There are games, there are movies, and somewhere in between the two you will find a title called Max Payne 2. Ostensibly it is a game, but when you examine it in more depth, you see that it is where the gaming evolutionary tree branches, with the competitive gamer oriented titles like Unreal Tournament going in one direction, and the plot driven interactive fictions going the other. Max Payne 2 certainly has plenty of gaming components, but you don’t need to have any real skill or experience as a gamer to complete it. You don’t visit the cinema to be challenged, but to be entertained. May Payne 2 gives you entertainment in spades.
The main draw of Max Payne 2 is its near cinematic quality play-through. It’s predictable, cliched, B-movie fare, that you wouldn’t want to sit through at the local cineplex, but one where you are the star, and you play all the moves. It’s linear stuff, though, just like a movie, and you won’t be able to stray too far from the main plot. The only possible directions are forward, or die. What you get in return, however, is a game that really plays like a movie, and not just a bit like one. Comparing it to a B-movie is fair, but it also does the game a disservice, for to even create an interactive experience on that level is an astonishing achievement. The production, the direction, the quality of the special effects, the plot and the dialogue are all comparable to a multi-million dollar movie production, but all created within the confines of your PC. And you get to shoot the bad guys.
The style is most definitely b-movie film noir. It’s always raining in Max Payne 2, and the mood and dialogue is as dark as the buildings and city that Max finds himself chasing through. It’s also a little cheesy, but the developers play on this in many ways, for example with the mini series that you can watch on the televisions found in the game. In fact, one of the programs in the game, Captain BaseballBatBoy, becomes part of the plot later on, as one of the characters finds himself strapped to a bomb, inside the giant suit of the oversized Zombie hitting home-runner. The game is also filled with subtle cultural references, like the cleaner humming the title tune, and the dimwitted mobsters commenting on the incessant rain, saying “for I am a raindog too”, in reference to the great Tom Waits. In fact, Tom Waits would have made the perfect score for this game, which is noticeably absent of one. Words from his album Raindogs, like 9th & Hennepin, would have f**ed the mood perfectly; “she has that razor sadness that only gets worse with the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by.”
You don’t require a high degree of skill to complete Max Payne 2, at least not on the first skill level, which is the only one available when you start. Experienced players will soon spot that even their most wayward shots are taking down the floods of enemy combatants. You don’t even need to be much of a puzzle solver either, as you are guided through the entire show by a series of plot cues. It’s is all effortlessly and expertly done, and you start to become only subconsciously aware that you are being driven in one direction, as the cues are fed to you with great subtlety. You may, for example, be standing momentarily unsure of which direction to go, when someone will pop out of a doorway and blast you with shotgun pellets, indicating where the next action segment will be. Or, with more difficult problems, Max will think aloud about how he might overcome the current problem facing him, after you have spent just enough time scratching your head.
The whole experience is designed to pull you in as much as possible. The graphics are astounding, not just in their technical brilliance, but also in their style and quality. The heads talk in synch with the words, and the bodies move and sway just like the real thing. Staring down at Max Payne from above in third person mode, it looks like real hair, and real shiny leather on his back. You can sometimes fool yourself that you are watching a real movie, and directing it, and that is the goal of Max Payne 2. It is also incredibly stylish, and has a lot of the production values a*ociated with other titles Rockstar have been involved in, like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This is definitely one of those games that you want to show off to your friends.
The game makes great use of its fantastic graphics engine, and you are treated to a variety of shows as the developers take it through its paces. You get all the Hollywood special effects, guns galore, enormous explosions, and buildings that collapse around you as you escape from their fiery depths. In addition, you get a number of dream like levels, where the engine produces a very convincing nightmare effect, where everything is warped, all your actions are slowed down, and motion blurs your vision. All these are mixed and matched to get full value out of the system, in three chapters of glorious hokum.
The “Address Unknown” theme park of Chapter Six is where the developers really show what the game engine can do. The surrealism of the cardboard cut-outs, an unreal world within an unreal world, really helps to mesmerize you into believing you are witnessing the real thing. Some of the effects in that chapter were the most disconcerting I’d experienced in any game, and one of the spiraling star tunnels almost gave me motion sickness. Somehow the pretend world of the theme park creates a much more believable environment than near-reality of the other scenarios, and came about as close as any game has into making me feel like I was watching live action, rather than a software generated pixelated universe. Quite unmissable.
That’s the movie side. On the gaming side, there may be cause for complaint. The challenge, at least initially, is minimal, and while there are higher difficulty levels, it isn’t likely that you will want to go through the same again, only harder. There isn’t all that much “game” here, even if you consider the easily completed parts of the story to be an actual game. It took me less than ten hours to complete the entire story, and that was with taking time out to examine large parts of the game that aren’t entirely necessary, like sitting down to watch the fascinating television sub-shows. Out of those ten hours, much of the time was spent watching long cut-scenes, or simply walking from one cut or action scene to another. If one was being harsh, it might seem that there is only about four hours of actual gaming action in Max Payne 2.
There are additional gaming modes that are unlocked once you have completed the story, but there is no multiplayer. The gaming modes, apart from the higher skill levels, are the New York Minute and the Dead Man Walking modes. The first simply times how fast you can complete a level, and isn’t particularly enticing. The second is more interesting, and times how long you can stay alive when pitted against ever increasing numbers of villains, on a selection of maps from the game. Neither are enough to keep anyone but the most ardent Max Payne fans happy after the game has been completed, however, and anyone thinking of purchasing the game will want to consider seriously how much they will get from the game, in return for the cost.
That said, Max Payne 2 is not like most games, and so should perhaps not be judged in the same way. In some ways clocking how much enjoyment you get from the game, punishes it for making the most of your time, by squeezing so much entertainment into so short a period. Other games can pad out your entertainment, by forcing you to wander around for hours, in between anything of note happening. Max Payne 2, on the other hand, drives you forward at a relentless pace, giving you no time, nor reason, to dawdle. Enjoyment is not best measured by time, but by quality, and the enjoyment offered by Max Payne 2 is of a very high quality. The question you need to ask yourself when pondering the value of Max Payne 2 before buying it, is are you someone who would prefer one bottle of Bollinger, or two dozen bottles of store’s own carbonated vino.
It’s a shame there is no multiplayer, as it would have been possible to bolt something on, even if it was only a simple deathmatch mode. There are plenty of excellent maps, and lots of great models and skins, to make for a great variety of characters to play. A team mode could also have been worked in, with sides made up of cleaners, mobsters, police, soldiers, etc. Even a co-operative mode would have been nice, using Max Payne’s love angle in story as a constant side-kick to help him through the higher difficulty levels. You even get to play Mona Sax in some of the missions, so these could have been relatively easily sewn into a complete co-operative package. This is, of course, all extra work, and it is possible that if the multiplayer wasn’t up to the same quality level of the story driven side, reviewers could have marked it down. They may also, quite reasonably, see the game not as an action game suited to multiplayer, but as a solitary experience, just like watching a movie.
When it comes to buying Max Payne 2, you are looking at what is easily one of the most entertaining games of the year. What you aren’t buying, is a action shooter title like Counter Strike or Battlefield: 1942, and if that’s what you want, then walk away now or be disappointed. However, if you are looking for outstanding entertainment, where you can experience the evolution of gaming, while goggling at glorious graphics and being immersed in serious style, then Max Payne 2 is, as stated earlier, simply unmissable. This game is a classic, one that will surely be mentioned in gaming history classes in decades to come, and you surely don’t want to be one of those who plays this game only after everyone else?