Kane & Lynch 2 – dirty, dirty hands-on

Right away, we’re certain that Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days’ “gritty” shaky-cam look is going to divide players. We’re actually divided inside our own brains. Throughout our recent hands-on, we alternated between really digging the unique look, and also being annoyed by it. There’s no question that it’s refreshing in a videogame context – even though we’ve all seen this visual style plenty of times in movies, it’s arresting to see it in a game, and gives the scenes of running through the narrow alleys of Shanghai a frantic, desperate feel.

Above: Nothing says "desperate and frantic" like sporting a male-pattern-baldness mullet, a wife-beater and sunglasses during a highway shootout

They’ve also absolutely nailed the subtle effects created by a real, low-res camcorder – lens flares abound, but not in a pretty, forced way, instead shifting in a muted kaleidoscope across the screen, catching artifacts of Shangai’s gaudy lights and television sets. Dust clings to the camera, and during the day, the sky washes out to near white, perfectly capturing the effect of a camcorder that can’t handle contrast. In certain respects, the visual style re-creates reality on a level not captured in games before.

However, there’s the other side to this approach, and one that some players probably will have trouble getting past: the filter also creates a barrier between you and the game world, and can feel intrusive. During cutscenes the camera wobbles a bit too much – and this is coming from movie goers’ perspectives who aren’t usually bothered by shaky cam. While we were playing, a coworker looked on and said, “Is it supposed to look like that?” To which we replied, “Like what?”

“Like shit,” was the answer. Indeed, even if the filter effects look fine, peering beyond them at the game’s “true” graphics reveals texturesand character models that appear distinctly low-res, and it makes us wonder if the grainy picture doesn’t give the devs an excuse to say, “Eh, don’t worry if these textures look like crap, no one will be able to tell.” Yet at the same time, it all feels appropriate to the subject at hand: it’s an ugly game, with ugly heroes in ugly situations.

Above: Ugly

Whyhave we spent so much time talking about the visuals? Because players who couldn’t stand Cloverfield or The Blair Witch Project purely due to the shaky cam may have a real problem with K&L 2. However, luckily we found a “steadicam” option which completely shuts off the shaking during gameplay (but not cutscenes, where it annoys the most, and it doesn't turn off the camcorder filter).

That aside, let’s get on to the gameplay. We’ve covered two of the single-player missions before, so this time we’ll focus on two more missions we hadn’t seen yet. The first one, called Welcome to Shanghai, is naturally the first mission. We don’t want to spoil anything, so we’ll just say that it involves a pretty cool chase sequence through claustrophobic apartments, a run across corrugated tin rooftops, and a scramble down through the kind of street shops you know sell fake iPods and a hundred thousand pirated DVDs. We must say, having been to China, that the environments are dead-on at capturing the look of the streets and buildings. There are lovely details like stacks of plastic chairs, hanging laundry, and piles of garbage bags that instead of looking generic really give a sense of an actual, lived-in city.

Above: Even the attempts at glitzy lighting have that low-rent feel - just look at the haphazardly stacked air-conditioning units poking out everywhere

We’re not totally convinced by the shooting – it feels a bit random. Automatic guns have a huge cone of fire, leading to almost total inaccuracy at annoyingly short ranges. We sprayed entire clips at enemies perhaps fifty feet away and missed every shot. Yet the shotguns seem to have more range. It's also difficult to tell sometimes if you're being effective against enemies - a headshot usualy downs them, but sometimes not. Many times we blasted a guy in the face and assumed he was dead, only to have him magically pop up from cover, still fighting on. The game has a feedback mechanism built into the UI - a little X appears in the exact place you hit an enemy, but it needs this element because enemy reactions aren't clear, and even with the hit indicators, fights can be confusing as to whether you've killed someone or not. The cover could also use some tuning, as we often found ourselves getting shot even though we were behind cover.

The other new mission we got to play is called Blood, Sweat & Tears – which takes the “sweat” part logically into an actual sweatshop. We guess it’s a pretty easy target, if you’re basing your game in China, to have a sweatshop as a level. Yet at the same time, just as with real sweatshops, the term doesn’t really convey the proper impact until you see the actual thing in front of you. We hear about sweatshops all the time, but it’s not until we see pictures or video that the inhumane treatment really hits you. Here, Kane & Lynch scrabble through a maze of sewing machines, hair-net wearing workers, and stacks of blue jeans – a perfect reminder for where those living in the cushy West get those discounted denims.

Above: "Don't mind us, ma'am, we just need to clean out a few rats"

Of course, what social commentary that might come across could easily lose prominence when a hundred goons with uzis come bursting through the doors. Still, at the very least it captures a mood not typically found in videogames – it’s more than “gritty,” it’s desperate, broke-ass, rock-bottom nastiness. Perhaps some will find it depressing, but it’s certainly unusual. Can the tone and character be enough to carry this sequel? The gameplay is “pretty fun” but not exactly “rock solid” in the nuances of the shooting and cover. At the same time, the multiplayer could be very promising with its built-in back-stabbing. We’re hoping to get a chance to play some online matches before release so we can get an idea of how the newer modes play out. Until then, the full package of K&L 2will remain somewhat of a scummy, mean-faced mystery.

Aug 2, 2010

Matthew Keast
My new approach to play all games on Hard mode straight off the bat has proven satisfying. Sure there is some frustration, but I've decided it's the lesser of two evils when weighed against the boredom of easiness that Normal difficulty has become in the era of casual gaming.