Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne

Review by Steerpike
October 2003

Surprised by Joy

So rarely in this business does a sequel live up to an original. When a game is a hit, especially a surprise hit, it goes without saying that a followup will be rushed onto store shelves as quickly as possible, usually full of half-baked ideas and clumsy design. Worse still, the gamers who loved the original race out to buy the sequel only to be disappointed, almost without fail. Then a sequel becomes a series, a series a franchise, until suddenly we're off to the store to buy Sword of Destruction 9 even though we didn't care for the last seven.

Max Payne was years behind schedule when it was finally released in 2001, and a chorus of voices expected it to be little more than a sloppy and bug-ridden kludge from the largely untried developers at Remedy Entertainment in Finland. Instead, it was an enormous success and deserved the vast critical and audience acclaim that it got, so no one can be surprised that a sequel was inevitable. But where so many developers hurry to make a game that capitalizes on the name of a predecessor, Remedy instead made a game that expands the creative horizons of the medium—just as the first did.

Max Payne 2 is a breathtakingly good game. The beauty of the engine is an embarrassment of riches glittering on our monitors. The writing deserves awards we haven't invented yet, given at swanky awards shows that aren't yet aired. It tells a tale as heart-searing as the one in the original. It is loyal in its design, courageous in the lines it crosses and decent in those it doesn't. It is ridiculous in its quality, and it shows a degree of respect for the feedback about the first Max Payne that we rarely see in sequels, because for most studios, sequels aren't about reexploring a world that gamers loved, they're about selling more games.

Is anything wrong with this game? Where and how did Remedy Entertainment fail us in producing a sequel to a predecessor that was itself Game of the Year and a runaway hit? Well, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is a dumb title. See, it uses the phrase "Max Payne" twice. It doesn't trip off the tongue. The title is graceless and inelegant. Had it just been called The Fall of Max Payne, it would have been fine. So they really screwed the pooch there.

The Usual Word of Warning

I wrote a review of Max Payne ages ago for another site and, there as here, I must do my duty in case the "Mature" label on the box isn't clear to parents:

The world of Max Payne is so grim and dark, so rife with depravity and awfulness, so horrific and unflinching in its portrayal of nearly everything that is cruel and monstrous in the world, that it should go without saying that this is not a game for children. This is an unapologetically adult-themed game. Language stronger than "fudge" is used effectively and often. As Max Payne, you will kill people, including cops. You will take pleasure in the suffering of others. You will engage in fornication without the sanctity of marriage. So if you're buying the game for your seven-year-old (or if you yourself are seven), think again. This game was made by grownups, for grownups.

No More Putting off the Upgrade

Max Payne 2 has pretty devastating system requirements, including a 1 GHz processor and DirectX 9–compliant video that also supports the complete pixel shading spec. This is, however, one of the earliest examples of what the power of pixel shaders will do to the graphic future of games, because Max Payne 2 is visually astounding, taking full advantage of a very cool realistic physics model and excellent graphic design.

The world looks genuine—no more repeated textures or bland environments. Everything is unique, as it is in life—doodles on a whiteboard, Post-It notes on a desk, graffiti in an apartment building hallway, adding richness and depth without clobbering us. You'll see reflections in rain puddles and multi-angle shadows cast based on environmental light sources. If you've been considering an upgrade (now's a good time with Half Life 2 and DOOM 3 coming up), you won't be disappointed if you spend the cash here.

Max Payne 2 also does wonders with environmental audio. EAX and a Dolby decoder bring out the sounds of the game world brilliantly, and an event-driven soundtrack builds suspense in this cinematic experience. The voice acting is top-notch, like it was last time, and I was very pleased to see that Remedy was able to get nearly all of the original talent back to reprise their roles.

Once again, the story in Max Payne 2 is told mainly through still "graphic novel" scenes, which are either photographed-then-Photoshopped or hand-drawn by some very talented artists. Actually, the whole presence of Max Payne 2, including the box design, theme music, and menus, show beautiful quality and attention to detail. The graphic novel looks and sounds great and tells the story very well, narrated again by Max himself throughout. Also, since the game engine is so much better, the cinematic game scenes are far less jarring than they were in the original.

One strange item is that a few of the characters don't look at all like they did before. Max, especially, doesn't just look like he's got more polygons or has aged a year, he looks completely different. It knocked me out of the story a few times, because I played through Max Payne a few weeks ago in preparation for this piece and I'm very used to his old "look." The same differences are apparent in other leading and supporting characters, notably Vladimir Lem and Jim Bravura. The former has lost twenty years and gone blonde, while the latter seems to have gotten gastric bypass surgery and been on Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. It's no big deal, but the change just struck me as weird—I wonder why they did it.

Folk who do meet the system requirements will find the game very smooth. Big props to Remedy for developing an engine that is clean and tight, with no apparent bugs or shortcomings. It is solid, stable, and performs well if you've got the system to run it.

Somebody's Going to Emergency ...

The original Max Payne told the story of the eponymous protag's vengeance-fueled, blood-drenched rampage through the streets of New York during the worst snowstorm in a century. This time around, Max is back on the NYPD, having been cleared of the six thousand murders of which he was certainly guilty thanks to the auspices of an enigmatic politico with serious pull in the criminal underworld and legal system alike. Max is not out for revenge this time; instead, a routine "shots fired" call draws him into a mysterious and intricate criminal conspiracy involving a lot of shady characters from his past.

Everything seems connected but nothing adds up, especially when stone-cold hottie/stone-cold killer Mona Sax reappears unexpectedly at the center of his investigation. When we last saw Mona, she was bleeding her life out in an Aesir Corporation elevator, having taken the bullet meant for Payne. Some folk are hard to kill, though, and the two find themselves irresistibly drawn to one another over the course of the tale.

More congratulations to Remedy for writing a script that explores something we rarely see effectively performed in a game: the love story. And this is no unwashed geek's embarrassed giggling fantasy, it is a graceful and superbly crafted narrative at the heart of which thrums a deeply powerful emotional core. Last time around we identified with Max's torment, his anguish, his desire to end his own misery while making the world pay for the godawful life he's led. Further demonstrating their narrative chops, the writers of Max Payne 2 now make us care deeply for a character confused by what he's feeling for a woman he scarcely knows, plagued by loneliness so deep as to be palpable, and resignedly coming to terms with the sad truth that revenge doesn't ease suffering or bring back the lost. This is going to be a wildly popular game, and I think Remedy deserves thanks for crafting something that will encourage emulation by other developers—thereby enhancing and deepening this medium's capacity for narrative depth.

Max Payne 2 brings back all the charm of the original. The hard-boiled pulp writing style, the film-noir look and feel, the deep and engaging protagonist and supporting characters. This game is a real interactive movie, which isn't something all games should be—but "interactive movie" is as integral to the nature of Max Payne as the firefights and comic book cutscenes.

As always it is the characters that make this game shine. Max himself is superbly crafted and played. The complexity of this man is apparent from the outset, from the fact that players identified with him in the original game even though he was a compulsive murderer with a shattered moral compass. His depth is increased in this sequel, as much through anecdotes as through the story arc. At one point, desperately lonely and just wanting someone to talk to, Max calls a phone sex line and pours out his heart only to see it blow up in his face like so much else around him. Ultimately Max is a supremely unhappy and unlucky man who deserves better. We play his games because we want to be part of improving his life.

Gamers who don't like cinematic titles or prefer pure action to lengthy storytelling may find Max Payne 2 boring; there is plenty of game but a whole lot of narrative. Also, this is a very adult game—not "adult" in a pervy sense but in that it deals with love as well as sex, grief as well as violence. It is also grimmer, darker, and more harsh than the original. It may not be for everyone.

... Somebody's Going to Jail

The much-anticipated Bullet Time 2.0 doesn't disappoint. I was concerned that the developers would make the mistake of adding a bunch of new maneuvers and requiring a more complex control scheme, but that fear was ungrounded. Bullet Time's simplicity is what makes it so thrilling, and the additions in the sequel make it cooler and more enjoyable, not harder. Max's Bullet Time capability now has varying levels of strength: the better he's doing in the game, the more effective his actions when Bullet Time is activated. Great new visuals like the awesome snap-reloading and bullet cameras enrich the experience without adding overhead.

Game physics are greatly enhanced, resulting in a beautifully interactive game world. Bump into something in Max Payne 2 and it'll fall over—odd how such a minor thing adds so much depth to an experience. The physics aren't perfect, seeming a little too energetic at times, but they're close enough. Also it's now possible to shoot through certain obstacles, so enemies hiding behind empty wooden crates aren't nearly as safe as those behind concrete walls.

New weapons and old classics shine. You'll have access to AK-47s, MP5 submachine guns, and a Dragunov sniper rifle along with favorites from Max Payne. It's also easier to toss grenades now, since a clever new addition allows you to use one family of weapons without actually switching to them—not dissimilar to the primary and secondary fire in other shooters.

Also, the game features auto-adjusting difficulty. The more derriere you kick, the tougher the enemies become as you progress. Meanwhile, if you are struggling, opponents dynamically reduce their difficulty. As in the original, Max Payne 2 only has one difficulty level, but when you win the game some others unlock. Thanks to the on-the-fly challenge adjustment, manual difficulty settings aren't really necessary.

Infuriating dream sequences nearly ruined the first game, adding ridiculous (and insanely difficult) jumping puzzles to a game in which they had no place; again conscientiously respecting the feedback from fans, Max Payne 2 does sport dream sequences but with a drastic reduction to the frustrating mazes and jumping puzzles. No one minded the dreams as such, just that they were jarring and clumsy. The opportunity to explore the internals of Max's mind is actually kind of cool, and new graphics make the dream visuals very compelling.

The major complaint we’ll hear about Max Payne 2 is the same as the major complaint we heard about its predecessor: the game is too short. A highly motivated individual can finish it in as few as twelve hours, though I’d say most gamers are looking at more like twenty hours of play. This is a reasonably serious offense, because though fifty bucks for twelve hours of good fun is actually a pretty fair cost-to-enjoyment ratio, it’s a heck of a lot less time than most games take to finish and as such, Max Payne 2 gets bad marks on this. Doubtless Remedy would say that it’s as long as is necessary to tell the story, and while the game’s length is far from a dealbreaker, it’s an issue that I wish hadn’t come up. A friend remarked that she got sad every time she completed one of the chapters of Max Payne 2, because it meant one more chapter behind and one less ahead.

New York Minute

Max Payne 2 is the best game I've played in months and certainly one of the best sequels ever. As far as I'm concerned it's got Game of the Year locked up, and it deserves it. It's a fascinating action-adventure and a beautifully constructed tragic love story, rich with noir elements, pop-culture references, scintillating characters, and gorgeous locales. It compellingly evokes a grim world of crime, violence, and human shortcoming. Frankly, Max Payne 2 makes me confident that the best is yet to come for gaming, that the awesome narrative and creative capability of this medium has yet to be explored to its fullest extent.

Some people, gamers and developers alike, don't like sequels on principle. They see them as creatively stagnant, that making a sequel is really just a way of avoiding having to create something new. It implies fear of originality. But I value sequels not for what they represent in a business or creative sense, but for the opportunity they provide to reenter worlds through which we have experienced countless adventures, to meet up again with characters and places we have loved and about which we feel extraordinary passion.

Sure, plenty of sequels are just money vacuums designed and intended to capitalize on the success of a predecessor, but even if that is their practical application, when well-conceived they do allow us to return to places and stories that have mattered to us. How that implies creative stagnation I do not know, but I do know that the medium of the video game, and my own enjoyment of them, would be a more hollow thing were it not for stunning achievements like Max Payne 2. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Remedy
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Release Date: October 2003 (PC); December 2003 (Xbox and PS2)

Available for: Windows Xbox

Four Fat Chicks Links

Player Feedback


Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge Click to enlarge

System Requirements

1 GHz PIII/Athlon or 1.2 GHz Celeron/Duron processor
32 MB AGP graphics card with hardware transform and lighting support
256 MB RAM
1.5 GB hard drive space
Windows 98/ME/2000/XP
DirectX 9.0
Keyboard and mouse

Where to Find It

Links provided for informational purposes only. FFC makes no warranty with regard to any transaction entered into by any party(ies).

Copyright © Electric Eye Productions. All rights reserved.
No reproduction in whole or in part without express written permission.