"So we get a corridor shooter with a bunch of set pieces. These will do in a bind. The early bits are the best, on the crowded streets of Shanghai, chasing a pantless couple, or pinned down by the cops in a video rental store, or gunfire shredding the flimsy wooden panels of a gaudy restaurant, or threading through a stretch of jammed chaotic freeway. Expect a lot of filler between these cool bits, usually in a warehouse or parking garage or something."
Kane and Lynch 2 is a latter day Max Payne. The Max Payne developers at Remedy had their own slightly clunky take on American action tropes, and they built a memorable shooter around those tropes. It wasn't great, but it was good enough. It knew enough about satisfying gunplay to keep things interesting for the six hours or so it took to play through to the end. It was short, furious, and memorable enough.
That's what I kept thinking about while playing through the similarly short, furious, and memorable enough Kane and Lynch 2. The developers at Io Interactive aren't so much interested in typical action movie tropes. These aren't really ex-cops avenging their murdered families. They're more like, well…I'm not sure there's an easy analog in American action movies. In fact, the game itself isn't quite sure what to do with these two guys. So it just drops them into a Max Payne-esque competent, over-the-top, action movie shooter, and then squeezes little bits of supposed character development into the gaps between the shooting.
It's a shame Io doesn't trust these characters a bit more. We get all too brief cutscenes, as if they're worried the players are going to go play a Call of Duty if they don't hurry up and get to the shooting. Ironically enough, the best bits of character development are shoved onto the loading screens, where you hear cell phone calls. These are mostly calls to other characters, where you only hear one side of the conversation. In the middle of the game, there's even an instance of "ass dialing", which is a wonderful gimmick. And then the cell phone concept is entirely abandoned. Why isn't Io confident enough to see through what they've started? Early on, Lynch gingerly moves his sleeping girlfriend's legs off his lap. You can afford more of that, Io. And your game will be all the better.
The story is nearly a mirror of the first game, swapping the roles of Kane and Lynch in terms of trying to save a girl in peril. The first game played cleverly with Lynch's psychosis, but that's entirely missing here. Instead, he's just pissed off. And understandably so, since we get the equivalent of Max Payne's dead baby scene to give Lynch his motivation. It's unnecessary because it's so fast, gratuitous, and unearned. Whatever, Io. I get that you're trying to be all grim and dark, naked and bleeding in the rain. Fair enough. But take a little time to breathe, to give the grimness context, to show us who these people are and why we should care. You've done the legwork. These two guys are inherently interesting because they're so different. Because of that, what happens to them already matters at least as much as what happens to the faceless protagonist nuked in Modern Warfare 2 or the cipher we played in Bioshock. Those games had story first and put in mostly blank spots for the characters. Kane and Lynch does it the other way around and then can't really be bothered with the story.
So we get a corridor shooter with a bunch of set pieces. These will do in a bind. The early bits are the best, on the crowded streets of Shanghai, chasing a pantless couple, or pinned down by the cops in a video rental store, or gunfire shredding the flimsy wooden panels of a gaudy restaurant, or threading through a stretch of jammed chaotic freeway. Expect a lot of filler between these cool bits, usually in a warehouse or parking garage or something. Some solid later bits play out in an office building, but once the helicopters sub-bosses show up, my eyes kind of glaze over. I think I officially ODed on helicopter bosses about five years ago. When Kane and Lynch 2 wraps up as an homage to the finale in Heat, it still doesn't trust itself to stay on the tarmac, plunging into a confused maze of tunnels before ending with a unique take on riding off into the sunset. Ah, those Shangai nights.
But what ultimately redeems Kane and Lynch 2 from its own linearity, mediocrity, and narrative neglect is the visual aesthetic. The graphics are shaky – good lord, I nearly threw up numerous times – and the lighting streaks and the screen breaks into pixelated chunks and compression artifacts. Remember lens flare? Remember how it was all the rage to make graphics more realistic by modeling an imperfection we associate with movie and TV cameras? This is the far truer 21st century version of that. It's ugly and inexpensive, as if seen through a cheap digitial video camera, carried somewhat carelessly, or even put on the seat beside you, and then compressed and posted to YouTube. It's all so brave and unforgettable. This is the aesthetic of the amateur, the aesthetic of the imperfect, of the ugly, of the low budget. If I see a more striking game in 2010, this will be a very good year indeed.
The gunplay itself is good enough, if not unremarkable. It sounds great and the animation is really nice, all in your face as befits such a third-person game. The shooting is drawn out by the assumption that Kane and Lynch are crappy shots. This is not the tactical precision of trained soldiers in Call of Duty. It's a couple of schlubs spraying bullets madly, hollering and cowering and breathing hard. It is to other shooters what Die Hard was to the glib Schwarzenegger, Norris, and Van Damme action movies of the 80s. The guns are loud and they hurt. When they hit, that is. Keep trying. You'll eventually hit something. Or die trying, at which point you'll find the checkpoints are friendly enough.
As a multiplayer game, Kane and Lynch 2 is about as confused and ambitious as the first game. A Cops and Robbers team mode should satisfy the usual deathmatch crowd. But the real selling point is still a mode called Fragile Alliance, in which you and up to seven other players shoot your way to a getaway vehicle. Along the way, you have to carry out as much loot as you can, which will be split among the survivors. This means the fewer survivors, the more loot you get and the more points you score. But if you turn on your buddies directly, they'll turn on you. And when they die, they respawn as cops. It's a nice twist with cool options for how things play out. It recalls the clever gameplay modes from the underrated Aliens vs. Predator games, but without the complex asymmetry of different races. It's just you, them, a few dozen cops, and the gun you use to navigate them all, played out in successive four-minute rounds. A sadly underdeveloped weapon upgrade system plays you from one round to the next (here more than anywhere else, the controls ported over from the console version really get the in way). Fragile Alliance would make a fantastic LAN match among friends, but this game doesn’t offer multiple installs on a LAN and there's no way to play with fewer than four people. Like so many things about Kane and Lynch, Io Interactive can't quite see the multiplayer though to its potential brilliance. Instead we get a game that is simultaneously far better than it should have been and not quite as good as it could be.
Freelance review by Tom Chick (August 23, 2010)
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