Both Rockstar and Remedy had been keeping relatively quiet about Max Payne 2 in the months before it was released, and other than a few scraps of information fed to the ravenous gaming public, no one really knew much about Max Payne 2 other than speculation and rumors. Was it just going to be a rehash of the original? How will they continue the story? What could Remedy possibly do to make bullet time cooler than it already was? These questions held firm amongst the masses right up until the release, when fans of the original finally saw that Max Payne 2 not only holds up against its predecessor but also exceeds it nearly across the board.
At the end of the first game, Max Payne was arrested, charged with various crimes and then thrown into jail. Soon thereafter, Alfred Woden, the shady leader of the Inner Circle, pulled some strings and not only got Max out of jail but made him look like a hero. Now free, Max rejoined the NYPD and got back on the police force. On one rainy night Max is on patrol when he gets reports of shots being fired at a gun warehouse. Upon entering the warehouse, an unstoppable and tragic chain of events is set in motion, a discovery is made, and once again Max’s life is rocked by violence, death, and corruption.
The core gameplay is largely unchanged from the first Max Payne game, which is more of a blessing than anything else since they are still the same solid, flowing controls Max Payne fans have come to expect. For those new to the series, Max Payne is an amalgamation of every action movie ever conceived. Essentially, take a large helping of John Woo and his Hong Kong Blood Operas, add a dash of The Matrix and even a bit of old school detective dramas and you get the general idea: an over-the-top action game where it’s you versus an army of thugs with the gritty streets and buildings of low-scale New York as the backdrop.
Just as in the original, Max Payne 2 has bullet time in which time and space slows down around the hero while he unloads his clip into anyone in the nearby vicinity. In the original Max Payne, any use of bullet time depleted your adrenaline meter, which could only be regained by killing enemies. This led to times when you simply couldn’t use bullet time due to lack of adrenaline which could stack the odds against you. In Max Payne 2, Remedy has adjusted the bullet time mechanics fairly heavily and dubbed it Bullet Time 2.0. In Bullet Time 2.0, diving in slow mo no longer drains your adrenaline meter; the only time you use adrenaline is when you activate bullet time outside of a dive, like when you are lining up a shot on a moving target with a sniper rifle. Your adrenaline also slowly regenerates now, ensuring that you at least have some bullet time to use, if only a pitiful amount.
Max’s moves remain essentially the same from the first game, which includes diving sideways, forward, backward, rolling, crouching, and jumping. The near worthless lead pipe and baseball bat from the original have been replaced by simply using the butt of your currently equipped weapon. Hand in hand with this addition, Max now has the ability to use Molotovs, grenades, and his melee attack via the secondary attack button, all without having to switch away from his gun. With this change, you can now easily throw a Molotov on one guy and then turn and shoot another without being a sitting duck.
The biggest addition to Max Payne 2 lies in its extensive implementation of the Havok physics engine, allowing not only bodies but also objects to realistically react to gunfire and explosions. When people are shot and killed, their bodies react accordingly, causing them to slump against a wall, lean onto a desk, fall down stairs and over railings, and thousands of other ways. Bumping into trash cans or stacks of boxes will cause them to tip over, making a noise and possibly drawing attention to you. Enemies coming up steps can be knocked over if you push a wine barrel down onto them, and explosions send boxes, chairs, and people flying in every direction. To sum it up in a sentence, there is nothing cooler than shooting a mook three time in the chest, then watching him stumble backwards onto a hospital cart, hitting his head on shelves on the way down and sending medical supplies all over the floor.
Visually, Max Payne 2 not only blows its predecessor out of the water, but also some of the newer titles on the market. Characters leave very realistic shadows on the ground, gunfire gives everything around it a soft glow, and the explosive crackle of an exploding ammo can is not to be missed. The textures on almost everything in the game – from the weapons, to the characters, to the levels themselves – are very crisp and give every location a degree of authenticity. With a couple of exceptions, the character models look downright human, especially when it comes to the faces of the main characters. Additionally, the characters now have facial expressions other than the "pissed off and constipated" look, such as anger, pain, and surprise. It is worthy to note that the look of Max has changed quite a bit and looks very unlike the old Max, but what many do not know is that is was a legal matter. The original Max Payne look was modeled after Remedy employee Sam Lake, and it was decided to change Max’s look just in case the future of the series leaves Remedy’s hands.
However, the same voice talent that gave Max his voice and narration returns as the same roles. Max Payne 2 makes extensive use of EAX and 3D sound, causing gunfire to sound muffled when heard through walls and even giving voices and sounds subtle effects in different areas, such as a small concrete room or an open scaffolding. The voice work as a whole is very well done, though occasionally an enemy's voice sounds a bit overacted. The sounds of gunfire, near misses, ricochets, and the screams of the recently wounded all add a degree of immersion that the visuals alone couldn’t hope to achieve.
Max Payne 2 has a few more aces up its sleeve than at first glance. During the course of the gameplay, you play not only as Max Payne but also his love interest, a steely woman from Max’s past. Upon completing the game, the Dead Man Walking mode is unlocked, which allows you to play in one of five small levels pitted against an ever-increasing number of enemies, with the goal of staying alive as long as you can. Beating the game also unlocks a more challenging version of the main game and a level select option, letting you visit your favorite stomping grounds over and over again.
On the negative side, the storyboard-style narration sometimes seems to happen too often. Nothing breaks the flow of a hardcore gunfight rush faster than watching a narration, sitting through a relatively long load time, only to sit through another narration. The load time to simply reach the main menu is horrendous, causing the player to wait nearly a half-minute (Even when on a 2.53GHz processor). The new Havok engine has a couple of minor flaws, most noticeable when doors close on bodies or objects, causing them to jiggle and vibrate until they wiggle to one side of the door.
Those minor flaws aside, Max Payne 2 is an awesome game in every sense of the word. The core gameplay that made the original such a blast to play makes its return, with enough additions to give it a fresh feel. It’s still all about diving out from behind cover in slow motion with akimbo Berettas blazing, only this time the characters look better, the game looks sharper, and the ever-present Havok engine physics will force your jaw to drop a few inches. Even the storyline feels like a natural continuation of the first and not like it was cobbled together from a few obscure loose ends. Just as Remedy showed the world how hardcore and stylish a 3rd person shooter could be with Max Payne, Max Payne 2 shows that Remedy can indeed capture lightning in a bottle, having developed a game not only worthy of its predecessor but also of the admission price.
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