Friday, June 8, 2012

Max Payne 2 review

    Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne prominently displays the subtitle, "A Film Noir Love Story" on its cover. I believe this directly lead to its commercial failure. Maybe I don't have a very high opinion of the average fourteen-year-old gamer, mostly because I was one, but I suspect plenty of people instinctively shied away from the title because of the presence of romance in their shooters.

    This is probably unfair but I think the video game market still has a long way to go before its primary audience is capable of appreciating deep emotion. Unfortunately, I can't just blame it all on adolescents unwilling to admit girls aren't icky. The fact is Max Payne 2 is a substantially different title from its predecessor.

    The original Max Payne was a bizarre hybrid of Matrix-like gun porn and insane humor. It was above Frank Miller's Sin City in its strangeness but not by much. Max Payne was about a cop going on a last dance of murder and revenge, fully aware he was going to end up either dead or in jail.

    Which makes a sequel difficult to write.

    Max Payne 2 resolves this issue by dialing it back, a lot. In many ways, it feels like a prequel. He's not an insane killing machine bent on slaying every mobster in New York but a police officer once more. He still kills a bunch of people but always within the bounds of the law, sort of like Dirty Harry. This took a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part. I can believe in zombies and aliens but thinking Max Payne would ever be a cop again took some work.

    The gonzo sensibility of the original game is largely absent. In many respects, this plot is no more unbelievable than a typical action movie. A group of hit men impersonating house cleaners are wiping out a lot of the Underworld's criminals. Max Payne stumbles onto one of their missions and ends up getting involved in a mob war. It's pretty tame compared to the original game's government conspiracies, Norse mythology, and evil megacorps.

    That doesn't mean it's bad, really. On the contrary, it's an extremely well-written thriller. The game slowly takes you through the plot step-by-step until the revelation of its ultimate mastermind. For a third person shooter, the storyline is remarkably deep and methodical. At the heart of the things, of course, is the titular love story.

    Max Payne 2 is all about Max Payne falling in love with hitwoman Mona Sax. It's pretty much a replay of Batman's relationship with Catwoman, except Max is honest enough to know he's no better than Mona and she's a lot more professional about her business. It's an interesting relationship because Max's chief motivation in the last game was avenging his wife and child's murder. Mona is pretty much the polar opposite of the late Mrs. Payne and this helps me believe the romance. I don't think Max would fall for anyone who reminded him of his wife.

     The romance is believable as such things go, starting with a mutual attraction and growing from there. Max's willingness to protect Mona forces him to make some uncomfortable moral choices and I happened to like this. Too often there's nothing really forcing the two main characters apart where here it's the fact that Mona is a hired killer. Even so, we believe Max is ambivalent enough about his own morality to stay with her. All of this almost makes up for the fact Max Payne 2 flat out isn't as good as the original.

    I know, I'm a blasphemer. Max Payne purists seem to all agree Max Payne 2 is superior to the original in all ways. The fact is the Cleaners grew boring as enemies after the first level and continued to show up as the main antagonists for a substantial portion of the game. The plot is also streamlined to the point there's not too many surprises. There's one major revelation later in the game but it's nothing approaching the original's layer after layer of conspiracy.

    The gameplay is decent, the controls are fine, and the graphics are top notch but I can't say I had as much fun as in the original. The construction site level, which forms a major part of the second act, contained several sections which were frustrating and plain not fun. I can't recall any such moments in the Max Payne and they definitely affected my enjoyment factor.  Even the opportunity to play Mona Sax, something I normally would have eaten up, was hurt by the fact you play her in the least worst parts of the game.

     Just to be pendantic, I also miss the Norse symbolism from the original game. While a New York Street Cop has zero to do with Ragnarok, it was a quirky enough addition that it was memorable. The fact there's no references to it was disappointing. What's sad is there were plenty of opportunities to insert it. If there was ever a Loki figure in video games, the main villain of Max Payne 2 fits the bill.

    In conclusion, Max Payne 2 is a great title but it doesn't quite live up to its predecessor. The developers made the mistake, in my opinion, of attempting to take the title too seriously. The results are wonderful but I don't think it was quite as good as it could have been. I wonder what the game would have been like if they'd kept the love story and tight plotting but preserved the original's over-the-top elements. I think the results would have been amazing.


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