Thursday, November 06, 2003

I finished Max Payne 2 this morning. The story was fantastic. I loved it. It filled me with a wonderful, IG-esque sense of horror and anger at the way the world is broken, yet fulfillment and satisfaction that after all is said and done we have not given in, that we have refused to trade a vision of the world for which humans were made for a vision of the world in which we actually live. I don't want to say more than that because it will spoil things, but if you've played the game I'd love to gush with you about the story. If you liked Max Payne 1 you need to own this game.

Gameplay-wise it is the same thing, improved by about the amount you would expect given the elapsed time between the two games and consequent improvement of practical technological capacity. But the gameplay was good, and it remains good. It has also gotten better in a few notable ways. For one thing the weapons you have vary more thanks to the way they tell the story, so you do end up using lots of different guns. Generally speaking the ammo capacities of your weapons are corrected towards the side of reality. Rates of fire have also been tweaked - your automatic weapons fire slower than I know they are capable, but I think on the whole they fire more realistically. Sure a MAC M10 can pump out 1100 rpm, but who could hold it steady? So unlike MP1, where you could unload your Ingrams more or less at the full rate of fire, in MP2 you automatically fire bursts. I appreciate things like that, and it doesn't actually seem out of place at all juxtaposed with firing a .357 Desert Eagle one-handed (or rather, firing two one-handed). I mean, it's an action movie. In a good action movie we expect to see SPAS-12s, MAC M10s firing bursts, and people wielding two Desert Eagle Mark XIXs. Check, check, and check.

The interactivity of the environment and the ways in which characters respond to bullets are all quite satisfying. It's very nifty to whack someone with your SVD and watch them actually go tumbling head over heels into the dirt, or watch someone stagger back into a pile of boxes and have it collapse on them. Or, for that matter, go flying through that same pile of boxes, guns blazing. And then of course there's bullet time. Bullet time has been differentiated into two different maneuvers now: regular bullet time and shootdodging. Shootdodging consumes no bullet time and has the obvious advantage of letting you shoot while dodging - plus, now, the ability to stay prone and keep shooting. On the other hand it takes a moment to get up from being prone, and your slow-motion effect is at a fixed rate. With regular bullet time you can reload very quickly and your slow-motion effect can get even slower, but on the other hand you're not dodging as effectively and you don't have an unlimited amount of it. The two maneuvers are useful in very different circumstances, I find, and that's very nice. People are also no longer invincible while shootdodging, which is both satisfying and cool.

Then there's the damage model. Overall I find this satisfactory - again, for an action movie. I shudder to think how many bullets Max must have in him by the end of this game, held at bay by painkillers. But hey, we're not concerned about that, and I like the fact that some foes are obviously wearing bullet-proof vests which actually do something, while others are not and quite obviously so. The amount of punishment anybody (including you) can take is, I would say, roughly three times as many as they ought to be able to take, give or take fifty percent since I'm not 100% sure how many rounds a man can actually take. But that's darn good - say, about as realistic as Counter-Strike - compared to many games like this (e.g., Half-Life, where a man can take thirty rounds of 9mm and only end up with a limp). Where you hit or get hit has a huge impact on how much damage you inflict, and guns have satisfyingly different amounts of kick - which affects your rate of fire but also how much kick the foe feels (which in turn affects both the way he goes flying when he goes down and whether or not, and how fast, he can recover from your rounds).

Having spent so long talking about guns, I feel I should reiterate a point or two about these games. First off I should like the record to show that I do not like killing. I have very mixed feelings about actual firearms - and I daresay that, contrary to what the media periodically screams, that my increased familiarity (by way of Phoenix Earth research as well as games of all kinds) with firearms over your average American kid has given me a greater, not lesser, appreciation of the fact that these are very dangerous tools and not to be handled except by people of character, any more than you should give a man the killing capability of a black belt without the discipline and character that goes with that. I wouldn't mind learning how to shoot - I think I'd probably be pretty good at it - but the thought of handling an actual firearm, even on the range and surrounded by qualified personnel, fills me with a certain amount of dread.

So what do I see in these games? Partially it is an homage to those men and women who have accepted the dreadful responsibility of the gun and all that goes with it. I am reminded of a line from Perelandra: "And at that moment, far away on Earth, as he now could not help remembering, men were at war, and white-faced subalterns and freckled corporals who had but lately begun to shave, stood in horrible gaps or crawled forward in deadly darkness, awaking, like him, to the preposterous truth that all really depended on their actions." Of course the analogy of morality to warfare is as old as the prophets, but I like the way Lewis puts it here. To me, at least, but I suspect universally, the gun is indeed a symbol - not of phallic masculinity but of dangerous morality. I am not so foolish as to believe that gunfights are like what you see in John Woo movies, or even in Stephen Spielberg movies. The reality of a gunfight, I am certain, would be completely separate. When I play these games I do not see gunfights. I see a stylized representation of the gunfight used as a symbol of force itself. And force is, I think, a Good Thing. Not for nothing is the Lord called a man of war. It is like the symbol of the knight, the good man in arms for a good cause. It is like Honor Harrington, doing the right thing whatever the cost. It is like any number of good men and women in the stories of our race who have faced the onslaught of evil - of the Evil One himself and all the horrors he has worked in our world - and decided to go to war rather than submit to the rule of darkness.

I have said earlier that these "violent" games (whether they show the violence or not) are also resonant with masculinity, and I should like to reiterate that point as well. The question at the heart of every man - "do I have what it takes?" - is answered in these games. The game whispers, "yes, you do." Of course it is only a fiction - but I am not prepared to reject it on the basis of that fact. Inspiration is valuable, whether it comes by means of fiction or not. And some games, Max Payne among them, touch on other parts of a man's soul as well - like the part which cries out for a woman to rescue, but who is morally beautiful and morally dangerous in her own right. Mona Sax is a type - a fictionally distorted type, but a type nonetheless - of such a Belle, and if I can draw some inspiration from that fiction I will. And of course there is the allegory of the adventure, of sweeping the beauty into an adventure (not that she herself is the adventure) which is shared together. That is a type and symbol of romance - and, indeed, a type of the relationship between mankind and God Himself. To be inspired by this lesser thing to the greater thing of that grand Adventure is, in my view, worth my time. "As many things as are true, as many things as are majestic, as many things as are righteous, as many things as are pure, as many things as are dear, as many things as are of good repute - if there is any excellence and any commendation, take account of these things" (Phil. 4:8).

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