with a somber theme. Some scripted events will send the music kicking into a techno riff that will have you itching to hit that bullet-time button and recreate some scenes from the Matrix.
The voice work is totally professional with stellar performances by Max and Mona and all the supporting cast for that matter. True to form, Max waxes poetic for most of the game, reciting passages you would expect to hear from a college professor rather than a hard-boiled detective. Admittedly, sometimes I shook my head at his flowery analogies, but his verbose readings are true to the campy dialogue of the detective genre.
There is excellent use of 3D positional audio thanks to the Dolby Digital capabilities of the Xbox. These not only created some frightening moments in the dream sequences and funhouse, but also allowed you to locate enemies that weren’t visible on the screen. A nice warping effect is used to slow down and speed up the sound effects when going in and out of Bullet Time, and there were even some nice low-frequency effects being channeled to my sub-woofer that had the explosions rocking my game room.
I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on the hysterical conversations that you can overhear if you exercise a bit of stealth. Eavesdropping on the guards had me laughing aloud many times, and there is one conversation between a cop and a suspect at the police station that had me rolling on the floor. I also encourage you to take a moment and watch each of the television shows in their entirety. Captain Baseball Bat Boy, a campy soap drama, a campier cop drama, and even a quasi-porno are guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
I blasted my way through this sequel in about 8 hours. I attribute part of this to the fact that I had already played the PC version, but the Xbox version is undeniably an easier and thus a shorter experience if you use any of the target-assist options. When you first install the game you are only allowed to play it in Detective mode, but once completed you open up all new difficulties and special modes like New York Minute – a survival mode of sorts, that you can explore.
The game is certainly fun and short enough for at least a second pass on the harder skill level and the challenge modes are quite…err..challenging. You can even turn off the aiming and target lock options to give you a greater challenge. Considering this is more of an interactive movie than a traditional (and mindless) game I am willing to settle for the shorter play length and enjoy Max Payne 2 for the cinematic experience that it is.
Remedy has taken everything you liked about the original Max Payne and improved it. Not only has the bullet-time system been refined, the audio-visual presentation is flawless and the additional of a second playable character and tightly integrated story makes this one of the best action games of the year. If you enjoy intense action shooters, cop dramas, or just want to partake in a “Film Noir Love Story” then look no further; Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is the game for you.