Guess what time it is?
Here I sit, frantically trying to come up with a witty and informative method for writng yet another Max Payne review. But I can't, so I won't. Just know that while the PC and Xbox versions are virtually identical, this PS2 incarnation sticks out like a sore thumb.
Don't get me wrong - PS2 Max is still fun. The control is easy to learn and the whole game looks good, just not nearly as good as it's more powerful kinfolk. But other than less-detailed graphics and toned down special effects, Max and bullet-time make a reasonably smooth move. Now on to the partially recycled review already in progress.
He walked in...again.
It was police officer (and publisher Rockstar's newest hit) Max Payne. He stormed the massive GR compound as if we were a video game retailer and he was a kleptomaniacal game geek looking to get a fix with some much needed Grand Theft Auto 3. He was spouting some crazed, insane babble about Valkyries, drugs and being set up. None of it made any sense to me (yet it sounded vaguely familiar); just the inane rantings of a desperate insomniac. But before I could escort him to the door, he shoved me to one side and leapt into the CD tray of our unsuspecting Playstation 2.
I wasn't gonna stand in his way. After all, the developers at Remedy say his whole life was ripped apart in a New York minute - whatever the hell that means. All we knew was he looked rough. Or maybe he just smelled something foul. His face was contorted like something hurt bad, the kind of pain that can only come from a diet of reheated Nacho Belle Grandes and endless cups of 7-11 coffee. But even still, we couldn't turn him away.
After our grueling adventures together on the PC and Xbox, GR and Max were bonded for life. Plus, the man was on another hell-bent, by-any-means-necessary (though extremely short) mission to right wrongs. Max wanted revenge, cold and sweet, but he needed our help...again.
No more than five minutes of gameplay had expired before I realized what Max was babbling about when he stormed the GR office. Gorgeous and atmospheric story boards ala comic book graphic novels, complete with sequential panels and word balloons filled with pulp detective dialogue, grace the segments between the intense action and graciously compliment the game's gritty noir feel. Definitely a pretty way to present a story, which ain't half bad.
The pictures describe the brutal murder of his wife and baby daughter, an intricate setup for the murder of his partner and some new drug called Valkyr that is plaguing the streets of New York. It's all connected somehow and has funneled into a narrow, bullet-riddled mental causeway that is Max's singular obsession...and now yours.
Once the initial graphic novel sequence passes, the first thing that immediately draws attention is the impressive visuals. While the Xbox version is PC-perfect, the PS2 version is...something else. Max seems taller and thinner than in other versions, jaggies are unattractive and easy to spot, and textures lack the Xbox's level of detail. The framerate is a bit lower as well. Here's where we really see the PS2's limitations, and for a game that relies so heavily on its graphics, it's something of a bummer for PS2 owners.
Yet compared to other PS2 games, the adherence to realism is great and the textures are well done, working very well with the game's dark, brooding atmosphere.
The level of destruction is still there, though missing a few details. Shoot a water cooler and all you get is a hole with no water flowing from like the PC & Xbox versions. However, the incredible object interaction is largely intact. For example, when a stray bullet bites into a wall, the tiles crumble apart like a crisp Frito under the leaden heel of your neighborhood game geek. And it's not just walls - paper, boxes, bottles, glass windows, wooden staircases - every surface and object reacts appropriately when met with speeding hot lead.
While his visuals are nothing to scoff at, Max's gameplay is relatively status quo for a third-person shooter. Most of your time is spent running and gunning through virtual New York's realistically designed levels and buildings, dealing hot projectile death with the game's multitude of weapons (from a baseball bat to pistols to machine guns) and picking up ammo and painkillers from fallen foes.
But where other games simply go through the paces, Max Payne offers a new technical innovation that has to be seen to be believed. Welcome to the John Woo-esque, Matrix inspired ballet that is shoot-dodging and bullet time. These are two of the coolest and most stylistic features to be introduced to the action genre since the polygon.
With a press of the L2 button while standing still, time is slowed down to a snail's pace for a few seconds, but moving the cursor and aiming remains in real-time. The result is a beautifully executed tactical advantage for you, Max, and the vendetta at hand. It gives you a few extra seconds to dodge or target your foes. Move in any one of the four main directions (forward, back, left and right) and press L1 and Max will perform the classic shootdodging maneuvers (jumping sideways and forwards or flying backwards with guns blazing) that have made Hong Kong and now U.S. action movies so popular.
A meter indicates how much slow motion time you have and can be replenished by dispatching more baddies. Both of these tricks are quite handy when faced with numerous enemies. We just wish the odds were better stacked against Max in order to force you to shootdodge and bullet time your way through more areas.
The end result is incredibly cool and leads to some impressive cinematic sequences. Imagine entering a room with three bad guys, jumping up on a table, then slowing time down as you leap sideways in the air, rotating your body to unload a few shotgun shells into the bastards. Their bullets whiz over your head (you actually SEE the bullets)....but yours find their mark. The bullet-time ends, the dust clears, and the carnage has been wrought. Awesome.
I was concerned how the control would fare in these new console versions. Anyone familiar with the first-person shooter genre on console systems (Half-Life, Soldier of Fortune, Halo) probably has a good idea how this goes. So it comes as little surprise that the control in the PS2 version is not quite as simple as it's older PC sibling. Payne is manipulated by the now standard dual analog stick control. Movement is handled with the left while aiming and looking around is done with the right. Aiming can be tricky and frustrating at times, though you'll certainly get the hang of it. But it's just not as intuitive as the PC version.
The sound quality remains the same - not stellar. Often Max's voice sounds like it's coming from some remote location other than the character. Weird! Many of the guns don't have that bassy boom that commands your enemies' attention. Max Payne could have learned a thing or two from the Xbox's flagship newcomer Halo. On the flipside, the voice-acting is very good, and, when coupled with the cool music, complements the dark atmosphere.
And then there are those annoying platformer elements. We don't want to spoil anything, but man, is it lame. Frankly, we'd rather be shooting and dodging, slowing down time and emptying clips into the well-modeled bad guys. The platform bits seem thrown in to break the monotony, and it still feels like a waste of game space.
Which isn't to say that more varied gameplay is a bad thing. In fact, it's too bad Max doesn't offer more variety. There are no vehicles to hop into and drive around New York or really anything else FUN to break from the running and gunning (again, the platform parts aren't particularly pleasing). It's just a straightforward third-person shooter...albeit overflowing with technological brilliance.
Sadly, your adventure with Max will be over before you know it. It took us between 10-13 hours to complete the whole game, which is a bummer when you consider that the replay value is suspect. Completing the game leads to harder difficulty settings, including the cool but tough 'New York Minute' mode, where you have to motor through each level while a clock ticks down, killing bad guys for extra time. It's pretty intense, but it's still just redoing the same levels in the same order with the same sequences over and over again. And since there is no multiplayer, you better get used to killing those NPC bad guys.
While not without its flaws, Max Payne is a solid addition to any PS2 library, provided you didn't play the PC version, you don't have an Xbox and you aren't just itching to see Max on your big screen TV. It doesn't look as spectacular as the Xbox, but holds it's own very well amongst its fellow PS2 titles. Plus, the gameplay and control is easy and intuitive. The bullet time alone makes it one of the premier action games on the Playstation 2.