Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Let's Talk About Max Payne, Part 2: The Fall of Max Payne

Even at a young age, when all I was allowed to see of these games was the artsy box art, I got a very…different vibe from Max Payne 2.  A subtitle like “The Fall of Max Payne” suggests something far more serious in tone, and looking at the art plastered on the box, perhaps even more…sophisticated.

Artistic representation of an angry dude with a gun.
Bears vague resemblance to the cover of a My Chemical Romance album.

Actually, if there’s any memory I have associated with Payne 2, it’s being slightly bitter over the fact that my dad only had to wait two years for the sequel to his stupid “MACHUR” game while I had to sit through three to play Kingdom Freaking Hearts II.

No, excuse me, four. Idiots.
But hey, everything worked out in the end. I got Kingdom Hearts II and now here I am seven years later, graphically dissecting Max Payne 2 as if it’s some disgusting alien creature that just crash landed into a scientific laboratory for which I am the only personnel. So, Payne 1 is a decent game, awesome for its time. Does the first of two sequels do its part to provide an improved gaming experience?

Oh, yes. Oh, yes, it most certainly does.

From the moment I started the game, I could already tell Remedy had really done their homework since the first outing. Presentation on this one is excellent.  I mean, on a visual level, you still have to remember that it’s an “old game” to fully appreciate it, but the technical improvements go quite a long way. It may be shallow to say this, but Payne 1’s noir-inspired art design was kind of hard for me to appreciate when everything looked so…hideous. In Payne 2, this was not the case – in fact, despite a handful of blurry textures rearing their ugly heads every now and then, I found myself seriously enjoying the game’s aesthetic. The environments you see here are also a lot more visually varied than what was seen in the first game. The snowy city districts, seedy buildings and government laboratories can only go on for so long before I start to get a bit tired of what I’m looking at. Here, we also get some disturbing mobster funhouses, dingy and cheap apartment buildings, creepy hospitals, and a handful of decent set pieces to go along with them. Smoother character animation also leads to a few more in-engine cutscenes every now and then, and in two short years, the characters have evolved actual faces rather than jumbled masses of painted polygons.


Other nice visual flourishes include the screen changing to sepia tone when slowing down time and more cinematic camera angles for the Bullet Time move, making pulling off those stylish shoot-dodges that much more fun and satisfying.  Also, reloading while slowing down time makes you do this really cool spinning thing, which sometimes gives you a cinematic camera, too, if you’re being awesome enough. I enjoyed that. Sound design in Payne 2 is also much more polished and realistic than the first game and also makes greater use of music to enhance the atmosphere. The potential interaction with the smaller elements in the environment, which is something that was already found impressive about the first game at the time, also feels a bit more expanded and realistic. It’s certainly not on the level of environmental interaction you’d see in such a game today and it’s a little thing besides, but it’s just one more element that went toward making Payne 2 a more immersive experience.

Max Payne 2 still makes use of comic book cinematics with digitally colored live-action photographs for all of its major scenes. I enjoyed these in the original game, but I couldn’t help but feel like some of them looked more than a little awkward. Payne 2 even fixes this. On top of the prettier, more stylized coloring, the actions and facial expressions are a lot more believable and free of those mind-boggling “Wait, what?” moments peppered throughout Payne 1’s story. And speaking of the story, ho-ly crap, is it good.

Whereas the first Payne’s story was a semi-cheesy but nonetheless somewhat elaborate revenge story, Payne 2 is exactly what it says on the cover: a film noir love story, and it is quite the film noir love story. Naturally, it’s a lot more character-driven than Payne 1, going far deeper into the relationships of the characters and the kinds of situations those relationships land our main character in. It paints each one in a much more complicated light, none more so than Payne himself. Not only that, but it goes into a bit more detail on the secret organization introduced in the first game called the Inner Circle, and how the events transpiring within affect those with connections to the group. In my review of the first game, I called its story “complex”, but this deals with some much more serious stuff. The first game had a few twists and revelations, but the ones here feel a lot bigger and a lot more game-changing.

Of course, a more serious storyline is going to need some more serious voice acting, and an improvement in the writing department would be pretty appreciated, too. Believe me, Payne 2 delivers here as well. All of the actors reprise their roles, but…they just do a much better job. James McCaffrey’s performance as the main character especially stood out – what was once the voice of a stereotypical hard-boiled cop has become something far more believable, far more human, and that’s pretty necessary, since Payne is the story’s main focus. But perhaps this significant improvement in acting quality owes less to the improved skill of the actors and more to the improvement of the script. Payne 2’s script effectively pulls off what I can’t help but think Payne 1’s was trying to do with its confused metaphors and ham-fisted “fauxetry” – it brings me into Max Payne’s mind and helps me to get invested in his story arc. In the first game, I grew somewhat attached to the character based less on how much I actually liked him and more on how endearingly strange he seemed to me based on the ridiculous stuff that kept coming out of his mouth. In this game, I really liked the guy and I even felt pretty sorry for him at a lot of times. The script has some hammy moments, believe me, it does – “I wanted to reach inside my skull and scrape out the pain” was one *ahem* memorable line, but for the most part, it’s pretty freaking good. More often than not, when I found myself laughing at something that was said, it was because it was actually funny. Yeah, don’t worry; Payne 2 may take itself more seriously than the first, but it’s not at all pretentious.

Now, how has the gameplay evolved since Payne 1? Well, it hasn’t really changed fundamentally, but the various tweaks that have been made go a long way in improving the experience. One somewhat minor, yet nonetheless noteworthy change is that doing a Bullet Time dodge doesn’t decrease the hourglass meter anymore, basically allowing you to use it as much as you want. At the same time, it’s become less of a dodge roll and more of a dive. Using it will leave you lying on the ground until you pick yourself back up, leaving you vulnerable and defenseless for several precious seconds. It’s more empowering without being broken! I approve.

One of the biggest and most important evolutions in Max Payne 2 is the more polished controls. One of my problems with Max Payne was that the controls felt too oversensitive, which made any sort of precise aiming very nearly an impossibility. Max Payne 2 feels so much better by comparison. Aiming is for the most part silky smooth, the sniper rifle actually works, and the game just feels a lot better to play. Aside from that, the game design is just generally better. Enemies are encountered in a much wider variety of environmental situations than what were essentially narrow corridors, boxed rooms and wide open spaces in Max Payne. Level design also feels a bit more meticulous, providing more cover spots for you and your enemies, making each confrontation a bit more interesting as well as getting rid of those occasional cheap moments the first game had. Those frustrating moments of confusing “where do I go, what do I do” game design are also (mostly) gone, too. The gameplay also capitalizes on the love story aspect by switching control to the leading lady at certain points and even having a segment where you provide Max with cover from above, thus skillfully tying gameplay and narrative together – much better than the original Payne did with its stupid nightmare sequences, at least.

Actually…the game still has the playable nightmare sequences that annoyed me oh so much the first time around. I can see what they were going for with them: they wanted to draw us deeper into Max Payne’s tortured psyche, make us feel more connected to the character. Unfortunately, they chose to go about that by shoving in a clunky and forced gameplay change. However, in Max Payne 2, they’re actually what they should have been in the first place: simple, straightforward and not chock-full of awkward and out-of-place game mechanics. Not only that, but I actually found some of them genuinely unsettling rather than so over-the-top as to be ridiculous, and like the greatly improved writing, they really did help me to feel more connected to Max Payne.
That's right, no more of this.
Really, if there’s one complaint I have with The Fall of Max Payne, it’s that it’s…really just too short. I mean, Max Payne wasn’t really the longest game out there, but it lasted at least about fifteen hours. This is more like ten, and while action games don’t really need to be that long, this game kind of left me wanting more. But maybe that speaks less for how short the experience was and more for how sweet. Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is an outstanding game while it lasts. Every little tweak and improvement does its part to make this a more polished, more thoughtful, more involving, more fun experience than the first game in every way. I still say that Alan Wake is currently Remedy’s masterpiece, but if it weren’t for the short length, Payne 2 really wouldn’t be that far behind.

And now, Remedy Entertainment is working on a new game called Quantum Break. Not much has been shown, but judging by the trailer, it looks like it’s going to be something big. They say they’re using everything they learned from making both the Max Payne series and Wake, and I’m definitely interested in it, whatever it is. But yeah, that was Max Payne 2. Pretty fantastic game. But it was actually the last game in the series for almost ten years, until Rockstar Games developed the sequel themselves and finally released it last year. Were they able to recapture what made the first two games so cool without the help of Remedy? We’ll find out next time.

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