IO Interactive has spent the last year or so thinking about what's real. That doesn't mean the developer's selling its car, renting out the flat and heading to Goa with an acoustic guitar, some awesome liquorice sticks and a dreadlocked chick named Mary-Beth it met on the Circle Line, however. Rather it means that the designers of Kane & Lynch have been studying the kind of things people associate with reality - prodding through the internet in search of whatever it is that has the power to jar and shock by virtue of its authenticity. They want something that will make you drop your ice lolly and think, "Ooh, that's a bit raw for a videogame". Sorry, Mary-Beth.
That's why one of the entries on the developer's first-reveal slideshow presentation is "More Real". It's a peculiar kind of bullet-point, perhaps, but these are peculiar times, particularly for Kane & Lynch, a franchise that's probably more closely associated with boardroom scandal than couch-bound thrills at this juncture.
A quick reminder may be in order, actually. Kane & Lynch: Dead Men was the fruits of a strange marriage between Ray Liotta and Terry Nutkins, as Kane (the kind-of handsome thuggish one with a military background) and Lynch (the definitely not handsome one with some severe emotional problems) dodged a one-way ticket to death row before shooting up a variety of holiday locations ranging from LA to Havana.
It wasn't particularly brilliant, truth be told, even though Lynch, looking rather a lot like the kind of person found putting his hand up to ask about poinsettias on Gardener's Question Time, made for an unlikely proposition on the front of a videogame box. It wasn't particularly stylish, either: a drab chug through drab locations, in which you filled the shoes - in single-player at least - of the drab, sane guy rather than his sparky partner.
Neither of these things are problems the sequel's likely to suffer from, however. The story this time hinges on a simple arms deal gone wrong, and the setting is videogames' latest group craze, Shanghai (possibly so popular because the inevitable army of out-sourced artists won't have to look far to find visual references). "It's the most urban place on the planet," says game director Karsten Lund, "the best place in the world to disappear."
More promisingly, the focus of this outing is Lynch rather than Kane. That means squad dynamics are ditched, but instead you get the chance to be a raving psycho who approaches events in a more improvised manner.
All of that is secondary, however, to the delivery, and that brings us back to the quest for reality. These days, reality is found on YouTube, according to IO Interactive - not the animated LOLcats and grannies-slipping-on-roller-skates side of YouTube, but the blurred cameraphone-and-atrocity aspects: the furtively-captured police beatings, and the frantic subway fights seen over someone's shoulder.
The developer's being surprisingly thorough, too. Every element of Kane & Lynch 2 has been tweaked to fit in with the central aesthetic, from the start screen and its disconcertingly humdrum shot of car interior with traffic wheeling past, through menus that ape the video service's selection lists, to that familiar buffering icon - very familiar to me thanks to Vodafone's broadband, which appears to run on an infrastructure made of suet puddings and old string - which replaces loading bars.
Those are the details, perhaps, but the real impact is saved for the game itself. Dropped in around the fourth-chapter mark, the developer runs me through a shootout sequence in a dingy restaurant. It's a standard cover-based set-up, but the effect is genuinely electrifying: the camera wobbles and bobs, the screen fragments into digital noise when things get too violent, and everything is sketched in the washed-out light and smeary colours of a handycam.
Underneath this brilliantly squalid coating, you might be able to spot a few actual gameplay elements - weapons seem jarring and weighty, and cover splinters very pleasantly under enemy fire - but Kane & Lynch 2 is primarily packing a visual punch at this point.
And aural, actually. The sound is perhaps the most effective aspect of the whole design approach. Gone is canned action-movie music and carefully-balanced audio tracks. Instead the whole thing has been just as carefully unbalanced: voices echo and distort, rooms do wonderfully horrible things to the acoustics of gunfire, and there are daringly long moments of silence, broken only by heavy breathing and hollow footfalls.
With the restaurant in tatters, outside on the streets things are even better. IO is capturing Shanghai in the seedy urban details rather than the towering temples, and there's a real sense of authenticity to be found, whether it's the old guy wearily lowering the shutter on his knock-off DVD concession, the once-cheery trees dying within a toxic fug of car fumes, or the garish music dribbling from at least three different transistor radios. Sirens sound in the distance, and the video-camera visuals perfectly capture the slight bleed of passing tail-lights and the way cheap lenses turn neon overheads turn into an angry sodium-orange blur.
Guns and cover aside, it's hard to tell too much else about the game underneath the stylings in what been shown so far. From five minutes of a developer demo, it looks like a corridor shooter with a nice mix of wider arenas and set-pieces (the presentation ends with a ragged-breathed pursuit through an almost entirely dark stretch of wasteland as an unseen chopper nosily moves in for the kill).
The brashness of the delivery may actually work against the game in some cases, however - inane co-op moments such as Kane helping Lynch over a wall stick out even more when handled in natty jump cuts, and IO can't be happy with the imposition of the current on-screen button prompts, which wouldn't rate a second glance in less stylish games. Even if it's early days and all this stuff is placeholder, it's difficult to see what the team's going to be able to do about that.
And, ultimately, five minutes of game doesn't reveal whether the developer's commitment to capturing reality goes deeper than visual gloss - or even if that would be a good or workable idea in the first place. The important thing, however, is that Kane & Lynch 2 actually makes you sit up and pay attention. It looks a million times more vivid than what's come before, and a million times more enticing because of it. Real? Who knows. Distinct? Definitely. And in these dog days, that's no small feat in itself.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in 2010.