We are told to do many things in videogames. Slay zombie hordes. Battle within the intestine of a giant worm. Prevent thermonuclear armageddon. Get fruity with aliens. I'm not sure we've ever been instructed by a game to "shoot those fucking c****" before, though. It's strangely liberating.
In the strange, medicated world of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days protagonist Lynch, this psychotic madness all makes sense. He's barrelling through nocturnal Shanghai's urban squalor to "send a message". Some guy is shooting his mouth off, and our favourite mulleted antihero feels compelled to return the favour with unsavoury language and automatic weaponry. People must pay. The needle must remain in the red at all times. Everybody must die. Gore must be pixellated.
Playing through the four quickfire levels offered up by this feature-complete preview build, there's barely time to take a breath, never mind take it all in. Each section is a continuous, unrelenting chase sequence, with an improbable number of enemies standing between you and your target. Pursued by the shakiest shakycam ever, you dart down corridors and alleyways, kick down doors and sidle up to makeshift cover. Pausing only to return fire, there's a breathlessness to the action that's utterly exhausting.
More on Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Review: Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Face-off: Face-Off: Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Xbox 360, PS3 & PC versions under the microscope.
Full analysis of limited release 360 demo.
Multiplayer mayhem with a financial twist.
The same was often true of the flawed-but-interesting original, released in 2007. But this time, IO has come up with a straightforward cover system that, thankfully, behaves itself, along with a standard interpretation of the twin-stick, twin-trigger combat mechanics that appear to be mandatory in the modern third-person shooter. Moving in and out of cover (and even between cover points) is responsive and intuitive, as is aiming and firing.
Destructibility also plays a much greater role. Enemies are as likely to duck in and out of cover points as you are, and it's satisfying to flush them out of their hiding places. Regardless of whether they're stood behind a fence or a wardrobe, it won't be long before the whole thing has been shot to splinters and they're forced to scuttle off to seek alternative cover.
With core mechanics that might initially come across as a little generic, it's important that Dog Days differentiates itself, and a few unique touches help to give the game its own identity.
Chief of these is the trumpeted 'Down Not Dead' feature. Taking its cue from Left 4 Dead, you'll sometimes find yourself ambushed, stunned and knocked to the ground by an unexpected assault. But rather than leave you helpless and reliant on someone's help, you're able to lunge back into cover and let the wonders of recharging health work its magic. It's ludicrous, but it's a fun way of giving players a second chance in a tense situation.
With realism well and truly tossed aside, the whole Kane & Lynch 2 show heads straight towards all-out gun porn, and it's all set up to be easy to get into and slick to control, with targeting assists, an extremely generous recharging health system, similarly generous checkpointing as well as a complete absence of recoil.
With these things in mind, developer IO Interactive's level designers have the confidence to throw plenty of goons your way without risk of completely swamping the player. It's a smart and risky approach that walks the fine line between being plain overwhelming and excitingly relentless. From what we've played so far though the jury's out on whether IO gets away with its 'turn it up to 11' approach for the whole show. Most games sensibly ape the Loud-Quiet-Loud ebb and flow of an action epic, but the opening four chapters here lack variety.
Each mission blurs directly into the next, with the lavish cut-scene interludes failing to provide narrative payback. As a result it's easy to feel a little detached from what's going on, and you'll wonder aloud how you've ended up starting a war over apparently very little. You might roar through the madness at first, but there's only so long you can slaughter scores of Chinese gangsters and police before the novelty wanes and the sense of routine kicks in.
None of this was a problem in the 2007 original. If anything, the premise, sense of purpose and narrative cohesion were its strongest elements. Back then it was clear why Kane & Lynch were gaming's odd couple. Busting them out of jail made perfect sense - but perhaps it was a one-shot idea. Bringing the demented duo back together for Dog Days feels slightly forced. The interesting premise is replaced and character development is strangely absent in these early stages.
With that said, the game really is pretty. The seedy neon anti-glamour of scuzzy after-dark Shanghai provides a wonderfully evocative backdrop to the violence, and the art builds on the original's promise with an array of deft and dramatic lighting techniques which, along with a rock-solid frame-rate, make for a game that feels very assured.
IO's mastery of convincing character models gives the game a wonderfully credible cast of characters, and when it deigns to slow the pace down the potential is there for all to see. It was always puzzling why the original didn't get the graphical credit it deserved, but it seems unlikely Dog Days will suffer the same fate. It's one of the most stylish and technically accomplished titles around.
If you can resist the temptation to lay down your arms now and then, there's actually a great deal to admire. Attention to detail that has long been IO's trademark, as the Hitman titles always proved, and the Danish team doesn't disappoint here either. It's a shame that there's never any reason to hang around anywhere for any length of time, as locations like a sweatshop filled with cowering women are very convincing.
It's also worth bearing in mind that this latest hands-on only tells half the story. As we've seen from the game's multiplayer modes, there's room for encouragement from the hugely enjoyable Fragile Alliance, Cops and Robbers and Undercover Cop modes.
In fact, from what we've sampled so far, there's a distinct possibility that Dog Days' relentless style might actually be better suited to the round-based mentality of multiplayer gaming. In addition, with split-screen co-op puzzlingly disabled in the preview build, we can't tell you how much fun it might be to play with a pal, either. With full review code tantalisingly close though, you won't have to wait long to find out.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days will be released for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on 20th August.