Why Max Payne 2 Is Still the Best Action Movie Simulator Ever

Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne is still the best companion piece to your favorite action movie.

Max Payne 2.
Photo: Rockstar Games

Control developer Remedy Entertainment has recently announced that they’ve entered into an agreement with Rockstar Games that will allow them to remake 2001’s Max Payne and 2003’s Max Payne 2: The Fall of Max Payne. Not much else is known about the project at this time, but Remedy intends to treat the remakes of the games that helped put them on the map as “typical Remedy AAA productions.” For right now, though, those remakes are only in the “concept development stage.”

This is one of those announcements that once felt like it was never going to happen. Between the Max Payne games’ disappointing sales (or at least the Max Payne sequels’ disappointing sales), Rockstar’s ownership of the franchise rights, and the many failures of the 2008 Max Payne movie, the entire franchise has lingered in a strange space for quite some time. The games are famous, readily available, and obviously influential, but Rockstar has never seemed eager to return to them in any way. The most anyone seemed to be willing to hope for was an eventual remaster of the games that would hopefully be better than the recent GTA Trilogy remasters

Now, though, Max Payne fans can finally rest easier with the knowledge that Remedy Entertainment is finally getting the chance to give these games the respect they deserve. More importantly, those fans can rest easy with the knowledge that a new generation of gamers and those that missed the Max Payne games the first time around will be able to discover why Max Payne 2 is still the best action movie “simulator” ever made. 

Max Payne 2’s Use of the Havok Engine is Beautiful, Chaotic, and Wonderfully Ridiculous

First off, I should make it clear that the decision to highlight Max Payne 2 in this article isn’t meant to be an insult towards the original Max Payne (or Max Payne 3 for that matter). Max Payne 2 obviously wouldn’t exist without Max Payne, and many of the things that make the sequel great were clearly borrowed from its revolutionary predecessor. 

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At its heart, Max Payne 2 is still the Matrix-inspired bullet time-driven shooter with an over-the-top noir story that the original game was. Much like its predecessor, the game’s biggest draw is the ability to fill your pockets with guns, run into a room of bad guys, slow down the world around you, and perform acrobatic moves that allow you to overcome impossible odds. 

Much like many of the best sequels, though, Max Payne 2 improved upon its predecessor in ways both great and small. It removed the original game’s divisive platforming-based dream sequences, it refined the series’ bullet time mechanics by making them smoother and more dynamic, and, in a stroke of absolute brilliance, it incorporated the relatively new Havok physics engine. 

Introduced in 2000, the Havok physics engine helped popularize “ragdoll physics” that made more dynamic environmental interactions and character animations possible. In the beginning, it was primarily used by racing game developers interested in making digital vehicles move around tracks more realistically. It wasn’t until 2003 that we saw more action titles (including Armed and Dangerous and Deus Ex: Invisible War) really start to play with the ways that the Havok engine could enhance shootouts and eliminate the necessity of static death animations. However, both those games strongly suggested that developers were still figuring out how to get the most out of the technology.  

That makes it all the more impressive that Max Payne 2 made the power and potential of the Havok physics engine abundantly clear within the game’s opening five minutes.

The very first enemy you encounter in Max Payne 2 is standing in front of shelves, boxes, and other random items. It’s clear that this encounter was designed as an early showcase (perhaps even a “show off”) of Max Payne 2‘s use of the Havok engine. That enemy will almost always fall into those items in a way that will always be slightly different depending on how you shoot them and how the engine dictates they’re going to fall.

There’s a funny kind of “proud parent” vibe about that early sequence. The prospect of working with a ragdoll physics system that allowed enemy limbs to move independently and interact with nearby objects clearly made Remedy giddy, and they didn’t even care that the engine would sometimes go rogue and cause objects to go flying through the air in a wildly unrealistic fashion. 

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Indeed, you soon realize that a big part of the reason why Max Payne 2 made the Havok engine work to its advantage is because of Remedy’s willingness to embrace the chaos of what the engine offered in its earliest stages. At a time when some developers were still trying to figure out how Havok could be used to make their games more realistic, Remedy seemed more interesting in using the technology to see how many scenarios they could create that allowed players to gawk at the absurd results of nearly every gunfight. 

How else can you explain the logic behind another early sequence in which Max shoots a bad guy conveniently standing at the top of some stairs and in front of a large stack of cardboard boxes? Remedy’s willingness to embrace the logic-be-damned nature of the world they created put them in the perfect position to also realize that the earliest versions of the Havok physics engine happened to be the perfect tool for creating some truly wild action set-piece playgrounds.

Half-Life 2 would soon become the poster child of the Havok engine (rightfully so) and help usher in a new era of games that used the technology to really rethink the fundamentals of video game design. To this day, though, I don’t believe I’ve ever played another action game that recognized the wonderful ridiculousness of the Havok engine quite the way that Max Payne 2 did. Of course, much of the game’s success in that respect can be attributed to its absolute best feature…

Max Payne 2 Features the Best Level Design in Action Game History

I alluded to this in the section above, but if the original Max Payne had one glaring weakness, it was its level design. While those aforementioned dream sequences tend to attract the most venom, there were a few other levels in Max Payne that ended up feeling like a chore. Even action-heavy sections like a trip through a shipyard soon devolved into a confusing slog lowlighted by drab environments and half-hearted puzzle sequences. 

Seemingly aware of that shortcoming, Remedy went back to the drawing board with Max Payne 2 and came up with some of the absolute best level design concepts I’ve seen in an action game (or any other game for that matter). 

Again, a big part of the reason Max Payne 2’s level design works as well as it does is because Remedy was seemingly aware that the best thing they could do with the potent combination of bullet time mechanics, smooth third-person shooting, and Havok engine physics that they were working with was to create action movie-like playgrounds. So many of Max Payne’s shootouts are conveniently located next to scaffoldings, stacks of random objects, and other things enemies can hilariously interact with whenever you send them flying into them. The remaining action scenes are usually set in environments that really allow you to explore the room and play with the various (and often hilarious) ways you can wipe out mobs of mobsters. Do you dive over the table and shoot them in the knees with a shotgun to watch what the physics engine does, or do you run in with dual Uzis blazing and see how quickly you can mow everyone down? There’s an almost puzzle-like exploration quality to the game’s action, and nearly every level in the game was designed to encourage you to play with the possibilities rather than showcase however the developers intended for you to survive these scenarios.

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There’s a “rewatchable” element to the whole experience that echoes the rewatchability of some of the best action movies ever made. Much like how I can almost always pop in Die Hard, John Wick, Hard Boiled, or The Raid: Redemption and eventually lose myself in the beauty of their choreographed chaos no matter how many times I’ve seen them, I often find myself replaying Max Payne 2’s action sequences even after I’ve “completed them” just to see what happens. The first game occasionally inspired a similar desire, but Max Payne 2’s level design ensures that you’re always left wondering what could have happened if things had gone just slightly differently.

The most that even very good action games can hope for is to make you feel like an established action hero as you play through one of those choreographed scenes. The Terminator games want you to feel like the Terminator, Die Hard games want you to be John McClane, and Stranglehold wants to make you feel like “Tequila” Yuen. Well, Max Payne 2 wants you to feel like the action star, the director, and the choreographer. It’s whatever action movie you want it to be and then some.

Much like how some of the best action movies ever made use style and solid (if not always great) storytelling to elevate themselves above the “dumb fun” label some like to burden them with, the personality of Max Payne 2’s levels only strengthens your desire to dive into them once more. It’s easy (and fun) to mock the game’s overly-dramatic dialog and noir-inspired caricatures, but Max Payne 2 is so much more than a parody. From its in-universe TV shows (such as the wonderful “Address Unknown”) to its surprisingly heartfelt love story, every Max Payne 2 level is filled with little details and personality traits that enhance the action at the heart of this experience. Max Payne 2 even manages to make an escort mission tolerable by dressing up your ward in cosplay and basing much of the level around their obsession with an almost Calvin-like figure known as Captain Baseball Bat Boy. 

Little touches like that not only elevate Max Payne 2’s action above its predecessor and successor but above pretty much every other shooter out there as well. 

Max Payne 2 Is Still The Best Game to Play After You’ve Watched Your Favorite Action Movie

To be perfectly honest with you, I love most of the “Max Payne rip-offs” released in the wake of the original game even though most of them turned out to be pretty bad. Some of those titles came pretty close to offering what Max Payne did (such as Stranglehold) but a wave of Max Payne-like games such as Dead to Rights, Total Overdose, and Made Man ultimately flooded the bullet time shooter market and contributed to a growing sense of fatigue towards the entire concept.

It wasn’t long before developers simply stopped trying to make shooters like Max Payne. You’ll occasionally see one pop up on the indies or the Double-A scene, but the upcoming Max Payne remakes really are the first major productions in a long time that will try to revive that style in a meaningful way. Even the recent John Wick game adaptation ended up being a (very impressive) puzzle strategy game. 

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Even if there were more modern Max Payne-like games out there, though, I doubt that any of them would be able to surpass the style, level design, and airtight action gameplay that made Max Payne 2 so special. After all, a wave of copycats produced at the height of the genre failed to dethrone the king, and even Max Payne 3 arguably missed the mark. 

Because of that, Max Payne 2 is still the game I turn to whenever I’ve just seen a great action movie and want to channel that adrenaline into something interactive. I always love that feeling when a great movie inspires you to play a game that reminds you of it, and I’ve always been impressed/surprised that the one film genre that inspires that feeling more than any other is still best represented by a six-hour (generously) game made in 2003. 

I can’t wait to see what Remedy does with the Max Payne remakes, and I have faith in their ability to update two timeless games for the modern age. Just in case the worst comes to pass, though, do yourself a favor and go watch your favorite action movie, download Max Payne 2 on your preferred platform, and tell me if you can find any other game that feels like a more worthwhile companion piece to the best cinematic action experiences. A part of me hopes that you will so that I can finally let Max rest, but I think you’ll find that there’s just never been anything that really offers what Max Payne 2 does.