As much as the Hitman series has grown into one of the most interesting shooters around, IO Interactive is smart enough to know when Agent 47 needs to stroke his bar-coded bald bonce and take a few years off. We've been here before, of course. A year after Silent Assassin hit, the Danish developer released the sorely under-rated Freedom Fighters - a game, lest we forget, that Tom reckoned had "the best team-mate AI ever".
And now, having squeezed out a further two Hitman titles since, the Danish developer has revisited some of the squad-based mechanics of its EA-published title for its latest, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men.
As you'll have noticed from the striking artwork currently adorning billboards, the two disturbing looking men at the centre of the game aren't your regular action heroes here to save the day from terrorism plots, impending Armageddon, alien invasions or Jeremy Kyle - and thank the flaming lord for that. As someone who has fought in the trenches in the war against gaming cliché, IO deserves a big manly slap on the back for coming up with a game concept that's at least trying to do something different.
In this case, neither of these death row inmates are the sort you'd want to swap stories over a pint with. While yours would probably meander through thoughts on overpaid, demotivated footballers and wry observations on how your ex-girlfriend's new lover looks like a real-life version of Mr Burns, Adam 'Kane' Marcus' would silence the entire bar, Slaughtered Lamb-style. The death of 25 Venezuelan citizens notwithstanding, the fact that this flawed mercenary's two-year old son shot himself with Kane's casually discarded service gun didn't win him any popularity points with his estranged wife.
And what of James Seth Lynch? Looking every bit as easy on the eye as Harold Shipman with an irony-free mullet, this 41-year-old medicated psychopath was even less popular with his wife, having murdered her and all. But far from being remorseful about his crimes, the schizophrenic Lynch is thoroughly matter-of-fact about the whole thing, claiming to not remember doing it, and represented himself in court as a perfect husband.
The game kicks off like a rugby team falling down a flight of stairs during an earthquake, with one of the most cinematically arresting introductions to a videogame ever attempted. The pair are sat in the back of a van in their orange boiler suits on the way to death row, when they're suddenly busted out. Turns out that Kane is a former member of ruthless mercenary gang The7, and made off with a big stash of diamonds when he mistakenly assumed the rest of the gang were dead. Well, they're very much alive (for now) and have gone to rather extreme lengths to track him down and get what they're owed. Even more extreme is the fact that the unhinged Lynch has been hired as Kane's minder to make sure he does what he's told, but as you soon find out, it's more like the other way around.
So, busted out of a van, you take control of the completely messed-up Kane, with blurred vision, a broken nose and a suspect ability to even walk properly. You stagger haplessly between cover points while determined cops do their best to halt this human heist, dart into warehouses, and quickly find yourself armed and fighting off a frenzied attempt to secure your re-capture. Needless to say, this being a videogame, you're remarkably resistant to flesh wounds, and stumble around quite competently, returning fire with improbable accuracy.
Getting away with it
It's an all-action introduction to the wild world of Kane & Lynch and easily comparable with other recent cinematic spectaculars like Uncharted, BioShock and Call of Duty 4 for out-and-out technical impressiveness. The standards of the environments and character models are something to behold, with astonishing levels of detail and the kind of attention to detail that we could only dream of a few years ago. The expletive-strewn script, and the intensity of the violence leaves you in no doubt that the 18 rating is fully justified, and definitely not there for show. Some sections are as ugly and harrowing as the grittiest action movies, and it's a testament to the talent and vision at IO to try something so far removed from the sanitised, cop-out attempts at cinematic gaming. Whether it's your cup of Tetley is another matter entirely, but compare this to, say, The Getaway, and you can see just how far gaming narrative techniques and the quality of the presentation have progressed in that time. Perhaps a more fitting comparison in terms of its desperate 'crisis killing' theme is Max Payne, but whereas Remedy relied on cartoon strips, film noir voice-over stylings and bullet time, the most impressive thing about Kane & Lynch is its capacity to integrate 99 per cent of the narrative seamlessly into the gameplay. In that respect, it does that absolutely brilliantly.
I just wish I could be as unreservedly positive about the core gameplay.
Kane & Lynch: Dead Men wants to be an intuitive third-person shooter, so, in the main, it plays things by the book. No problem there. Like a lot of titles in this crowded sub-genre these days, it's your typical two-stick affair, with left trigger to zoom into the now-obligatory over-the-shoulder view, and the control mappings are largely where they should be (with alternatives if you so choose).
Also, being a modern action game, it encourages you to make sensible use of cover, and makes it a fairly simple process to get to grips with. Sidling up to a wall, the game will assume you want to wall hug, but do the same against a low wall and it won't register as a cover point until you manually crouch first. Several other minor niggles soon become apparent, too, like the that you can't pop in and out of corner cover using the zoom view, or the enormously flaky hit detection. More often than not, you'll be facing enemies also making use of cover, yet what looks like a clear direct hit doesn't count - seemingly because your opponent was, in the game's eyes, in cover. Next to its direct competitors, Gears of War and Uncharted, Kane & Lynch doesn't quite feel as solid as the fantastic game engine suggests it ought to be, and that's a real shame after an awesome first impression.
Taking the fun out
On top of the definitely-not-terrible-but-not-quite-amazing combat, there are a few other points that tally up in the 'cons' column. Some of the missions, for example, have head-scratching, fun-free moments which negatively diminish your impression of the game to such an extent, you'll wonder how they ever made it through the design process, never mind the QA system. One in particular crops up on the message board time and time again, and involves a dump truck charging towards a hole on a building site with someone you need to save inside it. Now, killing the driver seems like the logical solution, naturally, but does the windscreen smash? Does it hell. This amazing, Teflon-coated bullet shield must bounce off about 100 bullets before it finally caves in, leaving you aggravated and exasperated over such petty-minded set-piece design.
Another level, set in Havana, sports a difficulty spike so severe I'd recommend having a Tetanus booster before you play. Seemingly content to throw an entire army at you and a helicopter at the same time, progress becomes a mixture of painstaking repeat play to figure out where the scripted spawn points are, and a little dollop of luck. Sometimes you'll be downed in one shot and have to rely on an adrenaline boost to revive you from a nearby team-mate, but more often than not, you'll end up shot because you were forced to revive one of your squad-mates. If you're lucky, they'll stay out of trouble, but sometimes it's fairly arbitrary as to whether they cop a stray shot or not.
While we're on the subject of the squad mechanics, for the most part, the game's content to just have Kane & Lynch involved, and as long as you're a half decent gamer you'll rarely have to issue commands. The AI does a pretty decent job of keeping him - or others - involved anyway. But, from time to time, it's always useful to tell Lynch and the other squaddies to fire on a particularly irksome target, especially useful as a suppression tactic so you can flank and take out weaker targets. If you want them to do all the dirty work for you, you can also send them off into a specific position, or just order them to generically follow you around (at which point they'll dynamically adapt, take up cover and select their own targets). Later in the game you get to play the sniper, taking out targets, and creating a safe passage for the person down below to follow at your command, but this is very much a one-off, and perhaps indicative that the game once had a greater squad-control element before someone decided it was more commercially viable as a straight shooter. Shame.
As involving as the plot and environments are, the endless pedal-to-the-metal shooting does throw up another issue - the gameplay's a bit one-tempo for its own good. I hate to bring it up again, but current EG teacher's pet Uncharted demonstrates perfectly how interspersing the shooting with more varied gameplay alternatives not only helps the atmosphere no end, but ensures that the going back to the combat never feels dull. Unfortunately, there's so much shooting in Kane & Lynch, it overdoses on the stuff. And, as I keep saying, the combat's not the game's strongest point, either, meaning that it relies on the sheer 'wow' factor that each new scene brings, and what unhinged stunt Lynch will pull next when his medication is running a little dry. I can't overstate how much the bitter-sweet black humour coursing through the game drives you on. There's more personality in the opening cut-scene than most games manage over their entire length, so hats off for that (unless underneath that hat is a balding mullet, of course).
Meanwhile, anyone who's even vaguely impressed by top notch visuals will want to see what IO has pulled off. Taking its penchant for the kind of globe-trotting variety seen in the Hitman games, Kane & Lynch looks every inch the labour of love it must have been for the art team. Every location is bursting with incidental detail and architectural splendour.
Having recently been to Tokyo, the vivid recreation of the city's clinical urban sprawl was one of the most convincing locations I think I've ever come across in a videogame, complete with the kind of eerie public transport announcements you hear emanating during your travels. It's all fantastically well-observed, whether you're darting through a typical US city street, fighting your way through a jail, bank, nightclub or cutting a swathe through a sub-tropical mountain path. Without exception, everything looks (and sounds) wonderful - especially the facial detail, which ranks alongside the best efforts ever attempted.
But, like we said, all of this technical glory can only count for so much when the core gameplay just doesn't quite live up to the mark. There is a co-op split-screen mode to add a little extra weight to the package, but when the main campaign only clocks in at about 6-7 hours, you'd have maybe expected online co-op to make it worth running through again with a pal.
As it is, after that first all-too-brief play-through, you're left with the Fragile Alliance multiplayer mode and little else but some pretty memories. Eidos has gone to great lengths recently to tell us how great Fragile Alliance is, which you can either interpret as a) fair comment, or b) a means of diverting attention away from the growing number of critical reviews emanating from the US (where they, annoyingly, got to review this over a week ago for reasons which escape us...European game alert). Anyway, I digress, Fragile Alliance is a rather jolly caper where the premise is to earn as much cash as possible from a variety of heists played over a number of rounds. Playable online (on System Link if you prefer) for 4 to 8 players, all members start off in the same place, with the option to fight their way through a heavily guarded location (diner, shopping mall, bank, Japanese garden) in order to get to the loot, marked with a dollar sign and visible on a mini-map (with the most valuable the most well defended).
With the knowledge that other members of the gang may have more cash than you, the 'Fragile Alliance' revolves around who you decide to bump off and when. With several factors to take into account there's an extremely delicate balance, such as whether you need their help to kill the police, whether you suspect that low-earning members might kill you, and, of course, how much cash you have on you at any given point. It's a fascinating concept, and one that helps restore the value to what might have otherwise been a lightweight package. However it is just one mode, and despite the originality of the idea, on its own it can't address the shortfalls of the main single-player portion of the game.
With some incredible talent behind it, Kane & Lynch should have been one of this year's essential action games. IO is unquestionably a studio with a real vision and flair for creating hugely atmospheric, involving games - it just seems to have lavished rather too much attention on how the game looks, how the story hangs together and the characterisation than how the core shooting element feels next to its contemporaries. Next to other 'duck and cover' shooters like Gears of War and Uncharted, it lacks a few crucial refinements which would have made all the difference to a game which, after all, spends most of its time asking players to shoot an onslaught of enemies. Factor in an exceptionally short single-player campaign, an undercooked tactical squad element and a distinct lack of gameplay variety and it's impossible not to see this as a very big missed opportunity. The innovative multiplayer aspect is certainly a nice bonus, but a game such as this can't get by on minor novelties in a market chock full of shooters with fully fledged online elements.
There are many many positives to come out of Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, but sadly too many things weigh against it to mark it out as a must-have in a ludicrously competitive environment. Let's hope IO takes heart and comes back with a game which delivers on all counts, and not just some.
7 / 10
Awkward bunch that you are, we recognise that, like a journalist at a free dinner ordering a massive dessert, you're probably still after more Kane & Lynch content. Luckily, EGTV is bringing the sweet trolley around now which a delectable assortment of exclusive gameplay videos to choose from. Take your pick of banoffee car chase, chocolate chip bank robbery and fresh fruit kidnap.
We also recognise you might not like to move after that dessert, which is why you can download it now thanks to Metaboli or buy it on Amazon.