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Max Payne 2's ridiculous physics still make it a must-play

It took me a solid hour to remember why I loved Max Payne 2 when I booted it up the other week. I didn’t recall it looking this bland, with grey box room after grey box room filled with silver filing cabinets and empty desks. My 9 mm barely scratched enemies, while Max’s trademark slow motion dives felt heavy and awkward. And then I turned a corner and headshot a man so hard he backflipped—and it all came flooding back.

The series is best known for its liberal use of bullet time (a mechanic Samuel R lamented the loss of when he replayed it two years ago) but for me, its physics were always the main draw. The Havok physics engine that powers it creates wild, over-the-top fights in which every enemy ragdolls comically when they die, and bullets have enough force to lift them eight feet into the air and throw them off the side of buildings.

It really is a technical marvel for the time, not because it’s realistic in any way, but because of how responsive it feels. Enemies won’t just randomly flop—they’ll react to individual bullets. If you shoot them in the left shoulder, they’ll corkscrew to one side. Blast them in the chest with a shotgun and they’ll fly backwards, and if you take out their legs they’ll tumble head over heels. They’ll change direction mid-air when you shoot them, too, so you can launch them skywards, switch weapons, and then aim at their legs to send them spinning.

It’s that responsiveness that makes every firefight a joy. The level design is showing its age—environments feel repetitive and often place enemies in ridiculous positions, like directly over your head looking down on you through a metal grate—but I can forgive all that when I spray a thug with my Kalashnikov at point blank range and they soar a full ten metres back down a corridor before crunching into a stone pillar and falling at its base.

I waste so much ammo just shooting enemies needlessly after they’re dead. Every mid-air twitch makes you want to fire for a moment longer, until eventually you’ve emptied an entire clip on one enemy. I imagine if you had a co-op partner you could keep an enemy suspended in the air forever, batting them back and forth with your bullets in a morbid tennis match. 

Back in 2003, the violence might have seemed gratuitous (the graphics were hailed as realistic, after all), but now the dated graphics make enemies feel more like toys than human NPCs. Your aim is not to 'kill people,' it’s to create the most ridiculous action movie you can, and if that means shotgunning an enemy six times after you’ve already dealt with them, so be it.

I’ve never enjoyed rounding corners so much: the trick is to wait for enemies to get as close as possible and then spring out, trigger slow motion, and squeeze the trigger as hard as you can. If you time it right you can phase out of bullet time before their bodies hit the floor with a satisfying thump. 

Its headshots remain some of the most ridiculous you’ll find in a shooter. Spitting a round from your Deagle into an enemy’s skull will make their head snap back, as if yanked by an invisible rope. If you can catch an enemy while they’re running, your reward is a scene reminiscent of a kids’ cartoon where their legs keep going one way and their head tries to go the other.  

Individual rooms amplify the chaos with plenty of weightless boxes, crates, and stools that will happily jump out a window if you so much as point your gun at them. When static, most levels are boring, but when it all kicks off you’ll see the environment rip itself apart and bullets ding off metal furniture—it all adds to the action movie feel. It’s most obvious when a grenade goes off, nearby glass smashing as bodies bounce around.

It has me wondering: where did all the silly shooters like this go? When did people decide that enemies flying eight feet off the ground when you shot them was a bad idea? When did players stop wanting enemies to do backflips after headshots?  You can find bits and pieces of it in other games—the F.E.A.R. series comes to mind, especially its stake gun—but just like bullet time, over-the-top physics have for some reason fallen out of fashion.

I don’t doubt Max Payne 2’s financial failure has something to do with it—it took Rockstar nine years to work up the courage for another game in the series, and it’s telling that Max Payne 3’s enemies felt heavier and more solid. It’s a real shame, but I can’t imagine players’ appetite for over-the-top kills has diminished since 2003.

Until another developer decides to feed that hunger, we still have Max Payne 2, and it’s still worth playing. It may be 15 years old, but I’ll never grow tired of its ragdoll acrobatics.