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Max Payne 2 and the Secret of the Well-Designed Controls

Posted by deckard47 on May 11, 2010

Bullet Kiss!

Bullet Kiss!

I’m quite looking forward to Remedy’s Alan Wake. I know that it’s supposed to be “overly linear,” that the facial animations don’t look great (they’re thinking of fixing that with DLC, oddly), there are “bad world textures” during the daytime (is that something that keeps you up at night after you beat the game? Really?), and it’s kind of the same thing over and over. I also know that the combat is supposed to be good, and fun, the game is supposed to be beautiful and atmospheric, and the voicework and writing range from good/hilarious to awful/hilarious. So it’s a step up from the Max Payne games then.

Max Payne and Max Payne 2 are, from a mechanics and rules standpoint, quite similar. Max Payne is a close-perspective third person shooter in which the player shoots hundreds of New York thugs, crooked cops, and other criminals using an outlandish collection of guns and a slow motion combat mechanic borrowed from The Matrix (and Max Payne did it first, amazingly). Honestly, that only communicates a portion of what makes Max Payne (and for me, its superior sequel) so much fun. The Max Payne games are, simply put, more fun and easy to control than a significant portion of every other single game ever released. I think it’s awesome that Remedy are doing what they’re doing, showing up huge developers (or smaller arms of huge developers) with their fun. “small,” and (god forbid) short games.

Max Payne 2 is Max Payne with some of the tedious stuff excised, and some less tedious stuff put in its place. In Max Payne there was the (hilariously, probably unintentionally vaginally referential) “V,” a designer drug that tore up Manhattan, and out hero’s life. In Max Payne 2, the silly dialogue and less silly dream sequences associated with V have been replaced by straight-up dreams and nightmares, all playable. They’re now long, weird-looking levels, with a bunch of vaseline smudges over the screen (and, often, screams and murmurs from the actress playing Mona Sax). That’ll do.

That’s it really. A few changes have been made to the bullet time mechanic, Max looks a bit older, and the cutscenes are now a little more “water color” looking. What matters – the guns, the combat, and the controls – are just the same: almost perfect.

Bullet Crouch!

Bullet Crouch!

Playing Max Payne, I’m reminded that when developers want to, they can create games, control schemes, and engines that respond with fluidity and rapidity to my every input. When I tell Max to dodge right while looking left, he’ll do so with alacrity. I can shoot just about anything I want, as long as I account for different levels of gun accuracy, distance, and intervening objects. The game’s limited jump is good for surmounting small obstacles and crossing short gaps: there are never anything but small obstacles and short gaps in Max Payne 2. How novel.

If I fail, or die, or take too much damage, it’s never because I had a time of it fighting the wretched controls. It’s always because I wasn’t quick enough on the draw, because I mistimed that bullet-dive, because I dropped that grenade this side of that explosive box, and not on the other side. It’s because I failed a test of skill against the game’s inhabitants and combat arenas, not the game’s controls. When was the last time I could say that about a game? Certainly, this can be attributed (somewhat) to the game’s terribly simple controls. There’s no such thing as cover here, or walking, or sprinting. I can’t move while crouched; instead, moving just forces me to stand. I can move, I can enter into super slow motion firing mode, and I can bullet dive.

None of these mechanics are fiddly, or hard to activate. None of them are withheld from me (for long, in the case of bullet time). Ammo is plentiful, if you’re a good shot. Enemies are plentiful, bot not too plentiful. The environments are well-designed: each one is a bit different than the last. Sometimes I have the high ground. Sometimes three snipers will get the drop on my instantly. Sometimes the best move is to whip out my MAC-10s and slow-mo into a room and shoot every last one of those assholes. It’s simple, incredibly fun, and, dare I say it, quite elegant.

Each kill incrementally slows down time (in the sepia-toned bullet time), enemies, and the sounds they make. After three kills, I’m in The Zone (what else could I call it, in a game starring Russian criminals?). I’m still moving, shooting, and aiming at maximum speed, and my enemies move like they’re running along the bottom of a pool, they’re gestures and motions comically slow. It’s at this point that I get cocky: I’ll waste my bullets on a corpse, to watch it fly a bit farther. I’ll pick the wrong target, leaving myself open to deadly attacks. Sometimes I just plain miss, leading to damage and death, if I’m not careful. This is where the real fun of Max Payne 2 comes into play. Time to hit that reload button. In Max Payne 2, the Quicksave is your first line of defense. Use it ever other 10 seconds, when not in combat. As soon as I die, I reload. Then I sit and think awhile.

Bullet Dodge!

Bullet Dodge!

Enemies in Max Payne 2 always spawn in the same place. Always. Once I alert them, they’ll always attack me in the same way, unless I change things up a bit. If I bust down the door and start firing off shotgun rounds every time, they’ll all dodge, find cover, or shoot at me, endlessly repeating one set of responses. It’s up to me to change the narrative of each combat encounter.

Once you realize that this is how Max Payne 2 works, you’ll start playing differently: I know I did. Every combat encounter become a playground of death and lead, open to my tinkering. Maybe this time I’ll throw a grenade through the door, snipe the first guard who shows his head, and dive through the rebounding door just after the blast. Or not. Maybe I’ll miss that shot, or the grenade will bounce off the door, or the door will burst open, knocking me back. Once I get a handle on that first encounter, I can control the situation. It’s up to me to do it badly, or execute my plan to perfection (even if it’s a bad plan).

It’s no surprise to me that one popular mod (“Battle Tactics 2.0,” I believe) for Max Payne played out like a third person, slow motion version of Frozen Synapse or X-COM. A turn based mod, players had a turn to move and shoot, and following that the AI would take their turn. Max Payne 2 is best played with an eye for moment-to-moment tactics and the smart allocation of resources. Like it’s successors (the FEAR games), it gives players powerful, simple, and exciting tools with which to alter its world. They’re not much to look at, but the Baretta and the Bullet-Dodge are a lot more fun than a lot of the bullshit thrown around in recent games.

From Divinity 2 (which I do have quite a soft spot for) to Dead to Rights: Retribution (a truly hideous game), games seem content to make usability and simplicity of control last on their list of things that should actually make it into in the game. These (and many other) games aren’t great, but I honestly couldn’t care less how good they are if their controls are pure shit. I don’t quit games: I play them until I’m satisfied that I’ve sussed out what fun there is to be had in them. The one thing that will cause me to hate every second of a game is that game’s inability to make interacting with its world fun and easy. Dead to Rights‘ control scheme is infuriatingly implemented: buttons aren’t reconfigurable (and whoever configured them doesn’t possess human hands), the gunfights are slight, boring things (the feedback for landed shots is bad), and the hand-to-hand combat is difficult to get a handle on. Even when you “master” it, the PC’s inability to flow from one target to another ( I miss you Batman: AA and Among Thieves) is incredibly frustrating, and his inability to perform more than the simplest combos (thanks to constant melee/ranged attacks) is even less amusing.

Max Payne 2 is fun. The story is silly, the acting is mostly bad, and the writing is ludicrous (but wonderful, in its peculiar way, I’d argue). It’s fun though. As a gameplay experience, it’s the easiest, smoothest thing I’ve come across that isn’t 10 years old and played out in two dimensions. The camera never once failed me. The game’s animations and weapons never once foiled my plans. It’s as if someone made a game that was meant to make my play experience fun, easy, and (to a gamer) highly intuitive. It even beats out Batman and Among Thieves, just because it’s a bit simpler; I’m, less likely to accidentally take cover or throw a stupid batarang in Max Payne 2. Why is this a rare set of qualities in a game?

4 Responses to “Max Payne 2 and the Secret of the Well-Designed Controls”

  1. Eric said

    I never finished Max Payne 2– I got frustrated at that one mission where you had to protect the guy dressed in a silly mascot costume packed with explosives. I must have seen a hundred times that game-over cinematic of his giant, floppy, smoking shoe landing after the blast.

    But I did love it otherwise, for all the reasons you mention.

    • deckard47 said

      I just played that bit, since it’s near the end. I got through it by tons of quick load/saving and memorizing enemy groupings. It’d be a real barrier to replaying on super hard mode (to get the secret ending!). A lot of bad scripting too (Vinnie getting stuck on the world, etc.). Still, incredibly fun.

      • Eric said

        All right, maybe I’ll have to dig it up and give it another go. Although it will have to come after Prince of Persia, which I’ve wanted to play ever since I read your article on its character development on GSW, but never bought until just today.

  2. [...] while ago, I wrote a little bit about why the Max Payne games were so great. Mostly, I talked about those games’ excellent, [...]

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