Whatever happened to bullet time? I think the death knell of the early noughties’ most overused shooter idea was rung in slow-mo when Matrix Revolutions came out in late 2003. All the style established by the first Matrix film suddenly seemed a bit passé, a lesson no doubt learned by hundreds of virgins wearing long leather jackets to nu-metal gigs. Max Payne was the first game to popularise slow-mo, but Max Payne 2 was commercially disappointing enough to put the series on hold for nine years. Bullet time gradually faded as the go-to idea for every third-person shooter.
When Max Payne 3 arrived years later it was unfamiliar, and shaped by the more popular conventions of the genre established in the meantime, particularly cover-based shooting. Bullet time and cover shooting are both solutions to the same problem: how do you create a sort of realworld logic to third-person shooting? Both are about making you feel more involved in the fight, not just strafing uncomfortably from behind a wall. Cover shooting’s been around for so long now that we’re never getting rid of it. Bullet time had a much shorter lifespan. Playing Max Payne 2 again, or even the recent Superhot, I feel it’s a bit of a shame that it faded away so quickly. I say it’s better than sitting in cover for five minutes while slowly clearing all the enemies out. You feel like a superhero. What’s heroic about sitting behind a wall and blind firing?
Bullet time wasn’t just a gimmick when it was used properly, and Remedy was the master of it. Max Payne 2’s use of it is so elegant it turns every room into a puzzle. It’s about learning the positioning of enemies and figuring out the perfect way to use your weapons and the quantity of slow-mo you’ve got left in the tank. In the back of your mind you’re anticipating where the next medicine cabinet will be, so you don’t blow all your painkillers after one scrappy firefight. This was a time before recharging health, after all. The need for strategy and precision ensure that Max Payne 2 is still an empowering, exciting shooter today.
Max Payne 2 shows its age in other areas, like the entertaining overuse of Havok physics. Platforms collapse to form convenient new routes around the levels, bad guys fall into neatly stacked piles of barrels like something out of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and stuff in the environment pings around the place whenever a barrel explodes. I don’t think this spoils the game – like Half-Life 2’s use of physics puzzles, it just tells you everything about the mid-noughties timeframe it hails from. It’s fun to mess around with, and part of the reason (along with easily loadable custom campaigns) Max Payne 2 ended up with such a healthy modding community.
This sequel didn’t add a great deal to the core bullet time system established in the first game – but there’s a lot more style layered on top in terms of sound design, ludicrously flashy reload animations and weapon feel. Diving into a room and surveying it in slow-mo, popping bullets at enemies in all corners, before quickly snapping to a backwards dive as I clear out the remaining perps... it still feels fantastic. Max might be the most miserable man in the Americas but damn, he sure doesn’t move around like a man with nothing to lose. Nothing’s really aged about the way Max Payne 2 plays, because no one makes games like this anymore.
The other half of the enduring appeal for me is Max’s fictional universe. Payne lives in a heightened, ludicrous world of neo-noir, of betrayals and secret organisations, always running a gauntlet of personal tragedies. As in the original game, the story is presented through comic book panels, though there are fleeting instances of proper cutscenes, too. The dialogue is so overwrought, but I love it, and there’s never any doubt that Remedy is aware of how over-the-top it all is. Hell, even quitting the game presents you with the line “The night seemed to stretch out into eternity,” with your two options being “I was afraid to go on” (quit to desktop) and “But I refused to give in. I had to continue” (continue). It’s B-movie, but they completely own it. There’s an unrelenting commitment to being daft and serious at the same time.
While the game offers nothing as visually memorable as the line-ofblood nightmare sequence in the original, there’s more confidence in the cinematic presentation of the world. One segment lets you walk peacefully around the police station where Max works. I stopped to watch an episode of Lords and Ladies, one of the in-game TV shows, with two other cops in the rec room. When it was over and the ads came on, the cops started a conversation about nothing in particular.
One entire level, later revisited, is set inside an abandoned amusement park based on Address Unknown, a Twin Peaks-inspired fictional ’90s TV show. It’s a wonderfully specific choice for an environment, where your only frame of reference comes from watching the show on the various TVs found in the game. I love stuff like that. I can’t see any triple-A developer but Remedy coming up with that framework for an important level of a game.
And then there’s the story itself. Whereas Max Payne was a revenge story about the murder of Max’s wife and kids, this is a fraught love story between Max and femme fatale Mona Sax, coupled to a narrative about the Illuminati-like Inner Circle. I couldn’t fully work out what was going on with the conspiracy storyline this time, to be honest, but I have a real soft spot for the doomed Max/Mona coupling, and particularly the tense sequence where control flips to Mona and you’re tasked with saving Max from swarms of enemies with a sniper rifle on a building site. The assured voice-acting helps – it’s better than a lot of what was around at the time.
I last completed Max Payne 2 when I was 22, and I worried the romance might make this less naive version of me cringe years later, but not so – Remedy knew what game it was making, and the line at the close of the credits, ‘Max Payne’s journey through the night will continue’ is very well-judged.
Max, of course, never gets a happy ending, and the finale is pretty brutal here. I think it’s one of the best game endings there is, and even the choice of music got me. The song ‘Late Goodbye’ by Poets of the Fall that plays over the credits is heard throughout the game at different moments. The lyrics contain unsubtle references to the game, much as the same band’s music (now billed as The Old Gods of Asgard) would later do in Alan Wake. Mona’s last line, too, “I turned out to be such a damsel in distress” is a final demonstration of Remedy’s self-awareness. They know this is a story awash with the conventions of other fiction. Even the villain, Vlad, mocks Max for being so damned miserable all the time.
This self-awareness is what was missing from the third game, for me. It felt like a reboot in a lot of ways, swapping the heightened noir for the feel of a three-star action movie like Man on Fire, though it definitely has its moments. Bullet time aside, there’s a real magic to the other touches that made Max Payne and its sequel so special: the mythical, forever nighttime New York backdrop, the feeling of being swallowed into the criminal underworld over the course of the story, and an understanding that irony offers plenty of leeway for purple scriptwriting.