After being a financial and critical success, a sequel to Max Payne was in the works. It was going to take the same style as the original, but with more twists here and there: it was marketed as a love-story, used the same game-engine as its predecessor mixed with Havok physics engine, wanted to upgrade the bullet time-mode and generally fix what was broken. As a fan of the original, I could not wait to try out the sequel and experience another part of Max’ pain.
“A film noir love story”
After waking up in a hospital with masked goons hunting you down, the story starts with a flashback, similar to the first game. For the sake of not spoiling anything from Max Payne, I will simply say he is once again working as an NYPD officer and is uncovering a case on multiple murders by hired hitmen that dress themselves up as cleaners, and that the past is still haunting Max. The plot is well told and with established characters from the first game appearing a second time, it is easier to get on board once again. The twists and turns are great, with you questioning if you can trust someone or not. Everything seems more personal as well, due to characters being re-introduced from the first game and it works to a great effect. It does jump a bit much between past and present, and while it is common to start a noir story “in medias res”, it is an odd choice to jump between as often as they do at times here .
As stated, this is a love-story with the focus being on Max Payne and Mona Sax (subtle names). There is a lot of focus on Max Payne’s struggles, especially with his connection to other people, which is done to a great effect. Some are outright told to you through cutscenes or dialogue, and some can be discovered through interacting with the environment. However, the relationship and love between Max and Mona feels shallow. Maybe that was the purpose, due to the symbolism relating to love being sprinkled throughout, and that both have lost something and are being hunted down, gives them something in common, but I found Mona uninteresting as a character. Had she gotten more flavor text to her, from a diary or something similar for example, it could have gone a long way. This is also a big problem since, while the symbolism is still fantastic, the connection to Mona is not and this is a big part of the game. The awkward sex-scenes do not help either.
The cutscenes return with comic-panels, but are less effective here. The gritty nature from the last game is gone, and instead we have more colorless panels, with no music to complement them, making them at times uninteresting. However, some panels neglect even dialogue and let the images speak for themselves, which is when they are used to their full potential. There are also some that use the in-game presentation, almost making it feel like a movie at times. The mix it is not bad, but I often found it unnecessary.
While we have monologues by Max Payne again, the game is much more dialogue-heavy than before and it doesn’t blend well. There are a lot of elements to the world and story sprinkled around the game, to give the setting more lore and make everything feel alive, and it still works well, despite not all being accompanied by Max’s monologues. Dream sequences return and while I will say they are not as great as before and can even be a tad awkward at times, they still work with good symbolism to them. However, the more humorous tone, and the darker, more serious tones, don’t really hit it off very well. For example, you meet a high-ranked and dangerous mob wearing a superhero costume and right after that Mona is struggling through a fire in a pretty depressing scene. It is off and while kinda shocking, not really balanced and this is a common flaw throughout the game, making me unsure if the game is mostly a parody, serious or both.
I will clarify that I did enjoy the story and Max as a character. It also has moments that I simply enjoy, such as looking around to find more stuff about the world Max lives in, some parts about his struggles and simple parts, like walking around the police station and interacting with objects, just to make people react to my presence. I just wish they could go with a more focused style at times and make Mona not just a badass, but an interesting badass.
Story Score 8.5/10
Max Payne just got more Matrix
Max Payne is in many ways similar to the first game. It is a linear third-person shooter, with behind-the-back view, hotkeys for the type of weapons and a crouch-button that I only had to use once. One of the elements that is an improvement, is that grenades, molotovs and the pistol-whip are located to the 1-hotkey to cycle through them and you use them by pressing the wheel on the mouse. Others are on their respective hotkeys once again, such as handguns on the second-key, the shotgun and similar arms on the 3, and so on. They can be also selected by cycling through them with the mouse-wheel. I never had use for the melee-attacks, but grenades and molotovs are always welcome.
As I stated in my last review, there are three elements that made the first Max Payne more than simply an average shooter, and they still are here, but quite different at the same time. First off, the bullet time returns and now refills on its own, making the use of slow-mo for precise shots and dodging more frequent. Another new addition to it is that shooting enemies will turn the timer yellow, and then it will make Max shoot and act in normal speed, with everything around him being in slow-mo. It is basicly a superpower now and combining this with shooting enemies refilling the bullet time, you can quick-reload the guns while in yellow bullet time, by pirouetting no less, and slow-mo dodging won’t consume bullet time; it makes the game quite easy.
This is definitely a more action-packed game, where going in gun-blazing, plenty of ammo, more guns than the previous game and the slow-mo superpower will get you anywhere. You can even shoot while laying down on the ground after a dodge, which is neat. It is definitely enjoyable, but it comes off as too easy and straightforward, making encounters uninteresting, despite them having dangerous weapons. The AI is in general poor, and on more than one occasion they killed themselves with their own grenades or shot each other when they tried to kill me. The plenty of weapons are also unnecessary, as I usually stuck with a few instead of varying it up. This is unfortunately not the only thing that makes the game easier. Painkillers return, acting as medpacks Max can carry, which will slowly heal him. You can once again carry maximum of 8, but I played through 80% of the game with the maximum amount of painkillers in the pocket due to both ammo and painkillers being everywhere, making the game a breeze. I did die at times, but it was always due to me letting my guard down instead of the challenge. The only part that was hard, were the 2 last chapters and one segment with Mona.
That is right, you will, for two events, play as Mona. One as a sniper covering Max, and one where you will platform around a burning building. The first one is intense, but gets easily repetitive, while the second one is bizarre to me. Why do we need platforming in a shooter with tank-controls, especially when it is not done well? It does not even relate much to the third element Max Payne 2 is about: the exploration. There are some small interactive parts sprinkled throughout the game, some minor events in the background that are easily missed and even NPCs to interact with, such as an old lady in a building or people at the police station. They are well done, with some parts of the game having a bunch of hidden elements or symbolism that I love, but some areas can feel empty. It is a minor nitpick, but I wish it could have been a bit more consistent with it throughout the game. That being said: what is here, is great. There is also a segment with an escort-mission and it is not too bad, but definitely a weak part of the game, similar to the platforming. Most of the variation feels like they are only there to give some diversity and not much more. The only part I kinda enjoyed were the dream-segments and while they can come off as corny sometimes , they can still be surreal and interesting.
The ability to save and load anywhere has returned and it is nice to have once again, with it only really being used when you are in a safe spot. The game itself is incredibly short though, clocking in at around 5 hours, maybe a bit more. It did not feel like it overstayed its welcome and the shooting is enjoyable and action-packed, but it felt like they wanted to add so much and at times forgot that less can actually be more.
Gameplay Score: 6.5/10
Better engine, but not necessarily clever
We have gotten a much prettier looking game here. The character-models are much better, with good facial-features and textures. There is also a lot of attention to details in the PC-version, with reflective mirrors for example, and the light-effects are much better. The detailed textures from blood and gunshots that can be caused by you or the enemies are back and look even better, and the Havok-engine makes the objects movable and enemies fly around much more, which is a fun addition. The areas themselves are for the most part intriguing, but have many that are a bore to explore. The better ones are, for example, apartment-buildings that are falling apart, the police station with many people to interact with and a bizarre amusement-park, but then we have areas that are bleak, such as the hospital and a factory.
The cutscenes are both with the in-game engine and with comic-panels, and this is something that is also uneven: they don’t blend well when one part is shot like a movie and another as a comic. This happens often and infrequently, making it a bit of an uncertainty of style. The comics themselves are much more colorless than before, which I suppose was to enhance the darker and mature tone, but they become more and more uninteresting in my opinion throughout the game, especially when there is a lot of dialogue without much melody. The voice-acting is better overall though, with some stereotypical performances, but it works decently to try to make a serious tone, while at the same time parodying itself.
The music is much more used and hectic, enhancing the more action-based gameplay, but most of it is repetitive and uninteresting. They are used frequently and it comes off as a chore to listen to at times. If they could have used them more situational or intentional, rather than having music for the sake of having it, it would have gone much further with the atmosphere. At times they do make smart moves with it however, with one favorite being a song that foreshadows the ending by subtle use. The original theme from the first game returns as a good rendition, but the rest is uninteresting or can feel out of place. Despite most of the presentation being technically superior to Max Payne 1, it had such a smart use of the music and visuals to make the player more immersed, but Max Payne 2 is not always clever with it.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Extra is not canon
Cheat-codes return and I do enjoy playing a bit around with them for silliness. There are also some hidden secrets that can be found throughout the game, and unlockable modes such as harder difficulty and time-attack. This is all good, but the unlockable secret ending is not worth it. It is not as powerful as the original ending, feels shallow and it doesn’t even seem to be canon.
Extra score: 6/10
I enjoyed my time with Max Payne 2 and felt it had something to offer for both critics of the first game and newcomers to shooters. Fans of the first game, however, or those that are hungry for a good challenge, might be somewhat harder to recommend it for. It is a much more straightforward and almost simpler game thanks to the abundance of painkillers and the bullet time being revamped, the variety isn’t always for the better and the love-story could have used more development and not solely rely on symbolism. The extras, with the non-canon ending, don’t help much either. It is an action-packed game with a symbolic story that will definitely be intriguing, but personally I felt this was the black sheep of the trilogy, and that it could have gone a bit further. However, it seems like the third is the most controversial one.