Kane and Lynch: Dead Men is one of gaming’s most notorious recent entries, but not for the “usual suspects” reasons. Sure, IO Interactive’s new IP was violent and crime-ridden, but it didn’t stir up the moral furor that accompanies a GTA or even a Doom. Dead Men is infamous for the hype dust-up it instigated.
To make a long story short, Jeff Gerstmann, one of Gamespot’s most senior editors, gave the game a rather low score. Apparently there were some advertising deals behind the scenes between Gamespot and Dead Men’s publisher Eidos, and as a result of calling it straight Gerstmann got fired. Thankfully He landed on his feet, starting a new gaming website called Giant Bomb, but the whole nasty situation saddled Dead Men with more bad press than it really deserved. Yeah, it was a mediocre game with several issues, but it had some good ideas too.
While I never played it, I felt Dead Men got a bad rap for the stir it caused, so I went into the sequel, Kane and Lynch: Dog Days, with as open a mind as I could muster.
Dog Days falls squarely into the 3rd-person cover-based shooter genre kicked off by Gears of War. Most of these games are inherently designed for co-op, so I like to call them “buddy shooters.” The two buddies in this case are once again the titular Kane and Lynch. Lynch has settled down as much as is possible for a medicated psychopath, getting a girlfriend and job as a low-level enforcer in Shanghai. He rings up his old buddy Kane for one last smuggling job that is very obviously too good to be true. Once again both criminals are royal screwups, and you don’t get five minutes into the game before they’ve made a big mistake and have half of the Shanghai underworld gunning for them.
The gameplay on offer is very typical for a buddy shooter. You play as Lynch this time, and a friend or AI partner takes over for Kane as you battle through a series of cover-based firefights. The problem is this gameplay is too typical. The enemies run the gamut of hired thugs to private military security, but have little actual variety in tactics or intelligence. The weapons you pick up are pretty standard, including pistols, SMGs, assault rifles, shotguns and the occasional sniper rifle. The only real distinction between weapons is whether they come from the thugs (they invariably suck) or the military/police (they’re halfway decent).
The weapons only differ in overall accuracy, with the thug guns wildly inaccurate and the more professional guns only competent, which makes the combat rather irritating. Occasionally you’ll find a propane tank to hurl at enemies and then detonate with gunfire, but these few-and-far-between explosives are rather weak. In addition the enemies are unrealistically resilient even on easy and medium difficulty. The locusts in Gears of War were aliens and understandably hardy, but these are average scumbag thugs and rent-a-cops.
Gears of War may have similar gameplay to Dog Days but it broke it up occasionally with epic set-pieces and boss fights. Dog Days has its rote third person shooting and that’s really about it. The squad-based combat, bank heists and stealth segments in Dead Men may have gotten a lot of flack for only half-working, but instead of fixing those elements IO simply removed them altogether. What’s left is a very brief, very basic shooter that ends up feeling almost rudimentary compared to its peers in the genre. Shanghai is a suitably gritty and realistically designed setting for the game and in its own way the city is just as stark and stunning as the alien vistas in Gears, but Dog Days never does a whole lot with the setting. Aside from a few well-placed firefights and a helicopter segment toward the end, there aren’t any big moments to break up the shooting monotony and Dog Days tries to use its creative visual style to carry the entire single player campaign.Dog Days has an admittedly brilliant presentation gimmick that sets it far apart from the look of its predecessor and just about every other shooter on the market. While the world is modeled and textured in the rather bland shader-rama that has become standard for 360 shooters, several graphical filters and effects are applied to make the game look like one of those found footage movies. The whole thing looks like it was recorded by a strangely persistent bystander using a cell phone or a handycam, and then uploaded to Youtube. The view even wobbles when Lynch starts booking it, as if the person filming is trying to keep up.
Bright lights overwhelm the “camera” and smear across the screen, fast movements produce compression artifacting, a slew of different lens flares are present for all the different lighting conditions, and the screen gets speckled with bloodspots and splotches of pixilation when Lynch gets injured. When you inflict a particularly gruesome headshot the game will even censor it out with a grainy pixel mosaic, strangely making the effect more visceral than games that show the full-on gore of a shotgun to the face.
This art style is applied to everything, from the sloppy, jarring cuts in the cinematics to the opening menu. Every time you boot up the game you’ll be greeted by an eerily realistic vista—a camera view through a rain-speckled hotel room window overlooking the dreary gray Shanghai skyline, or a wind-buffeted shot of a desolate airfield. The handycam style is great but feels wasted on a game that is otherwise so stylistically empty. Why not make it part of the story, where a gutsy reporter or a Youtube douchebag with more SD cards than sense is actually following these madmen around as part of the plot? The whole time I was thinking, “Wow, this would be incredible in a District 9 game,” or “the next Call of Duty as a terrified combat photographer? Sign me up!” In fact, this grainy footage effect reminded me a lot of Manhunt, another game with a fantastic sense of style but gameplay that got repetitive and annoying.
At least Manhunt had a great premise and sort of followed through on it, but the visual style of Dog Days isn’t attached to a compelling narrative. Many critics complained that Dead Men was bad from the start because Kane and Lynch are fundamentally unlikable protagonists—career criminal sociopaths that turn everything they touch into a disaster. I’d like to counter that these guys can be great characters…but only if they are written well. These are potentially fascinating characters—the kind of psychos I wish Rockstar would man up and put in their crime thrillers—but the writing isn’t using them to even a fraction of their potential.
In terms of characterization, the bottom falls out from both Kane and Lynch’s personality rather quickly. They don’t act like nearly-unhinged murderers but more like bumbling fools; in fact, in the last third of the game they’re basically floating on wishful thinking. Halfway through the game the situation feels nonstop-desperate, to the point where you just stop caring. There are a few shining moments where you feel like a crazed man on the run, constantly hunted, but with the combat so banal and homogenous it’s hard to maintain that feeling of desperation. Unfortunately the found-footage angle prevents the story from using Lynch’s inherent psychosis. He’ll mumble to himself occasionally but you never really feel crazy. It would have been cool to play through his flashbacks or a psychotic episode or two, but since you view the game through a third person filming the action, you never get into either Kane or Lynch’s head.
After so many catastrophes, double-crosses and obviously-doomed jobs you wonder why either of these guys is putting up with the other, but there aren’t any strong feelings either way. Marcus and Dom at least had a long-standing friendship in Gears of War. You’d expect Kane and Lynch to downright despise each other at this point, or maintain a shaky, ironic friendship considering it’s them against the odds, but by the halfway point there’s nothing, just emptiness.Except for the highly innovative new visual direction, the single player story is bare-bones and thankfully brief. However, IO has done a lot to improve the multiplayer aspect of the game. Fragile Alliance mode returns from Dead Men, and if you aren’t familiar with it, just imagine an online version of the opening to Dark Knight. Four people work to pull off a bank robbery or jewel heist and make it to the extraction point alive, but once the loot has been taken, anyone can turn on their fellow thief, gun them down and claim their share of the cash. The dead player then joins the waves upon waves of police AI working to stop the criminals.
It’s a great idea and it works pretty well in Dog Days. There are also a couple variations as well. Cops and Robbers pits a team of criminals against human and AI police, while Undercover Cop starts out like Fragile Alliance, but secretly assigns one player to be the undercover detective at the beginning of the match. This player’s job is to sabotage the heist by covertly picking off his team members without getting found out.
These multiplayer ideas are still creative a couple years later and the additions flesh the basic concept out nicely, but you’re still playing the same basic thing as the single player with all the same flaws. Combat is simplistic and repetitive, the guns are only halfway effective and with only six maps, the novelty of the heist scenario wears off quickly. The maps are also rather predictable; the AI cops are in the same places every time so you don’t get the branching path variety you see in Left 4 Dead 2. The new modes are flashes of brilliance but they are bogged down by the mediocrity that plagues everything else.
Dog Days just doesn’t stack up against other buddy shooters on the market, and in a genre that in my opinion is getting increasingly stale already, that’s a big problem. Once the evocative visual style wears thin you’ll be hard-pressed to care about the story or characters, and the short solo campaign quickly becomes a grating, depressing chore with an abrupt, out-of-place ending. If you can stomach the generic, below-average combat and have a group of friends willing to play, the multiplayer can have some truly excellent moments but it doesn’t merit a full purchase. With their Dog Days behind them, I think it’s time for Kane and Lynch to go into hiding and disappear forever.