Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne – “A Noir Epic”
Sometimes you have to wonder: why a sequel? “Max Payne” was, in the limited realm of videogame art, probably one of the best works ever to be released; so, why a sequel? Was there anything left to be said? About Max, I mean? His love was dead, his past no longer a mystery and his desire for vengeance was fulfilled. So I have to admit, there seemed to be no reason to delve into Max Payne’s sad, morbid and twisted mind again… or was there?
“Max Payne 2” might seem like an attempt to cash in from the original’s success: it took less than two years to design, graphically it’s very similar, it starts with exactly the same tone and plot devices as its predecessor, the plot opens holes in the first one’s narrative, that quite frankly, just weren’t there and a certain character is mysteriously revived during the first screens of the game. So, at a glance, “Max Payne 2” could seem like an afterthought of the original. But appearances are misleading…
The first thing that pops up is that Max Payne doesn’t look like Max Payne. His character model is different. At first, this seems strange, this eerie, awkward transition from a Hawaiian shirt youngster with quirky smile and feel free attitude, to this middle-aged man with disillusioned, depressed, deep caved eyes that look as they’ve seen all the horrors the world has to offer. But if you ponder, you will understand that this is the way Max Payne was meant to look like: a torn, spiritually crippled “noir” detective. This IS Max Payne. The change goes as far as revamping all the character models from the first game (in vignettes and in game-models), making them all feel more in key with the tone and style of the game. Series’ lead designer, Petri Järvilehto, explained why this change occurred: during the first game, their budget didn’t allow the designers to hire real actors for use in character models (only voice acting), and so they had to base characters on members of the creative team. Voices on the other hand, still sound the same, which is good, because they were already well acted in the first game.
The subtle change of actors feels “key” in the grand scheme of things behind “Max Payne 2”, as the plot tries to go even deeper in terms of exploring its characters’ beliefs, motivations and above all, their feelings. This is a departure from the first game, since its story delved more on the actions and consequences of Max Payne’s obsessive vendetta, than on his actual inner demons. Now, that’s upside down, and the objective is focusing on Max Payne’s love, regret, and hope of atonement for his dark past. The story (once again written by Sami Järvi, series’ script and screenplay writer) runs deeper in its meanings and concoctions, its drama is truly heartfelt (to the point of a good drama film), even if in actual plot terms, nothing very important really happens during the game. Add a remixed version of the first game’s poignant soundtrack, some beautifully crafted comic-book style vignettes, the best dialog you’ve ever seen in a videogame, and you have a narrative that will chill your spine, challenge your brain and make your soul cry. That’s how good “Max Payne 2” story is.
Though the actual gameplay is more or less the same as in the first game, it was subtly improved, with a small number of details that empower the already brilliant shooting mechanics. Firstly, the game is smaller, which means it’s juicier and more cohesive, leaving anything that could be defined as “filler” out. Levels are better designed this time around, and resonate with character’s feelings and states of mind, making them not only important in terms of gameplay, but also in terms of setting up the ambiance of the story. This was also true for the first game, but it’s better explored this time around; some levels are downright masterpieces of level and art design. Even the apparently unimportant TV shows (the parody to Shakespeare’s comedy “Much ado about nothing” named “Lords and Ladies”, the David Lynch homage “Address Unknown” and the spoof of blaxpoitation masterpiece “Shaft” – “Dick Justice”) that can be viewed in the scenarios’ television sets are incredibly well written and add layers of interpretation to characters and situations. In strict terms of gameplay, besides upholding the standard of the first game’s pacing, the designers use pre-scripted events and scenarios that change the flow of the game: like a level in which you play with someone else other than Max Payne that has to protect him, or a boss fight in where you actually have to think on how to kill your adversary. These small additions might seem irrelevant, but they actually make “Max Payne 2“ be, at least, as interesting in terms of gameplay as its predecessor.
As expected not everything is perfect (though it is nearly so). As mentioned before, the actual plot doesn’t really go anywhere, since the ending of “Max Payne” left no avenues for a sequel. The visual aspect of the game doesn’t show much improving, and would’ve benefited from the use of better lighting technology (that was already available at the time of “Max Payne 2”), that might’ve made the in-game graphics resemble the expected “chiaroscuro” aesthetic [for more on “Chiaroscuro”, check “The Darkness” review]. Minor flaws apart, the game is simply astonishing and improves on every small aspect of its prequel, even if it feels much more of an update on the original than an actual sequel. “Max Payne 2” is the coming of age of a concept, the culmination of its authors’ artistry in story-telling, game and audiovisual design. If “Max Payne” was Art, then “Max Payne 2” is fine Art.
[Thanks to JorgeSousa, who requested this review… which I’m hoping he’ll enjoy.]