The original Max Payne is a great game, but it’s nothing next to Max Payne 2. Everything has been improved, and the story is far more personal and complex than the straightforward revenge story of the first game. Not that there’s anything wrong with revenge—I enjoy it quite a bit. Maybe too much, in fact. Anyway, like the original Max Payne, this one doesn’t always play nice with modern operating systems; I’ve got this game working on both 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista, but it simply refused to work on 64-bit Windows 7. I suspect that has more to do with the 32 or 64-bit part of the equation than the operating system, though.
Like I was saying, Max Payne 2 is the better game. In fact, I consider it one of the best games I’ve ever played. There are numerous reasons for this that I’ll get into in a bit, but one of the biggest reasons would be the presence of Mona Sax. Not only does she play a far greater role than in the first game, but she’s also a playable character for a few sections. While most games would strip her down and reduce her to someone in need of saving in order to provide motivation for the main character, she’s more often saving him, and ultimately proves herself to be every bit Max’s equal in every way. Why so few games are capable of creating such incredible female characters, I don’t know, but it’s rare enough for Max Payne 2 to be a breath of fresh air.
Max himself is more interesting than in the first game, because his motivations in the first game were incredibly simple: get the bad guys no matter what. In Max Payne 2, he’s caught between that place and a normal life, going through the motions but still jaded and broken. It could be said that the whole game is a story about him trying to move on from the events of the first game, though the actual story of the game that facilitates this change is also very good. It maintains its neo-noir style far better than the first game does (graphically, musically, and stylistically), while focusing heavily on the development of the game’s key characters. The pacing is excellent, as well. In fact, I can’t say enough about it—no matter how much you play, there’s always something pushing you ahead, making you want to go just a little further.
Gameplay in general mirrors the original Max Payne almost 1:1 (a few keys are mapped differently by default, but you can easily change them to be like the first game). Bullet time is still present, shootdodging is still a necessary component of gameplay, and finishing off the last member of a group very often results in a slow-motion cutaway that shows you their death from a better camera angle. That being said, there are some improvements. For one, everything seems much smoother because of the game’s improved animations. The physics have also been improved, which means that a headshot results in the head jerking back and the body flying backwards like a ragdoll. It may not necessarily be realistic, but it all comes together to accurately mirror the exaggerated nature of gunplay in movies. You feel like an action hero, diving out of the way of bullets while mowing down entire groups of enemies.
Another improvement is that bullet time regenerates over time and isn’t depleted by shootdodging, meaning you don’t have to worry about how much you have left like in the first game. This allows you to more frequently use a new feature added in Max Payne 2: the ability to initiate bullet time while moving your character in real-time. Normally you’re in slow-motion (except for aiming, obviously) along with everyone else in bullet time, but this new feature allows you move at your normal speed, giving you an advantage in difficult situations. How it works is that after taking down several enemies in bullet time, the hourglass that shows you how much you have left turns yellow. You have a few seconds to hit the key that starts this special bullet time mode after that.
This isn’t something you’ll need early on, because Max Payne 2 has a very good difficulty curve; while in the beginning you’ll find the game a bit on the easy side, by the end you’ll be using every trick at your disposal in order to stay alive. In fact, some might consider the game’s last section a bit too hard, though by that point you’ll be so absorbed in the game that you’ll be save/loading like a pro and barely minding the difficulty. The challenge ramps up so gradually that it’s virtually imperceptible, so by the time things get truly difficult, you’ll be ready.
One of the problems I had with the first game was that it introduced new gameplay elements late in the game. There’s one instance of this in Max Payne 2, but it’s explained by guards who you overhear. Basically, you’re in a place that’s about to explode (one of many in this game, actually), and you have to run into a panic room and close the door. I can’t really hold this against the game since the guards make it clear what you’re supposed to do, but I figured it’d be worth mentioning. Another thing I should probably mention is that there’s technically an “escort mission,” escort missions of course being incredibly-annoying sections where you have to keep some idiot alive. The escort mission in Max Payne 2 is both short and relatively easy, however, and enemies seem to go for you before they go for the person you’re protecting. It’s really the most palatable escort mission I’ve ever seen, but some people find them to be deal-breakers.
Friendly fire returns from the first game. It’s a minor note, but I wanted to mention it because there are few things quite as hilarious as watching the guy you’re aiming at get shotgunned in the back by another enemy because he was standing between the two of you. There are also a few sections where you get AI companions of your own, and they’re also susceptible to friendly fire. Keeping them alive isn’t necessary, by the way, and their contributions rarely outweigh the glee of shooting them in the face to hear the delightful “thump” sound it makes.
The graphics have been much improved over the previous game (just compare the screenshots), with more detailed textures and models. Faces and hair in particular are more varied and detailed, though everything from beginning to end has been upgraded. That includes Max and Mona, whose characters have been redesigned to look different than in the first game. While it’s not necessarily a bad change, I kind of liked how they used to look. Fortunately, you get used to the change quickly as the game draws you in with its story.
The graphic novel cutscenes that so defined the first game return in full force and as awesome as ever, and though I didn’t count, I’d venture a guess that there are more of them than in the first game. Like the first game, the whole game has a neo-noir aesthetic that these graphic novel cutscenes help drive home. Unlike the first game, the levels don’t ever stray from that aesthetic, and as a result the game as a whole feels far more coherent and consistent.
The music is also more consistent than the first game, and it backs up the neo-noir atmosphere of the game perfectly. I simply can’t picture a more fitting soundtrack to this game:
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