Written by  :  Dave Schenet (138)
Written on  :  Mar 09, 2004
Platform  :  Windows

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More than I hoped it would be.

The Good

Max Payne 2 made three large improvements over the first game in the series. Here is a quick overview:

First: The graphics engine was greatly enhanced, and a physics system was added - not only can Max knock over some pieces of furniture or other small items when he runs into them, but there are some amusing physical chain-reactions that can occur in some circumstances. For example, picture two dozen cafeteria-style chairs piled on top of an explosive ammo crate in the corner of a room. C'mon, you know you wanna toss a grenade in there and watch the result.

Also, the game's textures, especially the models and textures used for the stars of the show (Max and Mona) look gorgeous. Additionally, a number of visual effects were added - in Bullet Time, the screen becomes washed out and all of the colors become muted, and motion-blur effects are used liberally (but not too much). Even with a low-end videocard, you can get a very enjoyable visual experience. I first played this game with a GeForce4 MX, and had no significant graphics problems. Even Max's nightmare/hallucination sequences are severely distorted, visually, adding greatly to the experience.

Second: Bullet-Time (BT) was tweaked somewhat. You still have the familiar hourglass time-limit, but now it regenerates slowly over time. Also, shoot-dodging does not use up your BT reservoir anymore. And most importantly, when you enter BulletTime directly, and start racking up kills, Max moves faster and faster (or, to be more precise, everything else slows down relative to Max). As you gain "levels" in Bullet Time, the screen and sound effects get more and more washed-out, muted, and... "focused". Get enough kills, and Max finds himself running around in a blurred, sepia-toned "tunnel-vision land", with his enemies standing nearly (but not quite) motionless. Naturally, the BT "levels" are temporary in nature, so Max needs to rack up a good number of kills, fairly quickly, to hit his maximum level. They fade away over time as Max "calms down".

So with Bullet Time 2.0, the developers eliminated a large part of Max Payne 1's challenge (limited Bullet Time), in order to make the game more "fun". It certainly succeeds; it's very easy to get immersed in this game when Max is fully "in the zone". And assuming you can find a safe spot to rest for a minute or two, you'll always be able to enter the next battle with a full BT hourglass.

Third: Scripted sequences? Yeah, we got scripted sequences. Max Payne 2 has so many NPC and plot-advancement scripts, it makes Half-Life look dull by comparison. The first game had a few, here and there, but in MP2, there's almost always something going on.

Now, about the actual game itself.

The story in this game rocked. In some ways, it seems to actually be more story-oriented than action-oriented. But I love a good helping of Plot(tm) with my shooters, so it's all good. The actual environment is great, too - present in MP2 are the television shows from the first game, but you run into them at more frequent intervals. During a lull in combat, it's nice to relax and watch the adventures of Captain Baseballbat Boy, follow the story of Lords and Ladies, or catch up on Address Unknown. There is also a new "TV show", Dick Justice, which is seemingly a parody of Shaft combined with Max Payne 1. Always good for amusement.

The level design, with one exception, was excellent. The levels tend to be very large, and perhaps a little repetative at times, but there's enough variety that it's difficult to become bored and lose interest. It's even difficult to get lost in some of these large levels, which is also a plus. The levels include (but aren't limited to) a large building under construction (plenty of scaffolds to play around on), a surreal funhouse (based on Address Unknown), a burning building, a mansion, Max's apartment building, even the NYPD station Max works at. All of these environments have a ton of detail, and you sometimes find yourself revisiting them later in the game (except the second time around, they're very, very different, due to various Plot Activities(tm) that have occurred.)

Another neat plot device is that after playing as Max for a while, the perspective switches to Mona, and you guide her through the game for a while (don't worry; Mona can also use Bullet Time). The neat part is, Mona's stories take place roughly at the same time as Max's. This happens a few times during the game, and Mona typically enters a level from the "opposite side" as Max. So effectively, when your perspective switches to Mona, time reverses roughly one hour, and you play through the level again - just from the other end. I'm sure I'm not explaining it very well, but as a plot and character-development device, it works very well.

Ordinarily I hate "love stories", which Max Payne 2 certainly tries to be. But I must admit, it pulls it off very, very well.

I should also mention that the Max Payne series has a huge, active mod community. The level-design tools were released to the public, just like with the first game. Also, MP2 has a few different difficulty levels, just like the first game. Except if you complete the game at the hardest difficulty level, you apparently get a different, "happier" ending. I've never gotten there, myself - almost, but not quite. But still, even if you complete the game once, you unlock the "Dead Man Walking" levels. These are small, self-contained levels, totally unrelated to the plot, where enemies continually spawn in at shorter and shorter intervals. Your survival time is your "score" in these levels, and they're great for a few minutes of mindless action. How long can you last?

The Bad

I mentioned an "exception" above, in regards to level design. There is, apparently, a flaw in the level-design tool (or perhaps in the graphics engine itself). If your objects don't line up just right in a given map, if you don't cross every single T and dot every I, a significant number of errors are introduced, and the game goes berzerk trying to perform all of the calculations it needs to do. It doesn't corrupt the display, and it doesn't crash or anything, it just becomes VERY, VERY SLOW. Like, we're talking 1 frame every two seconds. Granted, this only happened to me once in the entire game, and only in one particular room looking in one particular direction (at a pile of junk and debris), and it's extremely easy for me to reproduce; it happens every time. But still, there's no real way around this problem, and you've simply got to trudge through it. I'm sure anyone in the mod community who has used the level-editing tools has run into this at least once in their own maps.

Also, I wish the Dead Man Walking mode was unlocked at the very start.

But you know, other than that, I don't really have any complaints. Except perhaps that the game was too short. It felt a lot shorter than the first game, somehow.

The Bottom Line

I'm sure that fans of Max Payne 1 would love this game. In fact, it even seems to stand alone well enough, which can be rare for a sequel. You don't need to be familiar with the first game to enjoy this chapter, but it helps - you'd probably miss a lot of the in-jokes and references otherwise.