LIVED IT REVIEW
Kane & Lynch Dead Men | Kane & Lynch Dog Days
FBT takes a walk on the wild, bloody, morally shaky side with this Kane and Lynch double-bill special review
The Kane & Lynch series was polarizing; critics either applauded it or were appalled by it, and for the same reasons; morally ambiguous, ultra-violence, glorification of criminals, bad hair dos. But both sides agreed that beneath the Heat-inspired set-pieces were formulaic shooters and that while Dead Men’s ambitious reach exceeded its graphical grasp, Dog Days was just seedy and unnecessarily brutal. Meh, I wanna play Heat the Video Game.
In Dead Men, we meet grizzled mercenary Kane, composing a letter to estranged daughter Jenny while in a prison van headed for death row. He’s promptly broken out by Lynch, channeling Heat’s Waingro and taken to a warehouse, via an extended tutorial/shootout in which more cops than you can shake a donut at are shot. Kane was on death row because a job went drastically wrong and he lost a ton of money for ‘The7’, a collection of high-end mercs who’ve kidnapped his ex-wife and daughter; get the money back and they live. Kane’s dead either way. Lynch, a low-level thug with some serious psychological issues is looking to get into The7’s crew. If he can babysit Kane and bring the money, they’ll have him aboard.
After another mini tutorial and more cops shot, we infiltrate a bank for Kane’s dirty money, leaving Lynch to control the bank customers. Instead, Lynch panics and suddenly kills most of the hostages; I’ve not even finished the first mission and I reckon the death count is reaching triple figures. I killed two or three security guards just walking in the place. After shooting a ton more, we fight our way out of the bank and along the freeway, eventually escaping on the subway where we fill time waiting for a train by killing more cops.
Dead Men feels pretty good so far; everyone’s a bad guy, the situation is bad, the solution is going to be bad and the ending doesn’t look good either. It feels stripped back like Heat, focused and driven; there’s nothing in this game that we can’t drop in thirty seconds flat and Kane & Lynch are a good, if dysfunctional team. Kane knows how to shoot, he’s Heat’s Coffee House scene come to digital life - He’s boxed in and he’s not hesitating. He isn’t like Tarantino’s cool killers, sporting a Gittes-style nose bandage after getting pistol whipped and a scar across a white eye, we’d never see him jiving in the Jack Rabbit. He’s coolly efficient and pissed at Lynch not for opening up on the hostages but for the police interest it draws. We did just bankrupt the Police Department’s Widows and Orphans fund.
Apparently unhindered by what would be by now the biggest manhunt in US history, K&L pop over to Japan to kidnap the daughter of Japan’s biggest mobster. Kane intends to ransom her for the rest of the money, but first we have to shoot our way out of the nightclub we found her in. Cue innocent lives lost as we try to cut through the panicking crowd in the dark strobe-lit club picking out mobsters scanning the crowds for us. Unfortunately, once clear, Lynch misunderstands Kane’s deal with the mobster and causes the situation to … escalate. Lynch, with his Mr Kidd meets 70s porn-star look is, unlike Kane’s precise coldness, really well balanced considering how unbalanced he is. He’s noted in the game as being a self-medicating psychopath, but he’s more complex than that. He’s quite needy and naive despite his brutality and pessimism and you get the sense there’s a lot more to him. He’s the most interesting thing in the game and it’s a shame we don’t explore Lynch further. He’s apologetic about the hostages and explains he blacks out when stressed, adding a complication and turning Kane into the babysitter instead as Lynch occasionally just races off to murder and when he comes too he often assumes Kane was responsible for the bloodshed. As a follower, Lynch can be directed about (He does get amusingly snippy if you order him about too much or demand he swap out his favourite weapon) and you can revive him – he’ll do the same for you as will other followers, although if it happens too often Kane will die of an overdose. Even health can kill you in DM. Lynch tries to bond with Kane telling him his wife was murdered (it’s implied that he might have done it during a blackout); Kane, of course, stays resolutely distant and grimly points out The7 will kill his family which Lynch didn’t seem to realise. He also sarcastically warns Lynch there’s no way The7 would have a loose cannon like him aboard; they’re just using him.
Sure enough, once they return from Japan (empty handed even after having killed most of Japan) it’s double-cross time and Kane decides the only thing left to do is off The7, while Lynch just wants revenge. The7 being somewhat powerful means K&L first establish a crew of their own, the Dead Men by freeing several other ex-The7s from a high-security prison. And then it’s a simple task of returning to Japan for the money, then Havana for some Che Guevara nonsense and finally Venezuela where The7, who have reached Bond levels of supervillainy, have a hide-out. It’s when we reach Havana that DM takes a dip it never really surfaces from. Away from the intensity and focus of the streets, running around in camo and a beret helping the Cuban army and assaulting a hidden fortress just seems daft – we’re now in Dirty Dozen meets Commando. It’s practically The Expendables.
Believability is a problem in Dead Men. Games are escapism and the key element of a shooter is you're not required to worry about repercussions – As a Heat homage, DM is missing the Heat - cops have no impact other than bullet impacts. There’s no Vincent closing in and they get away with the most extraordinary crimes; the cops might as well be imps. DM is closer to the infamous North Hollywood Shootout; look how that ended for the robbers. It would have been better to emulate that, make it a death run, stay head of the cops just long enough, not kill enough to trigger the freedom of a cut-scene; it is unforgiving, react or die mayhem within the game, but the plot is draggy drama and catching red-eyes all over the globe at the drop of a clip slows the intensity, loses the fight-or-die tone. Another problem with DM is the environment, or lack of it. The game world feels bare - this was 2007, the year games got immersive but this looks like 2004; blocky cars and buildings, no layers of clutter. There’s a lack of depth and atmosphere – when the screen isn’t turning red from bullets - which undoes some clever level design.
Of the seven hours game play, you only really get about five hours before it gets silly and that’s a shame. DM is nowhere near as slick as it thinks it is and it’s incredibly narcissistic – there’s no one in it doing anything for anyone except themselves. That is until a sudden moral choice near the end which makes zero sense; you expect me to slay hundreds of innocents then pause and make a moral call? Even if Kane catches the feels at the end, why suddenly force me to decide? Kane’s been in control all this time, including more than a few moments I’ve thought “are you sure Kane?” – Now he needs a second opinion? It’s like playing Renegade the entire time then opting for a Paragon ending. What game would offer that choice? You’re not even party to his thinking until after making the call. Ultimately what makes Dead Men interesting is Kane and Lynch themselves. They are refreshingly unapologetic; for all the controversy about Dead Men glamorising violence, it’s not as glamorous as we thought. It’s actually pretty awful being lawless.
Regardless of the ending you chose, Kane & Lynch Dog Days ignores it. It turns out Dog Days means unbearable heat so maybe this time it’ll be a little more Heat-like; but, it also means back luck…
Opening on brief flashes of Kane & Lynch being tortured with box-cutters, it’s pretty clear Dog Days isn’t a watered down, consumer-tested sequel. This is a harsh way to get reacquainted with our ‘heroes’. Rewinding to before the boxcutters, we learn Lynch escaped to Shanghai, settling down with a local girl, Xiu to become a bagman for an ex-pat / Guy Ritchie-extra called Glazer. He needs some muscle to help shift guns to Africa and Lynch has a certain muscle in mind.
But before we get to bless the rains down in Africa, Lynch needs to strong-arm a mob rival on the way to Kane’s hotel. Naturally, it goes pear-shaped and we’re chasing through gang-controlled Shanghai as the mobster uses a naked woman as a shield. Eventually we catch up with him and the girl catches a stray bullet. The guy, realising she’s dead calmly cuts his own throat. Oh-ho.
The first thing that strikes you about Dog Days, aside from the torture, naked chick and throat slitting is we’re in the psychotic shoes of Lynch this time. Fine except Kane takes over as the story-driver in the cut scenes, yet is a mute follower in the game. I’m leading the game but a follower in the cut scenes? Lynch isn’t even unhinged anymore; you’d assume some kind of clichéd psycho bullettime at least, but there’s nothing to differentiate him from every other character you’ve shot as; none of that unpredictability or subtle threat that made him interesting in Dead Men. Lynch was something different, someone you could trust yet not turn your back on but now he’s just the back of a head.
Also, in some sort of comment that doesn’t say anything, the game is presented as found footage. It’s interesting and different at first; when Lynch runs the image wobbles and loses focus, nudity is pixelated as are any head shots and the auto-save is Time Code popping up but you keep asking ‘who’s footage is this?’ The key to found footage is it’s the opposite of a voyeur; they’re part of the event. It really wouldn’t have been that big a leap to add someone – Jenny for example; Kane intending for them to fly to Africa for a new life. It would make sense since all this started during a routine chore; have her mucking about with the camera filming Shanghai while dad goes to deal with something, hears a sound, investigates, throat slitting. Things escalate and it’s too dangerous to leave her alone so have to bring her along. Then Kane would be invested, and he and Lynch would be looking to us, protecting us, drawing us into their violence beyond the usual gamer experience - and we’d be wondering who is reviewing the content, who’s censoring it, what happened to everyone. That would be interesting and a comment on user generated content especially in those increasingly uncomfortable Facebook Live and personal videos-as-news times, and a sly one on gaming violence. Dog Days could have been prophetic now and compellingly original then. But no, there’s no one behind the camera and it’s just a gimmick.
It transpires the girl we shot was the daughter of a rather powerful chap in the government - considering her BF would rather slit his own throat than tell dad the bad news I’m guessing he’s trouble. They agree to go through with the deal but that means killing a lot of everyone to keep the truth hidden from Glazer long enough to reach the shipment. How well does that go? Well this is Kane & Lynch; eventually we have the army after us.
The shootouts are quick and clean, an early fight through traffic protecting Glazer’s limo is a standout, as is a run through a Shanghai slum protecting Xiu as thugs try to reach her on the other side. Cops are fair game again of course, slightly more justified as being described as in the pocket of that government bigwig who’s daughter someone recently shot.
Weaponry is typical; two weapon choices and you’ll use them a lot. The ‘bad guys’ are aggressive and tenacious, they’ll sweep around, react and they’ve got the numbers. As to where you fight them, the neon rundown streets of Shanghai is a step up from Dead Men’s plain environments and sticking to one location keeps the pressure on. There is an air of claustrophobia fighting in such close quarters but eventually it feels repetitive; most of the fights take place in back alleys and seeing variations on the same location makes it seem like they’re running around in circles and fighting their way out of self-contained episodes – If Dead Men took its inspiration from Heat, Dog Days should have been a homage to The Warriors; stuck in an unfamiliar and dangerous place, a cut off and exposed Kane & Lynch are on a relentless run across town – They’re are perfect for that kind of experience; their intensity would have worked so well.
Eventually we catch up with the torture scene, which is horrible and unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) amusing, because they’re both naked and their bits are pixelated. We escape, catching little pixelated flashes of Lynch’s impressive undercarriage as he runs. The scene seems gratuitous, there to court controversy and live up to the original’s undeserved reputation for being ultra-violent. It wasn’t and we never sympathised with Kane & Lynch so how are we supposed to react to their suffering? It is nice to note though that Kane & Lynch aren’t ripped heroes. Under the blood and cuts there’s love-handles and a paunch.
Kane & Lynch, the tubby little scrappers that they are push on through the set-pieces until they hijack a helicopter and attack the government man’s building. It’s intense but shooting RPGs out of the air and taking down enemy choppers, while not quite on the same scale as Dead Men’s government toppling (we just topple their building this time) is overblown. Of course, once the scene is over they just walk out. Guess there’s no cops left in Shanghai. Kane & Lynch work best down and dirty in the streets, laying down so much gunfire the cops yell “there's nothing we have that can stop them” not stuff more at home in CoD.
At a generous five hours gameplay (I mean I’m being generous giving it five hours) Dog Days is a fast, lean experience that demands that you play with nothing to lose. Instead of an unexpected and unwelcome moral choice, this ending is bleakly truthful to the characters, but is then followed by a needless escape epilogue that plays like a ‘next episode on Kane & Lynch’ teaser that never happened and seems to be some final Heat nod for old-times sake. It would have been better to end in the building, what they’ve done sinking in. Why did IO Interactive keep fudging the last third of the Kane & Lynch games? Why that insistence that they need to step up rather than double-down? Both games could have been elevated had they stuck to their bleakly fatalistic guns rather than attempted some genre-pleasing final sequence.
The biggest let down in Dog Days is the huge disservice to Lynch. He’s lost almost everything that made him interesting in Dead Men; a heart-breaking scene makes you feel for the guy and you think ‘oh crap, he’s going to kick offffffff’ but he doesn’t. Meanwhile Kane is completely emasculated (and not during the torture); he does have a manipulative moment, when he convinces a distraught Lynch to head for the deal even when it has to be suicidal, but it’s too little too late. At least Lynch finally behaves like himself at the government man meeting. By making things worse.
Ever since Max Payne, memorable shooters are the ones where we care about who’s doing the shooting; the standout element of the Kane & Lynch games is Kane and Lynch. They may be dangerous, unlikable and, well, murderers, but Kane and Lynch are great characters - Dead Men and Dog Days, while having their moments, weren’t the games for those two reprobates. Dog Days looks and plays nicely while Dead Men has more drive and interesting set-pieces, the club and prison breakout are standouts but overall they're nothing special; standard shooters. I’d like to play Kane and Lynch again, but not in Dog Days or Dead Men. There is a game out there for them, but IO Interactive left them on a mother of a cliff-hanger then ran back to the safety of their other morally ambiguous creation, Hitman. There was talk of a movie but it’s still in development hell. Let’s hope it stays there. Kane & Lynch have suffered enough.
Dead Men 2007 | Dog Days 2010
Developer IO Interactive | Publisher Eidos / Square Enix
Platforms Win, PS3, X360