Take one part video game, one part graphic novel and one part film noir. Throw in a dash of The Matrix, and mix well with an electric console. This Molotov of a cocktail could be none other than Max Payne. Everyone's favorite rogue cop returns to the binary screen in Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne (Rockstar Games / www.rockstargames.com).
The GameBoy Advance version of the original Max Payne is plenty good and, although I haven't finished it yet, I've started playing the sequel on the Xbox. Let me first say that the "Mature" rating is definitely earned for the violence, so if you like your games free of gore and blood, this one's not for you.
Payne 2 picks up right after the original: Max has been reinstated to the NYPD, but not for long. On a routine call, Max ends up unraveling a deeper mystery that causes him once again to cross paths with Mona Sax, the resident femme fatale and love interest.
The story is presented in a graphic novel format, and the tone is noir, noir, noir. Max's lingo is over-the-top, hard-boiled detective clichés, and in the Payne world, we shouldn't expect anything less. Along with its cutting-edge graphics and game play, this well-crafted universe, full of grey-area characters, is what made the original such a hit.
Beyond the narrative and unique tone, Payne 2 plays like any other third-person shooter. You must find your way through various buildings and their obstacles, killing all the baddies along the way. The arsenal you collect is much greater than any person could actually carry, but who said anything about realism.
Well, there actually is a lot of realism in Payne's world, particularly in the sequel. The physics engine of the game combined with environment design allows for cool visual complexities. For example, when Payne runs into a stack of boxes, they topple naturally, each individual one reacting to the fall of the others. In any other game, he'd be stopped as if running into a brick wall. While it sounds pretty banal, in the realm of real-time 3D video, this is quite a feat.
Characters follow these rules as well. When shot, they collapse much more plausibly than most shoot-em-ups, obeying what's called "rag doll physics."
The advanced AI of the game increases the realism even more. Although they're still programmed, bad guys will hunt you after being triggered rather than pacing back and forth until you come within their attack zone.
The intelligence of the game is also evident in the default difficulty setting, which you'll have to play through once before altering. Intensity of attackers and availability of painkillers (to heal bullet wounds) are all determined by how well you're doing. If you plow through level after level, the game gets harder; if you die around every corner, easier. No wonder I'm doing so well.
You can also save at any point in the game, a great aid for less-than-stellar players. Similar to Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy, I save after every major confrontation so I don't have to replay level after level. If I did, I wouldn't.
This and the Bullet Time feature keep me coming back. Bullet Time slows the game play a la Neo dodging bullets in The Matrix. While this feature is now common in shooting games (and every action movie), the original Payne was first in the video game world. Also cool is the fact that sounds slow down while you're dodging bullets and firing in slow-mo.
Experienced gamers will probably find Payne 2 a bit too easy and far too short. For the fair-weather gamer like myself, though, it's enough of a challenge and plenty long. Any gamer looking for superb graphics and a delightfully dark story line full of twists will find Payne a pleasure.