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Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Windows)

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4.2
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Written by  :  Dr. M. "Schadenfreude" Von Katze (590)
Written on  :  Dec 11, 2003
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars4.29 Stars

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Summary

Is the glass half empty or is it half full?

The Good

INTRODUCTION: Still going down.
I am Max Payne.
My wife and daughter were murdered. It had something to do with the designer drug "V".
With nothing to lose, I went after the mafia during the worst snow storm in a century.
The pursuit threw me against a secret conspiracy involving people behind the government, behind everything. I was In over my head.
In the end, my enemy turned out to have a name: Nicole Horne.
I killed her, and I gave myself up to the police. That same night, the snow storm stopped.
Horne's enemies took care of it all. I came out clean, I was even turned into a hero, the brave cop who single-handedly got rid of the worst NY mafia family, along with the threat of "V".


I went back to the NYPD.


I lied to myself that it was over.
I was still alive, my loved ones were still dead.

It wasn't over.


Max Payne wakes up in a hospital, wounded beyond the point a human body could logically sustain. He steps out of the bed, he knows his life's in danger, even here. Stumbling through the rooms, with his typical narrative greatness he comments "You can't run away from the past. You'll end up running in circles."

It all started as a normal NYPD detective night. Max took a call to attend an apparent hostage situation at a certain downtown warehouse. It wasn't his kind of thing, but he knew the owner of the warehouse: Vladimir Lev. The russian smooth operator, the head of the russian mob who helped him in his crusade against Nicole Horne.
Max finds something dirty going on in the warehouse. Right when backup is arriving, he catches a glimpse of a ghost from his past: Mona Sax, the beautiful hired killer that was also behind Horne. But... wasn't she dead? Max was sure he saw her die.
Or did he?...

MAX PAYNE 2: THE FALL OF MAX PAYNE is the sequel to the much-acclaimed MAX PAYNE (duh), the third-person perspective shooter with stylish and grim storytelling full of film-noir dialogue, and the gameplay-candy that turned the dream true for fans of the movie The Matrix: the slow-motion red-hot gun-fighting system known as Bullet-Time.

VISUAL EFFECTS AND PHYSICS: The ultimate mod.
When I finished the first MAX PAYNE, I liked it so much I went on to try some of its famous mods. That game has been virtually re-written a hundred times by fans, giving us the possibility to re-play it as a samurai, a jedi knight, a class-B kung-fu movie hero, and a Blade Runner, among others.
MAX PAYNE 2 feels, above all, like another mod. The best of them all, of course, since its programmers are the programmers of the first game. The game engine is the same MAX-FX engine used in the first game, which means the gameplay feels the same in several aspects. While recycling a 3-year old game engine could be a reason for some to raise an eyebrow, some have also said: if it ain't broken, why fix it?

The engine HAS been re-worked, and it tells.
First, the textures: the first game had amazing textures for scenarios and pretty good textures for character models, but you could see some serious blurs whenever the camera zoomed in, specially in character faces. This game, on the other hand, has uncanny extremely detailed textures for both scenarios and characters —no more blurs, not even in the closest-close-ups.
In the special effects dept, as one might expect from any self-respected current-generation game, we have eye candy of all the flavors: dynamic shadows work, lighting, reflections, weather, particles...
However, none of the above can be compared to the vedette of the game: the physics.
MAX PAYNE 2 licensed the Havok 2.0 physics engine, and the thing is a masterpiece. The gameworld is as interactive as it gets. Everything in the scenario is alive. Boxes, staircases, chairs, tables, brooms, buckets —everything reacts to contact. You bump on a pile of objects and the pile falls down making a mess, you can push a box on a person's heads and knock him out, a falling body can crash against a table scattering everything that was on it...
The game also uses a beautiful ragdoll effect for the animation of dying bodies, meaning that you won't ever see the same death twice, or that you can keep shooting a dead body and it will shake accordingly, depending WHERE you hit it.

As players of the first game know, Max hasn't had a good sleep for years. The moment he closes his eyes he lives a nightmare, and the game continues inside it.
In this game, the nightmares have changed in two key aspects: first, they are more like an interactive cutscene, with no platforming whatsoever —in fact there's no way to die at all while dreaming; and second, here is where the developers put the greatest amount of eye-candy. The dreams have been STUFFED with fancy special effects, eerie lighting, volumetric fog, walls bending, motion blur... you have got to see it.
Also, the concept of these dreams makes them MUCH more believable than before, the locations change its shape suddenly, Max gets to see himself in different situations, other characters show up and speak to him... it all feels like a real nightmare alright.


Now, how much do you think this all can cost?
Well think again, Jack.
One of the most amazing features of the game is the scalability it offers: you can turn on so many effects that your new 300-buck super video chip will reach temperatures high enough as to fry eggs on the heatsink, but you can also turn stuff off to the point the game runs in a pocket calculator!
...
OK, maybe I got a little carried away, but the fact is, I have a friend who managed to run this game with a 600MHz PIII CPU and a GeForce2 video card, which IS some achievement, specially since the game itself recommends at least 1GHz CPU and a fully-DirectX8-compliant video card.

GAMEPLAY: What Matrix?
This sub-title should need no further explanation, but I like to write, and if you don't like reading long-ranting reviews, you probably never reached this point, so here we go.
The first MAX PAYNE was praised by several aspects, but there were two MAJOR gameplay-candy features we all loved: Shootdodging and Bullet-Time.


Shootdodging consists exactly in that: by the pressing of a magic key, you take a sideways dive, the action is slightly slowed down, and until you hit the floor you keep shooting and moving the camera, thus aiming in different directions on the fly :P
The Shootdodging in MAX PAYNE 2 has been slightly enhanced. In the first game, once you landed, Max would automatically stand up, which more often than not meant a few holes through his fancy leather jacket. Here, he keeps shooting until you release the fire button.
This is much more useful than you can imagine by reading this, specially if you played the first game.

As for Bullet-Time... well, everyone and his dog knows what this is. If you haven't seen any of The Matrix movies, you probably saw Charlie's Angels, or ANY other action movie made after 1999. If not, the thing has already been used for TV commercials, music videos, and high-budget porn. You SAW it. Lots of times: When an action scene begins, a slow-motion effect takes over, making it all look dramatic and pretty fancy, with camera pans and zooms. MAX PAYNE was the first videogame to get it right, several years before an official The Matrix game was even announced, and even today it stands as the unbeaten king of Bullet-Time. Not even the official ENTER THE MATRIX can compete with it.
MAX PAYNE 2 sports Bullet-Time 2.0, with an interesting twist. First, for eye-candy's sake, the whole scene suddenly changes colors and brightness levels, and the slow motion is decorated with motion blur, an effect that's becoming more and more popular nowadays (ironically, several years after 3dfx, the first company to bring it up, imploded); second, the real thing: at first the speed difference is not much noticeable. As you kill enemies in this mode, you gain more time for the effect to last, and the scene slows down more and more, while Max maintains his speed.
Again, this is something that has to be experienced to fully understand it.

Moving on, the difficulty deserves a small note, for I feel it's been very nicely balanced. I readed that the game configures the difficulty on the fly, depending on the player's skills —whether or not this is the case, the thing is, I remember using Shootdodging in the first game only as a fancy feature to make the game more fun, and not using Bullet-Time AT ALL. In this game, on the other hand, Shootdodging will be a real life-saver several times, while a good use of Bullet-Time is MANDATORY in crowded firefights.

Other interesting gameplay additions include a few new weapons, the possibility to interact with some friendly NPCs (some of whom will even join us fighting the bad guys), and switching between playable characters at a few parts of the game.

STORYTELLING: Watch more TV!
The storyline has been a little more worked on this time around, but it still doesn't stand as a truly remarkable aspect. It does however offer a few plot twists (mostly related to the reappearance and band-switching of characters from the previous game), a few brilliant tension-building scenes which reach surprising conclusions, and a somewhat more intriguing storytelling.
Above all, I found Max's classic "film noir" quotes much more attractive in this game. If you liked his phrases the last time, prepare to meet a truly inspired Max.

Like it also happened in the first game, there is a lot of storytelling-support through the use of paralell devices, such as idle conversation between NPCs, TV shows, different types of advertising, phone messages, et cetera. Provided you have the patience to pay attention to all those kinds of things, you'll find several smart winks to the story, to the first game, and to several TV and cinema classics. In this dept, there are at least three much-welcomed returns: the corny soap opera "Lords And Ladies", the morbidly hilarious "Captain Baseball-Bat Boy" (now a cartoon), and my favorite: the grim-atmosphere TV show "Address Unknown", which mixes the likes of Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone —this time playing a MAJOR part in the game.

REPLAYABILITY: A masochist's paradise.
Finally, another aspect that has been nicely enhanced from the first game is the replayability factor.
The amount of special gameplay modes unlocked after the first playthrough has grown up considerably. This time not only we unlock progressively harder difficulty levels and the famous "New York Minute" mode (which gives you a time limit to complete each stage), but there are also a few new modes.
The most promising is "Dead Man Walking". In this mode, you WILL die, insanely outnumbered by enemies, there's no solution for that. The only question is, how long will you last before that happens?
Talk about an enticing challenge...

The Bad

CHARACTER MODELS: 2001 is already done, people...
Like I said, MAX PAYNE 2 is using a modified version of the engine from the first game. Almost every bad thing that can be said about this game is related to the fact that you don't really feel it like a sequel, but more like a mod.
The game engine IS a good engine, and they managed to pack a truckload of serious enhancements in it, but some limitations are still noticeable.
The most annoying problem to my eye is the character models. Despite all the bump-mapping, the hi-res textures, the pixel shading, and what all not; the models look outdated for the current time. On top of that, some of the enhancements don't fit the engine correctly: I don't know if it's a problem of my particular video card or if it's the game itself, but once you turn the detailed shaders on, some details look exaggeratedly detailed. The characters skin for example, look shiny, as if they were made of leather. Or if they had some hardcore baby-oil bath.
Another issue I found annoying is the newly-presented lip-synch. First, this is the stone-age old muppet-mouth-like lip-synch, which is unacceptable in a time when the hardware Vertex Shaders allow marvels in facial expressions as we saw in SOUL REAVER 2, or the second and third SILENT HILL games. Second, and even worse, most of the times the lip-synch doesn't work properly, and sometimes it doesn't even work —at all. You hear the voice, but the mouth doesn't move.

GAMEPLAY: Always in a rush.
Even though the gameplay in MAX PAYNE 2 easily count among the smoothest you can find out there, there are a few issues to note.
First, I found the camera strangely troublesome, much more than I ever did in the first game —Max's own body would get in the way, not giving me a proper vision of the enemies I was fighting. This of course does happen every now and then in any third-person perspective action game, but I have the impression that it happened a few too many times in this game.

Another thing I found annoying is that Max, like in the first game, is always in a rush.
This game features a few calmed-down stages, throughout which one could pay some attention to the details, and catch a breath after all the pulse-pounding gunfight. For example, there's a stage which starts in the NYPD building, where you'll need to have a few conversations before the action begins. This kind of stages could be navigated slowly, calmed, in a normal-walking pace... if only Max was able to do anything besides desperately running.
I don't know whether our good NYPD detective is drinking too much coffee, or his unfortunate life took a serious toll on his nerves, but the thing is, Max can not walk. In the enclosed halls of the NYPD precint, you'll feel like a moron, all the time bumping on stuff because Max crosses a room before the door even got to close.
Of course, in action sequences this leaves any kind of surprise attack or sneaking from behind well out of the picture.

Even though I found the NPCs tagging along Max a great idea, this won't happen more than three times throughout the whole game, and these NPCs won't perform as well as one could expect. They will require a lot of protection from your side, and when you least expect it, you'll find them stone-cold, laying on the floor.

Finally, the game is, as its predecessor, a 100% linear ride. No exploring, no secret areas, no adventuring, no interactive conversations... nothing out of the good old if it moves, fill it all full of lead. Of course, some may think this fits in the good. I don't.
You know, tastes.

STORYLINE: The easy cure.
I said the storytelling was pretty good, but the storyline itself is pretty weak.
When you start writing a sequel, there are two easy ways to do it that jump in your head at once: either you recycle the exact same structure for the story, making a number of changes as to disguise the swindle a little (think SILENT HILL 3 or METAL GEAR SOLID 2), or you take whoever character survived the first story and make the sequel based on them. MAX PAYNE 2 relies on this last resource, it takes the few survivors from the first game, takes a few points that might be interpreted as well-concealed loose ends or simple plot holes, and writes a film noir love story, in which the two main characters run against the clock trying to uncover who is the survivor from the first game who wants them dead. For one thing, MAX PAYNE left so few survivors that you pretty much have a 50% of chance to figure who the bad guy is, alone with the tossing of a coin.
Once again, the story makes the game feel like a very good mod to the first game, and not a real full-scale sequel.

Even the storytelling-enhancing devices I praised so much are recycled from the first game, and while they MAKE this story very enjoyable, they also add to this general impression.

The Bottom Line

Is the glass half empty or is it half full? In this case it's the same as asking: is this a low-profile sequel or is it the ultimate mod?
MAX PAYNE 2 is basically more of the same, but every single thing that was good in the first game is at least as good in the sequel. In fact, more often than not, it's WAY better.

So, in the end, it comes down to this: if you enjoyed MAX PAYNE, chances are you're gonna *LOVE* MAX PAYNE 2.

Now, if you didn't like MAX PAYNE... well, I don't even know what you're doing in this website.