Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Let's Be Honest here: the first Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, was rubbish. The general atmosphere was one of disbelief that such a rancid turd could be flushed out of the game pipe over at 10 Interactive, developers of the beloved Hitman series.
Dead Men was just really boring, a real slap in the face for their fans. The storyline and its setting had so much potential, but the actual game just felt so wrong on nearly every level. So. it was with a great deal of trepidation that I was shovelled into an expensive hotel in Aldwych, into a darkened room where Hakam Abrack, producer on Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, was poised and ready to accept me, and my questions. Abrack's job was to explain to me why we should all care about Kane & Lynch 2 and it's now my job to confirm whether it's worth keeping an eye on as well.
The plot was the good bit from the first game, the sole shining beacon of light emanating from the foul depths of its dark soul. It took a lot of its inspiration from stylised crime/action films like Michael Mann's Heat, so much so that it even effectively copied that bit where they rob the bank and shoot it out with the cops in the midst of a load of cars.
Hide And Seek
This time out, it seems that 10 are still going for a glossy action movie feel, except in microcosm rather than broad strokes. Kane & Lynch 2 is more about capturing the feeling of intensity in small-scale set pieces. So, for example, it's all about diving behind a bit of cover (yes, it has a cover system like the first game - make of that what you will) that gets blown to bits around you, forcing you to scramble elsewhere.
"It's not a 100% damage model," Abrack pipes up. "We've spent a lot of time making things destructible to support the intense feel, but obviously it has an impact on gameplay in terms of cover being destroyed, like if you fall down behind some and it starts to break up. There's lots of a bottles and some scenes where you get shot by very heavy gunnery and everything just explodes around you. which gives a very cinematic feel."
And yet the game is set in the bustling metropolis of Shanghai, a place with a population of over 20 million people. The ideal place to hide in. according to Abrack, which is what the whole premise of Kane & Lynch is - hiding from people who want to nail your head to the floor.
So why the 'And yet...' beginning? Well, despite the attempts to take so much influence from Western films, the setting itself has, interestingly, shaped the very flavour of the action. "Yeah, it has a lot of the feel of Hong Kong action films. It's been discussed during the usability tests that it feels a lot like Hong Kong action movies," says Abrack. "I think it's not a one-to-one inspiration between the games and the movies, though." "Certain features are inspired by some of the American movies, like the Down But Not Dead feature, like when you're behind some cover and it breaks, or you move round a corner and get shot, you can fall down but kill the guy anyway, then perhaps start crawling about looking for cover and so on. It really prolongs the intensity of the game without you dying all the time.
Down But Not Dead is basically a second chance feature, seen in the likes of Borderlands. Take too much damage (K&L2 has a magic regenerating health system) and you'll end up downed, but you'll get the chance to take revenge and whack the guy who clipped you.
Whether it is entirely focused on killing someone to get a second wind is unknown, though. Perhaps you can crawl to cover and gradually 'get better'. It wasn't obvious from the material we were shown.
Strangely then, for a game with a focus on intense action and all that cover system/regenerating health gubbins, there's talk about focusing heavily on realism. Surely this is just a buzzword, due to the presence of these much-derided staples of the third-person action-shooter genre?
"There's always a trade-off, where if we were to go 100% real then it would damage the gameplay, so obviously we're trying to get as close as possible to 'real' without taking the fun out of it," Abrack says. "We have to balance fun and reality at the same time."
Some of the tilings that made the first game so execrable have been removed in order to focus more heavily on this 'realism' thing. The 'order Lynch about' aspect, which was just miserably awkward in the first one, has been ditched. And not just because you'll actually be playing the semi-bald nutter in the sequel.
"This time you'll be playing Lynch, the self-medicated psycho character, in the single-player, and you've kind of got this guy with a camera following him around capturing the action, so you're not going to see stuff like cops with pig heads running around. You still have to keep that realism feel, but when you complete the game, you'll have no doubt this guy's a psycho." No pig cops? Damn you, IO! But seriously, he makes an interesting point about the camera, the most distinctive element of Kane & Lynch 2 that you might already know about. If not, it's that the viewpoint will be all YouTube-video shaky, like a guy is videotaping the proceedings with a handheld camera. (Shades of Man Bites Dog it seems -who'd have pegged IO for fans of obscure Belgian cinema?) Perversely, this guy then follows Lynch about into blazing fire-fights. Presumably there are a number of suicidal home video enthusiasts in Slianghai that we've not heard about. The shakiness raises a question, though. What about motion sickness?
"We've done a lot of testing on that as well in the usability tests," Abrack explains. "It was one of the factors we were tracking, so I think, to put it shortly, playing Kane & Lynch 2 is like a bumpy ride in a car, a lot worse for the passenger than for the guy driving it.
"When you play the game, you discover that people can play with the camera's shakiness for a long time without getting nauseous, but we have put in the possibility in the options to turn it off, if you want. So yeah, it's a lot easier to play than look at, like when you run, the camera looks like it's controlling you, but it's not. If you're looking at a point and heading towards that point, you'll get to that point, even if it doesn't look like that." It seems there's been a lot of testing to make sure Kane & Lynch 2 comes out well, but does that just mean 10 will be pissing on the chips of the PC users as so many others have in the past? Well, by the looks of it, absolutely not "With the first game, there was one team covering all the platforms. Obviously, you'll end up primarily working on one platform, but this time around we've got a team on each one, including the PC.
It's Not A Port
"They've been spending a lot of time on the visuals and the unique visual style we have takes a lot of energy to get right on the PC, because of the higher resolution textures. "At the same time, having the higher quality textures, you also have to have higher quality filters and stuff that go right through. They'll also be working on the controls, so it doesn't just feel like a port, so you shouldn't feel like you must use a control pad, making them feel natural for PC players.
And with that, a sack was roughly shoved onto my head and I was bundled out of the hotel in disgrace. I don't know why they put the sack on me, I knew where I was, but anyway, I escaped with my life and have told you a tale of a game filled with potential wonder, interesting China-based shootings and lots of murder.
Kane is still there, but Lynch is your anti-hero now, and various nefarious organisations are trying to kill them yet again. It's all as it was, except for the fact that, this time, Kane & Lynch might actually be good.
Download Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
The Gruesome Two Some are nearly at the point where they have to earn their money, putting a reputation earned despite a deeply average first game on the line. There'll be no third chances, 10 have to get things right this time round.
As of the time of writing, we've been able to get our hands on one element of the game, the story mode, with the PC multiplayer element still tantalisingly unavailable for playtesting. So ignoring the potentially great online modes, it's time to stride into the prerelease build of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days to see if things are shaping up or falling apart.
The first thing we noticed was the camera, the much talked about shaky-cam footage is meant to make things look like you're behind the anti-heroes, filming everything they do. You're meant to think beyond the, "Hang on, why is this guy hanging around in the middle of a gun battle?'', mentality and suspend your disbelief for a bit.
Best Of Enemies
The levels we've been privy to suggest this approach isn't an ill-judged piece of marketing, it really does make the now-standard third-person over-the-shoulder view much more interesting because of its unique take on things. It won't be a surprise if a number of other games come out adopting this feature as if their developers pioneered it.
The game is panning out as expected, though. No amount of graphical trickery, image artefacts or jerky cameras can hide the relatively straightforward run-and-shoot action. What does seem to have worked is a variation on Gears of War's "downed" mechanic. In Dog Days you can be knocked to the ground, but not be out of the action. A quick tap of the C key forces Lynch, the shine-topped lunatic who you control in the single-player game, to crawl or drag himself to cover in order to recuperate.
If there's no cover available, you can get up and try to get there, which is obviously much harder. This seems to work, giving you another chance in case you balls up and run too far into danger. It's pleasing to note that you go down relatively frequently, especially on the game's default Difficulty setting.
Even for us keyboard warriors, the game seems to be very well balanced, although this could be attributed to the inaccurate nature of the weapons. Pistols appear to be much more than throwaway early game guns, remaining useful as the game progresses due to their high accuracy compared to commonplace Uzis and shotguns. Another pleasing turn up is the plot, which is already gripping enough to make us want to see more. The voice acting on show is stellar, really convincing stuff, and the whole setting, plus the camera work, draws you in and makes you feel as if you're part of a film. Cliched as it might be to say that, it's true. There's always a sense of frantic pace, with time between skirmishes flitting past beautifully.
The set up of the second chapter is especially intense, with the cutscene camcorder footage making the transition back to the normal game seamless, keeping the all-important flow going and really sucking you into the events unfolding on-screen.
Call A Builder
The verdict is definitely a qualified thumbs up. Worries about whether the devs could step up after the disappointment of the first game have proved, so far, unfounded, and their boasts about the camera style have similarly proved to be rooted in fact. Niggles still remain - the camera doesn't hide the game's blatant console roots, with the almost hilariously contrived structure of some areas screaming "built for cover" at you.
At one point you come across a ledge overlooking a wrecked building beneath. It's a maze of low-lying walls that, one would hazard a guess, would never exist in real life.
In general, though, we can't wait to get stuck into the full version of Dog Days, both to see what happens in the plot and to finally see what the multiplayer side is all about.
Not sure why I should give a flying fuck about this game. The first one was a passable crim-sim, but by no means the last word in third-person shooting. Few stand-out moments and then it literally lost the plot and buggered off to Cambodia or something in the final third. Besides, I play games to escape from being a balding old fart who spends his time wandering around in his pants - why would I want to play one?
The visual style really does make a huge difference to the experience. It's what turns this from an average shooter into something that's consistently surprising. It's not just the YouTube-style effects, which as a gimmick never really outstays its welcome, but also the choice of Shanghai as a location and the density of detail in the environments. If you sit i and stare at the game for a while, it's not the prettiest in the world, but the combination of all the effects and the visual density means it feels like a real place. In the end, in spite of everything that's layered on top of the graphics, they're all designed to make it look like footage so it usually feels understated rather than obtrusive.
The shaky cam stuff is brill. It's like Crank: The Game. Only without that mockney Neanderthal idiot Statham.
I reckon that Crank's a pretty good pop-culture comparison, and it shares a similar breakneck pace with K&L2. It's hardly surprising that the game starts with a chase, because the gritty guerilla style, particularly the shaky cam sprinting, gives everything a sense of urgency. Having said that, the pace doesn't really vary at all, it's always a slow start followed by a massive shitstorm of bullets. It can get tiring.
It makes me feel sick. Why do I want to play a game where the cameraman is staggering around like a hammered tramp?
That's why there's an option switch it off, idiot.
The biggest problem with K&L2 is that in spite of all these fancy effects, the action is still just a shooting gallery. You hide behind cover and then you wait for the enemies to pop their heads up so you can click on them. Occasionally they'll flank you, but most of the time you're both pinned behind cover and pogoing up and down. It's like being in a gunfight from a bad spaghetti western.
Tiey do mix it up every so often. The section where you're trying to protect a limo as it crawls through a freeway full of wrecked vehicles adds a bit of flavour. There's that helicopter mounted gun bit too, but it goes on too long and with all the bullets and rockets flying around it's more confusing than quantum physics. By and large though you eventually share Lynch's frustrations that the entire city of Shanghai seems to be attempting to kill you.
Yes! That section's actually pretty horrific. All the really nasty stuff is pixellated out, but again it's almost more shocking because the game has that understated, visual style. It really does look like shocking footage found on a cameraphone in the tiled basement of a psychopath.
I can't believe no-one's mentioned the co-op yet. It was split screen only last time, and even then only worked if you had an Xbox pad shakes fist at GFWL but this time it's got proper online co-op. The multiplayer modes are brilliant this time around as well. Fragile Alliance is back, but there's a new one where o.ne player is an undercover cop who has to avoid being detected but can't shoot any police. It's unique and definitely worth a look.
Ultimately, while it might look like style over substance, in Kane & Lynch 2 the style is the substance, and it's enough to keep you interested during shooting that might otherwise have become dull a lot sooner. Things could have been improved by not just falling back on levels full of crates at certain points and shaking up the behaviour of the enemies you face, but the story barrels along and the art direction is consistently impressive. It's not often you find a game that's more than the sum of its parts but Kane & Lynch 2 falls into that category.
The Best Thing about the original Kane & Lynch was the multiplayer game, Fragile Alliance. It was a great idea - stick a bunch of treacherous psychotics in a Heat-style bank raid - that was let down by a mediocre single-player game that put people off ever venturing online.
Those few who did try out Fragile Alliance were more than likely to love it and there was even a representative of the fanboy (or in this case, fangirl) community at the swanky London pub Square Enix were demonstrating the multiplayer component of the sequel in. Naturally, your proud and honest representatives easily defeated the assembled competition, even while scribbling notes down on an abused notepad at the same time.
We learned some things, compiled them into bullet point form, and have presented them to you here.
Up to eight players can team up to search for the riches contained in the level. Pleasingly, each character has a comedy accent, making in-mission dialogue amusingly diverting. As you can see, one even has a rancid red tracksuit bottoms/tweed jacket combo, which is hardly inconspicuous heist garb. The less said about the leather-jacketed guy, the better, and the one behind Tracksuit Jim seems to be wearing plus-fours. Perhaps sartorial elegance isn't important when you ransack fish markets for a living.
Once your team has pilfered the pennies, it's time to make an escape. It's no cakewalk, with police cops being despatched to gun you down as you flee. In some modes, dead robbers will re-spawn as cops making the escape even more challenging.
There will be a half-dozen multiplayer maps when the game ships and 10 are remaining tight-lipped about whether more will follow. One of the most distinctive is set in a Shanghai fish market, where a massive shipment of valuable stuff is lying around for you to steal. A handful of guards protect it but the most dangerous people are your teammates, as one might betray the team, steal the haul, and rush to freedom for personal glory.
State Of Love And Trust
Kane & Lynch's multiplayer is all about betrayal and trust. If the team works together, the total loot is split equally the round's end. But those with a bit more ambition can gun down a teammate and steal his money. Once he's does this, he's on his own and can be shot with impunity, but he also has a chance of making off with a much larger haul.
Watch Your Back
Once inside the escape vehicle you can hold it for your friends, just let it go in its own time, or bribe the driver to leave, splitting your money with him and securing you a bigger haul. Rushing for the escape vehicle is also the time when you're most likely to pounced on by a supposed friend and have all of your cash nicked, so you will have to keep your wits about you as you flee.
The most intriguing mode on display was Undercover Cop. In this game, a random player is picked to be the filth. There's no way of knowing who it is other than observing your team's movements. Is one guy hanging around the back too much or sprinting ahead? The undercover cop can't be shot by the police, but he can't kill them, so checking out teammates during shootouts is important. The undercover has strict rules governing his behaviour, but if he succeeds in eliminating all the robbers before they escape, the rewards are his and his alone. Fear and distrust are palpable in this mode, so cops can let the robbers take each other out as paranoia takes hold of them.
The Plot Of the first Kane & Lynch was almost as unhinged as its pill-popping psycho star Lynch. Starting off as a Michael Mann-inspired crime caper, it hit players with a crunching third act gear change that switched from gritty urban slay- grounds to plugging an army of mercenaries in Havana and orienteering through the jungles of Venezuela. The game couldn't have been any more schizophrenic if it had featured a horse juggling mini-game and insisted on referring to Kane as Sheila in every third mission. Come to think of it, that might actually have pushed its score up.
10 reckon that for the sequel, they had to make the choice between these two sides of the game's personality: either going for the seedy underbelly of a modern metropolis. Thankfully they decided to take the action to Shanghai rather than farting out an insipid camo-clad clone of Modem Warfare.
One thing that hasn't been clear up until now is whether the game's distinctive, YouTube aping shakey-cam style would cause us to blast vomit all over our monitors the first time we dared to finger the sprint button.
No Barf Here
Having now had a chance to play the game for ourselves, we can officially confirm that your lunch should stay safely contained in your digestive tract; unless you're rocking the kind of hangover that can only be cured by injecting bacon directly into your heart. That doesn't mean K&L's shaky cam isn't disorientating, and occasionally we had to slow down to avoid clumsily staggering into doorframes as we legged it through the levels. Fortunately as soon as you bring your gun up to take aim, the game knocks off the juddering nonsense and becomes a crisp and pacey cover shooter.
In a way the switch is almost too rapid, as if you make quick direction changes behind cover, Lynch dashes back and forth like an overexcited kitten. This responsiveness is no doubt something we'll be thankful for in the long run, but in our first five minutes of play, we didn't feel like a particularly slick hitman.
As for the rest of the visual treatment, it's pervasive but never obtrusive. Even the cutscenes are riddled with the kind of jump cuts you see on badly edited home movies. During one ; sequence we were shown, an entire conversation is filmed from a camera resting on the hack seat of a car.
At the point when that car is hit by another vehicle, there's a moment of utter confusion as the occupants and camera are thrown around.
Once you're in control, the generally subtle effects of compression blocking and overexposure actually distract from the engine's deficiencies, most notably the low-detail character models. In neat touches, every time you get hit, the video rfeed corrupts and blood splatters on the lens and when an explosion occurs, entire portions of the screen will freeze and distort, gradually returning to normal as the camera recovers from the shock.
Life On A Lens
As for whether Dog Days looks good or not is a tough call, because the aesthetic is constantly evolving. Overall we're in favour but while sometimes the combination of effects is perfectly pitched, other times it dips into the realms of the distinctly average.
Set the gimmicks aside, though, and Dog Days appears to be shaping up as a solid shooter. Some of the scripted moments during a sequence where you're picking your way through a car crash on a highway are suitably dramatic, and elements like destructible cover and the ability to improvise by lobbing explosive elements of the environment at your enemies keep things spicy.
Best of all, even if you can't stand the churning camera work during the sprinting, there's a Steadicam option in the menu that will calm things down. It still remains to be seen how we feel once the novelty has worn off and we spend several hours with these initially pleasing mechanics, but the team at 10 have taken what could have been an Identikit shooter sequel and attempted something with a radically different style to anything else out there'right now. For that alone they should be applauded.