Summer is upon us, that hot, sticky time of year recently described by someone – I forget his name – as “the season when bugger all’s coming out,” and so inspired by the spirit of all the retrospectives that have been popping up around here I decided to have another look at one of my own all-time favorites from a few years back.
Taking place two years after the events detailed in the original, Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne finds the titular character living in squalor, still tragically broken by the murders of his wife and infant daughter and shuffling numbly through his days as a New York City Police Department detective. Stumbling upon a vicious murder carried out by a gang of rogue industrial cleaners, Max finds himself drawn into a twisted conspiracy swirling around a Russian gangster, a low-level Italian mafioso, his icy partner, his violence-prone lover and a secret society known as the Inner Circle.
We may as well get one thing clear right from the start: Max Payne 2 kicks ass. The original Max Payne was smokin’ hot, but the sequel takes matters to a whole different level of awesome. It maintains the gritty feel of the first game but tones down the heavy-handed noir parody, choosing instead to explore a more seriously realized Max Payne, a shattered man who lives through each day simply by default.
A lot of games these days carry a “Mature” label, typically for violent content and very rarely because they’re actually mature in any real sense of the word. Max Payne 2 dared to break that mold; the violence is still very much intact (and cool), as are all the elements of a typical action thriller, but the game goes beyond that, examining the motivations of a “hero” who’s been irreparably broken by the events of his past. Max butchered over 600 people in revenge for his family’s slaughter and came up empty; he’s still alive, his loved ones are still dead. He exists in isolated squalor, unable to form connections with the people around him but so desperate for human contact that he calls phone sex lines just to find someone to talk to.
It’s powerful stuff, and it only builds from there: The plot twists and turns on betrayal, anger, love, redemption and loss, as Max discovers and clings to the strength he needs to escape the hole he’s fallen into. As the game progresses, Max becomes palpably more alive, until the final, devastating and perhaps inevitable conclusion that leaves him lost again, yet still holding his faint glimmer of hope.
But beyond being all that and more, the most amazing thing about the game is this: It sold like deep fried dog poo.
Despite unmitigated awesomeness, despite being the sequel to a hit game, and despite widespread critical acclaim, Max Payne 2 managed only a fraction of the sales of its predecessor. Take-Two, the game’s publisher, referred to it as “disappointing” and said it wasn’t expected to achieve sales targets set by the company. It wasn’t a total disaster. Developer Remedy is still in business, hard at work on Alan Wake, but the game definitely failed to live up to expectations, and with the exception of a 2004 announcement of Max Payne 3, nothing has been done with the franchise since. (Oddly, while Max Payne 3 remains little more than a distant hope for fans, a Max Payne movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and Ludacris is currently in the works.)
Its failure is made interesting by the ongoing talk of “convergence” between the movie and videogame industries, and also because of the number of industry figures who claim that gamers are increasingly after shorter, more intense experiences when they play. No less a figure than Warren Spector himself is getting behind the “less is more” philosophy, recently saying that “100 hour games are on the way out,” and suggesting that many developers and publishers are moving inexorably toward more compact presentations so players don’t have to work too hard to experience a game in its entirety.
So what went wrong? Max Payne 2 hit all the notes: Great characters, tight plotting and intense action, all wrapped up in a movie-like package short enough for even the most television-addled attention span. It did everything right, and nobody cared. There’s no doubt it was ahead of its time. Five years ago, videogaming was still just dipping its toe into the waters of mainstream acceptance; a game like Max Payne 2 may have been seen as a kind of aberration, an honestly mature title that demanded too much from an audience that wasn’t ready to take the genre that seriously.
And therein lies what may have been the game’s biggest stumbling block. Moreso than virtually any other shooter on the market before or since, Max Payne 2 is a legitimately adult game. It’s packed with copious amounts of violence, plenty of salty language and even a little bit of skin, but more important is the material it tackles and the way it does so. Questions of loss, vengeance and redemption are a staple of the movie industry, but virtually unheard of as anything more than a thin excuse for wholesale slaughter in videogames. Max Payne 2 crossed that line, making it an integral part of the experience, and despite doing so with aplomb, suffered for it.
Which doesn’t necessarily suggest the experts are wrong, only that a wholehearted embrace of the Hollywood formula and videogames-as-movies isn’t inherently right. Videogaming has almost unlimited potential as a form of entertainment, but without recognition and acceptance of the fact that it’s a constantly evolving and maturing format, games that dare to push the envelope of our expectations will almost inevitably fare poorly.
Max Payne 2 was a groundbreaking title and an outstanding early example of the potential of videogames, and it certainly deserved better than it got. Fortunately for action fans who missed out the first time around, the game is still widely available as a jewel case release, and it’s well worth the price of admission. Buy it, play it, revel in its wanton massacre; but do yourself a favor and pay attention to the game beyond the guns. You’ll be impressed with what you see.
Andy Chalk is thankful that none of the bad things in his life have ever started with the death of a woman.