20 Years Ago, Rockstar Games Made a Brilliant Detective Shooter That's Still Thrilling Today
‘Max Payne 2’ is lookin’ at you, kid.
“Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” This famous quote from (probably) Mark Twain is often a green flag for writers to embellish facts or suspend belief to give us the superhero epics and true crime dramas we crave. Fiction can make anything more exciting, even boring, tedious subjects like work. Pick a profession and it’s likely its on-screen counterpoint is exponentially more interesting.
Just look at detectives. In reality, the job is mostly watching security camera footage and fooling idiots into signing confessions. In the media? Detectives are mythologized as hardscrabble boozehounds whose keen, case-cracking perception often turns inward for cynical, tortured introspection. We love these stories, and 20 years ago we were treated to one of gaming’s best.
Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne was the sequel to a breakout hit, another feather in the cap of Take-Two Interactive which was building a rep for gritty, mature content thanks to its partnership with publisher and developer Rockstar. Unlike Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto series, which uses its protagonists as vehicles for player-driven open-world chaos, Remedy Entertainment’s Max Payne franchise keeps a tight, linear focus on its anti-hero. Max is steeped in film noir tropes, and writer Sam Lake (whom the original character was modeled after) turns in a story that has everything a genre fan could want. Whodunit twists. Femme Fatales. Lines like “closing your eyes forces you to look at the darkness inside.” And, of course, the ability to slow time during gunfights.
The infamous Bullet Time in Max Payne 2 slows gunplay to a crawl to allow players to perform superhuman feats of lethal marksmanship. It was an evolved version of the skill that debuted in the first game, now able to last longer and manage larger groups of enemies. Combat was also aided by the Havok engine, which used realistic physics to create memorable (and often hilarious) ragdolling and destructible environments. It gave players more of what they loved, so much so that two decades later it still proves an enduring mechanic in action games. Any game with a focus meter owes a debt to Bullet Time.
Bullet Time didn’t age very well, though. The problem with being an innovator is you eventually get swamped by imitators. If you play Max Payne 2 today, the Bullet Time may get some humble respect if you know a little history, but it can’t recreate the revelatory nature of its debut.
There are other reasons to play. What makes Max Payne 2 more than just a footnote in dev history is the incredible storytelling and character work behind all the action. Max begins a redemption arc after the events of the first game, which saw the murder of his wife and daughter and a quest for vengeance that gets him ousted from the NYPD. Reinstated, but never far from danger, Max falls back into the underworld with the secretive criminal organization the Inner Circle and, well, let’s just say it never pays to trust a gangster. There are double-crosses and surprise reveals throughout, but the pacing keeps things from getting convoluted. In lieu of CGI cutscenes Max Payne 2 uses a comic book panel style for its more complicated story beats. This adds to the pulpiness of it all, and these scenes don’t feel nearly as aged as everything else.
None of this works without Max, however, who is still haunted by the loss of his family and weary of the violent path he’s set upon. James McCaffrey’s portrayal of Max Payne is tremendous. His husky delivery is a perfect match for the raw dialogue and dark themes. You don’t get lines like this very often in gaming: “The past is a puzzle, like a broken mirror. As you piece it together, you cut yourself, your image keeps shifting. And you change with it. It could destroy you, drive you mad.”
For Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne, the past was less kind than its reputation today would make it seem. The game reviewed well, but it undersold expectations and caused some internal strife for Take-Two. Lake and the team at Remedy Entertainment took some time off to recover and went with a different publisher for their next release, Alan Wake. Some of the key folks at Remedy helped Rockstar develop the third installment in the franchise, Max Payne 3. While not a bad game, it’s widely regarded as inferior to its predecessor. Sure it’s sold nearly twice as many copies, but let’s not let a little thing like truth get in the way of a well-deserved legacy, OK?