A four year development time is usually a kiss of death for a heavily hyped title. (remember Daikatana? And where the heck is Duke Nukem Forever?) Fortunately when Max Payne came out in 2001, the wait was well worth it, as the game was well praised by the masses with its unique Bullet Time gameplay, immersive story, and non-stop action (except maybe for those stupid nightmare sequences). In fact, we gave it our award for Most Innovative title for 2001 for good reason. I wasn’t able to play the PC version until earlier this year, but I took pride in enjoying an Xbox port which was just as impressive (I couldn’t say the same thing about the PS2 version though).
It was this long development cycle that surprised me about the quick release of Max Payne 2. First announced at E3, not a single in-game screenshot was on display until mid-September, but the images were of high quality, far superior to the previous game. But the biggest surprise of all was the fact it went gold right away, with an October 15th release date. The good news is this time the lack of a significant delay does not hamper the series’ reputation.
The new Payne takes place several years after the first game. Since Max Payne sent his family’s true killer Nicole Horne to a fiery death atop the Aesir building and being arrested, the mysterious Inner Circle leader Alfred Woden causes all of Payne’s crimes to disappear. In fact, he is made a hero for his actions, but it still doesn’t stop the inner turmoil he suffers, and he quits the DEA. Returning to his former job in the NYPD, Max receives a dispatch call involving his colleague Vladimir Lem.
Since the last game, Vlad appears to be changing his ways, as he purchases the gothic Ragnarock night club where Jack Lupino performed his sick acts, and is changing it into a high class Russian restaurant named Vodka. However he and his partners are involved in a gunfight with men disguised as janitorial staff, and their leader is none other that perennial loudmouth Vinnie Gognitti (the only survivor of the Punchinello crime family).
All would seem like a typical gang war setting, but there is a twist, and her name is Mona Sax. Believed to have been killed in the first game during the Aesir assault, she is linked to the murder of Senator Gate, and she is now a prime suspect. Max also seeks her out hoping to get more information, and to hopefully put an end to his inner demons.
Max Payne introduced gamers to bullet time gameplay, and as one reviewer said, returned some of the glory that games lost after the Matrix. Max Payne 2 is no exception, and this time it is enhanced with the new Bullet Time 2.0. To start off, the shootdodge button has been changed so it does not take off any Bullet Time at all. Secondly, with the use of the new Bullet Time, Max does not slow down along with his foes. He moves much faster and is able to dodge shots more efficiently. It definitely helps out when Max is surrounded by tons of men. Lastly, the visuals on the new Bullet Time are enhanced with new effects, such as a rotating camera when Max reloads his weapons.
All of the visuals are greatly improved this year. Using the new Havok physics engine, everything in the game is interactive. Boxes can be pushed around, floors and walls can be destroyed Red Faction style, and mirrors are rendered in real time. Ragdoll physics are also applied but are actually used in a realistic manner, as opposed to the unusual contortionist poses we are used to in other ragdoll enhanced titles.
But the most important feature of the new engine has to be the in-game player models. Whereas the first game had facial scans with almost no life whatsoever (Max’s constipated look serves as a prime example), all the faces are now rendered in real time, yet still look photorealistic. No offense to Sam Lake (the game’s director and the ORIGINAL Max Payne), but the new Max Payne modeled by soap star Timothy Gibbs looks much more natural. He is more mature looking, and always looking serious, even if he does have a case of People’s Eyebrow on occasion.
The nightmare sequences that were the worst part of the past game are back, but thankfully they are much better this time. No longer to we have those platform "blood trails from the abyss" to deal with. These sequences fit into the storyline more, and even look cooler with the new engine, where everything warps around and distorts flawlessly.
The graphic novel story telling used in the previous game is back as well, but this time it looks more natural. Though the story might not be as sickening at times compared to the previous entry (dead babies, obsessions with the occult, failed government projects), the new tale does have its moments. One thing’s for sure, the language is more mature. While Vinnie Gognitti might have been used to saying "freaking" this and "freaking" that, this time he spits out true F-bombs. I don’t know any other games that use the F-bomb as much as Max Payne 2 does.
And speaking of the dialogue, the voice acting is improved. There are still some cheesy moments but the rest of it is true to the noir setting. James McCaffrey returns as the voice of Max Payne, and I’m glad to see he wasn’t changed because he was near perfect last time. The rest of the cast is impressive as well, but for some reason Vladimir gave me flashbacks of Liquid Snake from MGS, and Vinnie is prefect as the whining, F-bomb spewing ninny he was before.
Still though, I wish that the game would be longer. The original Max Payne took me only 10 hours to beat, but this time I went through the sequel in about seven hours. A new mode called Dead Man Walking adds a little replay value, but it is basically a survival mode. Even with having to beat the game on the Dead on Arrival difficulty to get the true ending, a longer story would have made the game better.
Also, be aware that this game requires a very powerful system to run. On my test system, I was able to keep a constant frame rate with all the details turned on and at a high resolution of 800×600, but since my system is near top of the line (XP 2600, 512 MB, Radeon 9800), lower systems might need to adjust their details.
Nonetheless, the Max Payne sequel shines over its groundbreaking original release, and the fact that it didn’t take forever to develop was also a big plus, and earning 4 + Gems for its alluring, violent, edgy, yet short tribute to film noir.