"Prescription Painkiller Boogaloo."
Alas, dear readers, Iím afraid that due to unknown gremlins, I lost just about every screenshot I took a few weeks back, meaning that this review will be sans images. Oh well, thatís how the cookie crumbles, I guess.
Welcome to ďA Remedy For What Ails You,Ē a five-part retrospective on one of my favourite developers. That developer is Remedy, and the slide under my microscope today is Max Payne 2. Arguably the jewel in Remedyís crown, Max Payne 2 is still held up today as a highlight of third person action games, but whatís all the fuss about, particularly to somebody fairly fresh on the series? Letís fall down the hole, shall we?
If the moodier menu music, slicker opening cinematic and subtly different tone in the comic sequence didnít strike you as a difference, then the graphics on the opening level certainly clue you in that youíll be playing a very different experience indeed. A newer, slicker experience. What a difference two years and a 9/11 makes: no longer is the lighting clearly painted on to the walls and floor, no longer does Max have about five points of articulation on his entire body, and no longer is he perpetually making that face. In fact, Maxís new and improved face isnít just a marked improvement over last time, but with proper facial animations this time and a few other tweaks, Maxís face actually holds up today. Not only that, but it even gives games that came out later, like half-life 2 and even FEAR a run for their money. Seriously, crank the graphics up, and Max Payne 2 looks years younger. But thatís not the only thing thatís been improved. Itís just the most obvious. Besides the graphics, the gameplay got the last bit of polish that it so deserved in the original. Now, bullet time handles differently, recharging over time instead of after killing an enemy, and being easily activated by a single button press, instead of being more tightly linked to the John Woo button. You can still use the dive that you abused in Max Payne 1, but now you can continue shooting when youíre on the ground, which neatly fixes one of the biggest flaws with the dive originally. Gunplay in general gets a definite improvement, chief among which is that the guns in Max Payne are substantially more precise, meaning that longer range encounters are much more viable this time. Thereís still some amount of random spread on guns, but it feels a lot less like hip-firing in Call of Duty this time, and thatís welcome. The arsenal is much expanded as well, including the very welcome ability to dual-wield Desert Eagles (which now appropriately blow people away,) and use proper submachine guns and scoped weapons with greater flexibility. Oh, and thereís Havok physics now. Crucially, though, none of the above would be much use if the heinous enemy placement from the original hadnít been fixed, and Iím pleased to report that while I still died a lot, I never screamed ďdo oneĒ at my tv.
As regards gameplay alone, then, itís basically the original Max Payne, just better this time. Crucially though, itís not just the technical bits that got a lick of paint, but a lot of the more artistic elements, too, starting with the level design. Like the original Max Payne, youíre going to find yourself skulking through the grimy, graffiti-adorned bowels of New York, but this time round, the scale is so much bigger. Here you get to fight through a massive construction site, with encounters on scaffolding and rooftops, or actually walk around the precinct Max works in. Thereís even a part where you take to the ruined New York streets to join a gang war, though mercifully the nightmare sequences donít return. Again, the original had some great levels, but the improvement this time round is truly astonishing. The more complex environments are, naturally, populated with more complex characters now, as well. Where she was almost a bit-character in the original, Mona Sax plays a much greater role in Max Payne 2, and is even a playable character for one sequence. All the other surviving cast members get a similar treatment, with Alfred Woden, Vladamir Lem and Vinnie Gognitti all coming back with bigger roles and the occasional truly bizarre gameplay segment. Reassuringly, James McCaffrey reprises his role as Max, which really does help to bridge the gap in tone between the two games. Music, too, is also significantly more ambitious this time round. SIGNIFICANTLY. The haunting cello for the theme, for example, really sets the tone for the darker and more complex nature of the game, but itís really the one bit with the piano playing goon that I want to call attention to. Because most games arenít inextricably linked to the success of an alt-rock band. Though the bandís lead singer appeared as Vladamir Lem in the first game (and on the TV in this one,) Poets of the Fall provide the gameís slick credits crawl ballad here. Since then theyíve gone on to pop up in almost every game Remedy have yet made, making them one of the strangest easter eggs Iíve ever encountered. Above all else, though, Max Payne 2 has some much needed quality of life improvements. it runs, for a start, and It has full controller support, unlike the original, which means that I donít have to dream up a wack control scheme for it. Would you believe I had the pills bound to the left d-pad button?
Honestly, thereís really not an awful lot to pick apart when talking about the downsides of Max Payne 2, but if I had to name a single low point, itíd be the escort sections. Far from being a particularly awful section of the game, I think itís more a damning statement against the very concept of escort missions, that not even Max Payne 2 gets them right. Presumably due to a collective monkey paw wish in 2003, the role of the baby maze sections in the original have been replaced by two escort sections; one of which is interminably long, and the other contains a bug. Of the two, the earlier one is more egregious, as it has you providing sniper cover for an AI-controlled Max, who - far from being the dynamic, diving, death-dealer youíre used to - now hides behind portacabins as goons circle like sharks. The recharging bullet time helps to make the section less awful, as does the fact that Max picks up painkillers between the three or four sections, but in the end, youíre still well out of the way, hitscanning mooks to protect dumb AI. The second section is mercifully shorter, and features Vinnie Gognitti in a peanuts-esque cartoon character costume escaping a gang war. It wouldnít be so bad if not for a bug towards the middle of the section which causes Vinnie to get stuck on a door, necessitating a quick-load. Itís not the worst thing in the world, but it certainly makes for an annoying little bug.
Besides the aforementioned section, thereís a completely different problem going on; one much harder to quantify. At some point between the two games, something in the writing changed, and while itís not as immediately obvious as Maxís completely different face, it permeates the whole game. While the original was laced with smartass lines, weird observations and increasingly bizarre metaphors, Max Payne 2ís writing is far more consistent, and depressive. While it certainly fits the story better, that particular layer of cheese from the original is now missing. Whether the change was made to better achieve a tone they failed to get in the first game, or to deliberately get away from the tone they successfully set is unclear, but the result is that Max Payne 2 now feels like itís missing something to me. Itís still definitely Max Payne, just now itís Max Payne by way of a better Zack Snyder. Thereís even a slight difference in how James McCaffrey delivers his lines that threw me at first. Itís all just so subtly off that it makes playing through a whole different experience. Not an objectively bad one, but one that I didnít personally enjoy so much. Oh, and the Jackhammerís gone. Sure, thereís another auto-shotgun in its place, but itís just not the same.
With the book now closed, Itís hard to see how Max Payne 2 wouldnít be a classic, even today. In just about every meaningful way, Max Payne 2 is clearly the better of the Remedy-developed games: it looks substantially better, it plays better, the characters are more nuanced, the controls are better, it doesnít need a patch to run properly and itís got Poets of the Fall. Reasonably speaking, this should be a clear win over the original, with only a few follies here and there to keep it away from five star status, but no matter how much I try to reasonably approach it, Max Payne 2 is missing that X-factor that the original had. Perhaps itís the more traditionally stoic look of max, or the fact that the writing never ventured into absurdity like before, but all the small tweaks in tone started to add up for me. I enjoyed the story, but just not quite as much as I wish I did. Thereís just a little bit of personality missing here, and as a wise man once said, ďPersonality goes a long way.Ē
Community review by Flobknocker (July 03, 2020)
Flobknocker is the nonsensical nom-de-plume of a British guy who occasionally writes about videogames, and who belongs to a mysterious cult that all gather round a helmet every weekend to perform rituals in the hope of bringing about a new Motorstorm game
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