Though the game is short-lived, Max Payne 2 made quite a splash when it was released on the PC some weeks ago, thanks to its excellent action and presentation. Now the game is available on the PS2, but, unfortunately, it's suffered severely in translation (and is far worse off, for that matter, than the recent Xbox version--and even that version had some corners noticeably cut). While the PS2 version basically features the same content as the original PC version, it's filled with terribly blurry, downright ugly textures and serious frame rate issues, and it's missing sound effects. It also has pretty lengthy loading times, and, worst of all, a completely messed-up save system, which requires you to manually save your progress from the game's options menu--an awkwardly slow process--or else you start all over from the very beginning of the game (or wherever it was you last saved) when you run out of health, rather than, say, from the beginning of the level you were on, as in other versions of Max Payne 2 or any other action game these days. As such, this particular version of what, at its core, is a stylish and intense shooter, loses much, if not most, of its appeal in translation and just can't be recommended in good conscience when two far superior versions of the game are already available for other platforms. Though if you only have access to a PlayStation 2, Max Payne 2 may still be worth a look, since it can still be entertaining and exciting, at times. Anyway, if you've already heard about Max Payne 2 and were wondering how the PS2 version turned out, now you know. Otherwise, read on for more details.
Max Payne 2 is a direct sequel to the original and picks up after the events of that game. Max, now a detective and wearier than ever of the world, once again has his hands full as he finds himself hopelessly attached to the lovely Mona Sax, a murder suspect and part of a bigger plot that ties in to Max's own dark past. There are tons of references and parallels to the original story. Fans will undoubtedly be pleased by some of the nudging and winking, though someone starting off with Max Payne 2 would probably feel rather left out, despite the presence of an optional cutscene that summarizes what happened leading up to Max Payne 2. Still, this is a surprisingly complex narrative for a game, irrespective of the genre.
The storyline unfolds in much the same fashion as the original. It uses some very slick, graphic novel-style storyboards--complete with melodramatic dialogue straight out of a pulp detective novel--and good voice-over to go with it. These graphic novel sequences are unmistakably similar to those of the first game, though they are, in some cases, even more artistic this time around. All of the game's between-level loading screens and graphic novel sequences are impressive-looking and often very cool. The plot itself features a number of twists but is rather convoluted the first go-round. Play through the game a second time (perhaps on the higher difficulty setting that's unlocked after you finish it the first time) and you'll likely get a much clearer sense of what's happening.
There's no confusion when the bullets start flying: Max can point and shoot, easily, using default controls identical to those found in other first-person or third-person PS2 shooters. Unfortunately, the frame rate really tends to take a dive when more than a couple of enemies are onscreen, which makes the controls feel much less responsive than they should. Another issue with the controls is that Max turns quite slowly. By clicking down on the left thumbstick, however, you can make him turn much more quickly. You'll probably end up doing this all the time, since there's no way to adjust the speed at which Max normally turns. Actually, were it not for Max's unique ability to slow down time, he'd be a pretty boring character to play. In the first game, Max's bullet time ability was used primarily while executing shootdodges. Max would launch himself forward, sideways, or backward while blazing away at his enemies. Bullet time slowed Max down--same as the bad guys--but he'd retain the ability to aim in real time, thus allowing him to draw a bead on multiple enemies while in midjump. Bullet time is different now and, for better or worse, the shootdodge has been de-emphasized as the technique of choice. It's still an option--and a good one. In fact, Max can now optionally stay prone, after landing from a shootdodge, for as long as he continues to fire his selected weapon (till its clip runs out of ammo, anyway). Recovery from shootdodging is a little slower than before, but the main reason it's less essential than it used to be is because now Max is so much more effective on his feet during bullet time.
Unlike the first game, Max does not slow to a crawl during bullet time. Now, as he kills his enemies, his bullet time meter not only regenerates, but it turns from white to yellow. As this happens, time moves even slower while Max moves even faster. After you've killed several enemies in succession, and your meter is yellow, you'll be moving pretty much at full speed while in bullet time. Your foes will be practically helpless to stop you. Bullet time was never intended to be a realistic feature, though it was loosely justified as Max's heightened state of awareness, brought on by the intensity of a life-and-death situation. This new bullet time can't be explained away quite as easily, and it's much more akin to a superhero power. Or maybe it's the power of love? In any case, this new bullet time makes Max Payne 2, to some extent, easier and less tactical than the first game. Whereas the old Max Payne needed to shootdodge from cover to cover, playing it safe, the new Max Payne's best tactic is to run straight at his enemies with bullet time toggled on. This may seem like a counterintuitive approach for a man who's heavily outgunned, but it lends itself to some pretty incredible close-quarters shootouts and gives Max Payne 2 a different feel than its predecessor.
The souped-up bullet time of Max Payne 2 enables you to take on much larger groups of foes than you could in the first game. The body count here is pretty high, particularly in some of the later sequences, which have Max taking on small armies by himself or, sometimes, with a helping hand or two. One of the touted new features of Max Payne 2 is that Max can sometimes fight alongside other characters. This works as expected. The supporting characters follow Max's lead and lend a helping hand, though their assistance isn't all that valuable. Your options in working with these characters are limited to telling them to stay put or to follow you, which is fine, since having to issue complex orders to a squad would just slow things down in a game like Max Payne 2.
Along with the changes to bullet time and the presence of the occasional friendly character, the third main difference in the gameplay of Max Payne 2 versus its predecessor is in the new game's use of physics. The Havok physics engine was put to noticeable, extensive use in this game, as objects from human bodies to cardboard boxes to tires to paint cans all have fairly realistic mass and can be flung and bounced around forcefully--even when struck by a double-barreled shotgun blast. Thanks to rag doll physics (which have been used in other action games, like the Hitman series), bad guys in Max Payne 2 routinely get sent flying--like the lifeless heaps that they are--when shot by any high-caliber weapon or caught in an explosion.
Sometimes the results of this look awkward, but much more often, the results are pretty cool--particularly when seen in slow motion. Many of Max Payne 2's shootouts take place in seemingly mundane locations, like warehouses, but when you consider that most every object lining the shelves--and even the shelves themselves--can be blown around or apart during a firefight, you'll begin to realize that these settings are actually ideal for a game that's all about shooting. Just as with the rag doll physics for the characters, the physics for the game's objects aren't quite perfect. You can bump a box around by running into it, or you can shoot it and send it flying. However, the box itself won't break apart or anything. Nevertheless, amidst the severe compromises made to almost all aspects of this version of the game, thankfully, its use of physics is still impressive.
Max's arsenal of weapons hasn't changed much from the first game. He largely uses the same types of pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, and shotguns that he used extensively in the past. The main addition here is the MP5 submachine gun, a mainstay in any shooter with real-world weapons. An AK-47 and a Dragunov sniper rifle are also available, but, by and large, the weapons in Max Payne 2 are just what you'd expect if you played the first game. Max now has the ability to use any of his weapons as a bludgeon, though this is a throwaway feature that's useless and lousy-looking. This is too bad, since Max seems like a guy who'd be more than willing to use the butt of his gun if some scumbag wasn't worth the lead. He's still got access to grenades and Molotov cocktails, and one nice change from the first Max Payne is that he can have these equipped at the same time as his primary weapon. Much like in Halo, a secondary fire key lets you chuck a bomb at the bad guys even when you're firing away.
Enemies use cover and mostly behave in a plausible manner, for guys who are trying to shoot you to death. Not that they have an advantage over you; between bullet time and the PS2 version's "auto-aim" feature (toggled on by default), which makes your aiming reticle automatically snap to any nearby enemies, it's easy to pick off the bad guys. That's not all there is to the game, though. As in the first Max Payne, the sequel features a few sequences that take place in Max's mind, as well as in some other surprising locations. Many of these sequences, however, are analogous to those found in the original. For instance, there are a few parts that require some careful maneuvering, lest you plummet to your death. While these tightrope acts really aren't the best parts of Max Payne 2, they do break up the pacing a little and aren't very hard.
The storyline breaks up the pacing, too. There's a lot of story throughout the game, and, though it may be slick, it's time you spend passively rather than shooting thugs in slow motion. All the game's cutscenes may be skipped, but there's a noticeably long loading time when you skip them, which defeats the purpose. In any case, it's not like the game is about wall-to-wall action. You'll probably find yourself pausing to watch some of the goofy television shows playing in the background or paying attention to some other peripheral details, of which there are many. One of the game's mock TV shows is particularly good. Dick Justice is a '70s-style cop drama that happens to be a rather scathing parody of the original Max Payne storyline. These and some other bits add a refreshing bit of absurd levity to the proceedings, proving that being clever is working out great for the developers at Remedy Entertainment.
Even if you stop and smell all the roses, Max Payne 2 is short. It's shorter than the first game, which lasted about 10 hours from beginning to end. That's kind of weak, but the core action is good enough, and the story is twisted enough to where it can be worth playing through the game more than once. Two higher difficulty settings are available, which become unlocked after you finish the game at the previous difficulty setting. Also, once you've finished the game, you can go back and replay any of the individual levels that compose the storyline. The first game's "New York minute" mode is back, but now it's just a simple time trial. You no longer lose if you aren't fast enough in a level, though, implicitly, you're trying to get through as quickly as possible.
A new mode, called "dead man walking," has been added, and, in it, you're trapped in any number of the game's more spread-out environments as enemies start spawning in. It's a question of how long you can last until they finally gun you down, and it can be relatively fun. Since Max Payne 2 is, nevertheless, a short, single-player-only game, you could certainly get by on renting it for a weekend rather than keeping it for posterity.
Max Payne 2 looks remarkable on the PC, but it sure doesn't on the PS2. Sometimes its visuals can be impressive, thanks to the physics, but at other times they can be downright ugly. On the PC, the razor-sharp, photorealistic texture maps, the excellent special effects and animation, and the incredibly detailed environments are the stars. Unfortunately, none of these qualities are nearly as impressive on the PS2 since they've lost some of their luster in the translation. The character models are merely passable. The bullet time effects still look pretty good, though. Bullet time now causes the game world to go into a sepia tone, and you can make out individual bullets or shotgun pellets as they whiz through the air when time's slowed down. There's a bit of blood during the firefights (though no visible damage on the character models) and some debris from background objects that are struck. The game runs somewhat smoothly, at times, but at other times drops down to around 10 frames per second during heated firefights, which certainly undermines the quality of the action and may even get you killed. The overall style and artistry of the game's visuals are simply outweighed by the shoddy quality of many of the game's scenes.
The sound of bullet time, which was so remarkable in the first game, is largely the same here. The rush of air and the sound of Max's heart pounding in his chest are the telltale signs of the effect. Then all the gunfire becomes muted and distant. The weapon effects are clear, though other sound effects have been dropped for this port. You'll notice that most all your enemies will make the same silly scream when they die. At least the game's soundtrack, though limited, is outstanding. The title theme for the game, a beautiful and melancholy cello solo, is downright moving. You won't be hearing much music during most of the action scenes, though. What you will hear plenty of is Max Payne's internal monologue. He may look different, but thanks to the voice of James McCaffrey and a script by Sam Lake--both of whom reprise their roles from the original project--Max sounds very much the same: He's as brooding and monotone as ever. Some criticized Max Payne for its ham-fisted storyline and performances, but, by now, these elements seem perfectly intentional. The game's attempts at being melodramatic are successful, and the over-the-top dialogue is a good counterpart to the action.
The action of Max Payne 2, as well as its story, are actually quite good. Unfortunately, almost the entire presentation of the PS2 version is seriously lacking, and the lengthy loading times and the huge oversight in the save system make it less than enjoyable to play. Ultimately, Max Payne 2 is a game that's worth playing, but try to experience it on the PC or Xbox rather than in this stripped-down, cheap-feeling PS2 port.