"Play it like a soldier and you'll lose. Play it like a criminal and you'll win." That's the advice of IO Interactive on the online multiplayer mode in Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. It's good advice. You may have captured more flags than you've had hot deathmatches, but you're not in the army now. This mode is about strategy, not just shooting. It's about betrayal and greed and revenge. It's about working as a team in a world where it's every man for himself. But most of all, it's about swearing.
That's our experience, anyway. We've spent the last 20 minutes trying out the multiplayer mode in IO's Copenhagen studio, and we've spent most of that time doing some really quite comprehensive swearing. Like all good multiplayer modes this one leaves you infuriated and exhilarated at every turn, and consequently coughing out expletives like there's no ************* tomorrow.
There were already to reasons to look forward to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men based on what's been shown of the single player mode alone. For those who aren't familiar, it's a third-person squad-based action game from the team behind the Hitman series and Freedom Fighters. The two protagonists are professional criminals who work as a team, but will always put their personal agendas first.
In single player mode you always play as Kane, but you can order Lynch and any other squad-mates you've picked up to move and attack. One of the game's most interesting features is the option to take weapons and ammo from other members of your team. Characters can also revive each other using syringes of adrenaline if they take too many hits.
Otherwise controls are typical for a third-person shooter. You can crouch, you can cycle between weapons and you can hide from bullets simply by walking up to cover. This last bit didn't work too well in the version we played, with Kane sometimes refusing to take cover or being too quick to, but this ought to be sorted out for the finished game, due out November 23rd on PS3, Xbox 360 and PC.
Thankfully the targeting system already works well. You can fire at enemies from a third-person perspective or zoom in for an over-the-shoulder view. This gives you a more precise aim, but at the expense of cover and you lose the wider view of what's going on around you. In a game where there's an awful lot going on at any given moment, this loss of perspective is significant.
There's also a lot going on with the plot which IO says is full of twists and turns, McGuffins and surprises. As the game progresses you are get to know more about Kane (ex-mercenary, alleged traitor, family man) and Lynch (schizophrenic, alleged murderer of own family, bad hair but good sunglasses). You also learn more about their unique motivations and complex relationship.
The phrase "complex relationship", of course, is always a euphemism for "mutual loathing", and this instance is no exception. Kane & Lynch's single player game explores themes of human emotions and behaviour, with particular emphasis on greed and revenge. As game director Jens Peter Kurup explains, IO wanted to carry these themes through into the multiplayer game rather than abandon them in favour of traditional modes.
"Quite early in the production process it became apparent the normal deathmatch, capture the flag thing didn't fit. It's all so army-like. It didn't fit with the themes of Kane & Lynch," he says.
"The game is essentially a crime drama about two guys who hate each other, they don't trust each other, they backstab each other, they get away with as much as they can. So we took these core concepts of betrayal and disloyalty and revenge, and turned that into a new multiplayer mode."
That mode is called Fragile Alliance. It sees up to eight players pulling off a mission together - the level we played involved a bank heist. The goal is always to move from the start of the map to the end, picking up as much cash as possible along the way. It all has to be done within 200 seconds as rounds never last longer than that.
To start out with it's advantageous to work with the other players, taking on the police as a united force. You can try to remain allied for the rest of the mission if you believe there's strength in numbers, but that means you'll have to share all the cash with any other players who make it out alive.
So instead, you might opt to become a traitor. This involves waiting till one or more players have accumulated a significant amount of cash before taking them out and walking off with their haul. The advantage here is obvious - you get very rich quick. But you immediately become a target for other players as a big orange Traitor tag will appear above your head, and they'll want to kill you before you betray them too.
You also have choices when it comes to how you play through the level. You might prefer to hang back in the initial stages, letting other players run up front and do the work of taking out the police. However, you might find by the time you get to the vault they've already taken the money. This is no good as the overall winner is the player who accumulates the most cash over the course of the rounds. You can also use cash to buy better weapons and armour in between rounds.
But it's not a good idea to pick up huge amounts of cash without thinking first. Each player's current haul is displayed alongside their name above their character, and a USD 1 million bounty could instantly make you a prime target for any nearby rivals. To make things even trickier, characters' balaclavas change colour according to where they're ranking - the richest character's is always black, making them easy to identify.
If you are killed you lose all the money you've collected, but you do get a second chance thanks to one of the cleverest elements of Fragile Alliance. Regardless of whether you were killed by a fellow criminal or an NPC, you get to come back as an armed police officer. You can then get revenge on whoever took you out, or just blast away in a bid to prevent any of the other players from getting away with any cash.
Even as a police officer you still have a chance to win the round. You can earn rewards and pick up money dropped by rivals. If you're killed again, you're properly dead this time and have to sit the rest of the round out.
The options to come back and take revenge, prevent others from winning and even still win yourself add an entirely new dynamic. Combine that with the traitor mechanic and you have an innovative multiplayer mode which you can choose to play in many different ways. You may also find yourself forced to play in different ways as you have to react to other players' actions.
"It plays a little bit like co-op in the beginning, but at one point somebody starts picking up money. What happens when somebody's rich and you're not? You get greedy," observes Kurup.
"That's why we chose the title Fragile Alliance for it. It's not an alliance which always breaks at a specific point. It's based on your human nature, how greedy or loyal you are, and how much you really want to win."
The game's other multiplayer mode is a lot more traditional. It's co-op play on a vertical splitscreen, with one player as Kane and the other as Lynch. There are some interesting twists on the single player game; for example, the player controlling Lynch is shown the world as he sees it. So if Lynch is hallucinating you might see every character on the screen turn into a police officer, or suddenly sprout pigs' heads - while Kane will continue to see the world as it really is.
The splitscreen works fine but Kane & Lynch seems ideally suited to an online co-op mode - so why isn't there one? According to an Eidos representative, it's down to the high technical level of the single player game and the fact that so much is always happening on screen; there are more than 1000 NPCs running around some areas, for example. "That wouldn't work on co-op over the Internet because you'd have to track where each of these 1000 people were, where every bullet was," the rep explains. "It just wouldn't look great."
The question is whether Fragile Alliance is good enough to make up for the lack of an online co-op mode, and the answer could well be yes. It's certainly full of original ideas and interesting dynamics, and it certainly causes people to swear a lot. Having only had the chance to play one map it's hard to make a definitive call at this point, but good on IO for trying to do something different here, and it will be very interesting to see how well it succeeds.