The sophomore appearance of Max Payne is very much like what The Godfather Part II is to the original The Godfather. Everything that worked for the original was expanded to a better more focused and finely crafted sequel. Everything that didn’t quite work was dropped. In its subject material, dubbed a film noir love story, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is edgier and darker with adult themes dominating the title from start to finish.
Max Payne 2 begins with a series of disturbing flashbacks. Payne is framed again for a crime he didn’t commit. This time it’s the murder of a police officer. Wounded, he wakes up from the hospital bed knowing that he is on the run again. With no allies at the precinct and an angry chief Bravura, Payne must embark on the cold lonely road of vigilante justice and revenge.
The setting is still New York, New York with many of the original Max Payne characters reprising their original roles. Taking a more prominent place this time is Alfred Woden, the man who helped exorcise your demons and keep you on the police force. If you pay attention to the cover art for this title, you’ll note that a woman bearing the figure of Mona Sax appears. (I’m not revealing too much by telling you that. How she survived the bullet to her head is another matter altogether). Things get a lot more intimate this time between Payne and Sax. Finally, the Russian and Italian mob bosses, Vladimir Lem and Vinnie Gognitti, are up to their usual machinations.
Payne really hasn’t changed much. After the harrowing events of the first title, Payne returns to the NYPD with really nothing going for him other than his hunt for criminals. Is he still seeking redemption for his wife? Some of the dream sequences say so. Or is he a man looking and prying for trouble to happen? That could also be true. Payne’s attachment to Sax is testament enough to that.
The story has moved a little beyond Payne himself. Remedy has sought to include non-playable allies in the game. So when you’re fighting alongside the Russians or Italians, a few mob underlings will join you. While they aren’t as skilled as you are, they help dispel the ‘you versus the entire world’ motif. The NYPD moniker also gives the story a comfort level, especially for people new to the series. And being NYPD can help you elicit some timely civilian help.
The best partnership has to be with Sax. Some ways through the game, the story will branch into two threads with Payne and Sax working in tandem and then uniting into one common story thread. At one point you’ll be playing Sax, who is a sniper by trade. At another point, you will be playing Payne to help Sax achieve her mission goals. Like the graphic novel storytelling, the act between Payne and Sax plays like an intricate tango.
If Sax is more knowable to Payne, it’s only because the rest of New York is less knowable. Even more so than the original, you won’t know who to trust as you’re thrust into the middle of a mob war and a mysterious bunch of ‘cleaners’ with machineguns that happen to show up at every trouble spot.
There are several new additions to the game vis-à-vis gameplay. Bullet time has been expanded and improved. In the original title, you had a lot of ‘shootdodging’ going on if you wanted to stay alive. It got to a point that it looked kind of silly but you really didn’t have any other moves. Payne’s repertoire has been expanded in his second outing. You’ll now be able to ‘shootdodge’ in slow motion and stay down shooting in real time, pulling off John Woo film moves with ease. There’s also another addition to bullet time and that’s time slowing down. As you drain the bullet time meter to nothing, the lower the bullet time meter goes, the slower the slow motion will get. That enables Payne to burst in and practically run circles around his assailants without excessive ‘shootdodging’.
They’re all subtle additions to the original innovation but important ones that make bullet time operate better. Perhaps what’s most important is to make bullet time not feel like a copy of the concept in The Matrix (although in the video gaming realm, it was Max Payne that came out with the idea first). In addition to all of this extra functionality, the artists at Remedy still prove they have a strong sense of style. Reloads during bullet time will cause Payne and the camera to swoop around 360 degrees. And as bullet time drains, the visuals will turn from black and white to a grainy 19th century photo look; very dramatic special effects.
Of course, we really shouldn’t expect any less from Max Payne 2. The characters themselves have been upgraded. As a result, Payne actually looks quite a bit different than his original self. The visuals remain top notch with trademark photorealistic textures dotting the New York environs. You’ll be spending most of your time in industrial sites or run down slums though. But Max Payne 2 also takes place in hospitals and Payne’s local precinct, complete with lockup, interrogation room and phone.
Remedy really goes the full mile in fleshing out and making a more complete story in Max Payne 2 by including the little things, like the fact that Payne actually has a desk and a life beyond simply running around in the snow gunning people down. These factors make Max Payne 2 more mature than its predecessor.
Speaking of maturity, much of the dialogue in here is aimed at an adult audience. The voiceover work is impeccable. Many people criticize Payne for his cheesy dialogue but I have always found it edgy, much like the comic book style art that it used to depend on. The conversations are intriguing in their own right. Payne relies less on the use of one-liners and his monologues help develop a profound sense of interest on our part into his life.
Even the graphic novel part has been improved. They look more realistic and the artists do not hesitate in employing the use of shadows to show who’s good, who’s bad and who has something to hide. Nearly every character spends some time with his or her face draped in shadow.
There are minor quirks with the title as a whole though. It maintains the same set of weapons as before; the usual assortment of pistols, sub-machineguns and assault rifles. Nothing new is really added to the original game and those who are focusing on the action will probably note this point as a deficiency. The classic New York Minute mode has been turned into a regular time attack, which really betrays the term ‘New York Minute’ but my guess is it’s to make replaying the game a little easier.
Max Payne 2 is noticeably shorter in length. You can expect to finish it in about a day. I got the feeling that Remedy knew they had four or five hours of material beforehand. They didn’t want to make Max Payne 2 overstay its welcome so they took the content they had and ran with it. Every minute of the included material is thrilling. You don’t feel like any segment or level is overstretched.
Some things were obviously removed because they didn’t work in the original title. The invisible platform-jumping dream sequences were discarded in favor of simpler ones. There are also fewer obstacle courses, like the fiery restaurant from the predecessor. Some things were expanded in Max Payne 2 because they work so well -- the graphic novel, bullet time, ‘shootdodge’. In its scope, Max Payne 2 is a deeper and more rewarding story. Set in a dripping New York backdrop that would make Hollywood cinematographers drool with envy, this is an enthralling sequel. Mature in its theme and more confident in their execution this time around, Remedy has made a refined graceful action title that is part of what’s giving gaming a good name to the rest of the entertainment industry today.