Few people I know have anything nice to say about Kane & Lynch. No one I've personally talked to about it has had anything particularly noteworthy to say - most of the time general chatter among gamers isn't exactly on par with Shakespeare - but the gist is that the series is bland, full of clichéd characters and generic cover-based gameplay.
Partly I understand these concerns. The first game held some thematic interest insofar as it was interesting to explore the lives of such thoroughly unlikeable characters, but phrases and notions like "poorly structured missions", "inconsistency" and "broken gameplay scenarios," were common among reviews for good reasons, and the whole South American derailing in the final third was more than a little ridiculous.
Io's narrative chops also seem to be more on par with Tony Scott than Michael Mann, meaning the developers have mostly squandered any opportunities to delve into the psychological aspects of Kane's bloodlust or Lynch's wholesale psychoses, which, given the potentially interesting source material the series deals in, is a bit of a letdown.
But despite the tepid reception to the first game, Dog Days is where the developers finally hit upon the grit and filth that Kane & Lynch was always supposed to embody, even if many critics said the game's design still needed work.
Dog Days reunites our would-be anti-heroes in a deal-gone-wrong scenario whose visceral intent isn't shown through a plethora of intense, over-the-top violence, but rather the artful application of its impressively ugly appearance, as Io defaults to a violent shakycam style that would give Paul Greengrass' direction in The Bourne Ultimatum a run for its money.
Light sources burst with distracting reflective glare; artefacting and aliasing crop up in the event of an explosion; pixellation and resolution drops abound. If this were a YouTube video - incidentally exactly the kind of culture the developers were looking to mimic - most of us would hit 'back' on our web browsers to look for an HD version. But this is Kane and Lynch's highest-def - a stark, horrific underworld whose core reality neither man wants to admit exists, even against their better judgment. It has all the subtlety (if not the gratuity) of a snuff film, and it hits you where it hurts.
The immediacy of its style is an effective approach from the get-go. With its imperfect picture opening on a propped-up handheld digital recorder (Io isn't above a little meta-humour), Kane and Lynch are bound to chairs, naked, covered head to toe in open wounds and soaked in blood.
Between jerky cuts to credits, Lynch cries out, a man using a razor to work on him; Kane screams he'll kill their capturer and the frame cuts mid-scene to two days earlier. The blemishes on the visual and aural vocabulary are only a taste to get you properly acquainted with what you soon realise are the motions of Dog Days' aesthetic misery, appropriately setting the tone by tossing the player headfirst into what's very clearly an out-of-hand situation. But it isn't until the gunplay starts that you realise just how well the game translates its experiential qualities directly to the player.
While my Eurogamer colleague Dan Whitehead said there was something "not quite right to the way things move and aim and interact" in his review of Dog Days, I would argue that isn't the necessarily the point. Unlike a lot of other cover shooters, the gameplay is more of a means to an end in the same way that, say, Silent Hill 2's is.
Though its critical reception might suggest otherwise, it's also still competent and perfectly reasonable action game, albeit one that doesn't try to knock you about the same way that Infinity Ward or Epic might.
Still, it's more about embracing the atmosphere than having a more typically enjoyable gameplay experience. The rules of combat and cover are fairly simple, leaving most of the game's expressive personality to its presentation, and when you get into a firefight it really feels like you've stepped into a street war.
The increased action on-screen wreaks havoc on the visuals, and when you inevitably are hit, your POV is distorted with hazy red light and washed out colour. It's a disorientating and ugly metaphor that captures what I imagine would be the chaos of real street violence, even as the engine seems to hiccup and struggle rendering the action (this is only a trick for effect, however).
The camera acts similarly, as though a silent, amateur documentarian is chasing you, following your every move from just a few steps away while using the lowest-grade equipment imaginable; when you run, the muffled sound of wind dominantly cuts into the audio.
The camerawork when running presents its own issues as well. Whatever movement algorithm Io came up with has just the right amount of pitch, yaw and bounce, fast and twitchy enough to feel off-kilter and queasy like a bad night of getting pissed at the pub.
I've never really been one to get motion sickness from video games, but Dog Days' shakycam made me want to die (though you can turn it off). Then again, "Real Ain't Pretty" was the slogan used in the game's ad campaign, and it's a phrase that does a great job of succinctly summing up what Dog Days means.
So why would I enjoy - much less love - a game that's so resolute in its unpleasant agenda?
Aside from the actual appearance of its low-res exterior, it's fascinating to see a game let its aesthetics do all (or nearly all) the talking. Dog Days may not always be what I would call fun, exactly, but neither is shining a makeshift light down a pitch-black corridor of the Ishimura after the ungodly shriek of a necromorph breaks the silence from somewhere in the darkness.
Suffering is at the core of the experience Io creates, and just as Kane and Lynch are put through the wringer, the player feels the blindsiding effects of the game's blunt force texture firsthand.
Interestingly, Dog Days is also predicated on denial, in Kane and Lynch's unwillingness to face hard reality, as well as the dubiousness of the arms deal with Lynch's ex-pat boss that has brought Kane to Shanghai.
While the finer points of the deal are never brought up, Kane becomes increasingly insistent that pulling off this last job will be their ticket out, giving him an opportunity to finally hang up the guns for good; Lynch, on the other hand, can (we assume) quit his career as a low-level thug and settle down with his girlfriend, Xiu.
Of course, things go wrong straightaway, when one of the two men accidentally murders the daughter of a corrupt government official (Io intentionally keeps it ambiguous over whose bullet is responsible) who owns the city's law enforcement and does business with an opposing crime lord.
As things continually escalate from bad to worse, Lynch becomes consumed with saving Xiu, who he believes is in danger as a result of this accident, while Kane just wants to meet with Lynch's boss so he can get the hell out of Shanghai.
You would think that being brutally tortured would be a wake up call for both men, but that isn't the case. In the aftermath of being captured by a rival gang boss, Xiu has been raped and murdered and both Kane and Lynch seem near death.
It's obvious to the player at this point that criminal associations in the Shanghai underworld have soured any chance of a deal, but Kane still insists on moving forward with the smuggling job - for either men it seems like the only thing left to do, although Lynch is primarily motivated by revenge at this point.
The phrase "Dog Days" itself suggests stagnation, and Kane and Lynch are both undoubtedly stuck - incapable of existing beyond the confines of criminal behavior and wearing rose-colored glasses about the trouble they find themselves in.
Even when Kane's deal fails to materialise, the two men convince themselves that if they can escape the country that things will somehow be all right. Despite both standing to profit from working together again, neither Kane nor Lynch winds up gaining anything by the end of the game; in fact the outcome is quite the opposite.
The contrasting fantasy of retirement, which the two men seem to believe is real, directly opposes Dog Days' low-grade appearance - no matter what Kane and Lynch may say or think, this is an abrasive and continual sign for the player that these two characters are caught in a continuous limbo of death and despair.
The abrupt editing too leaves little for players to reflect on. Quick, choppy and often cutting in the middle of a scene, the narrative is driven forward in sparse bits that carry almost no impact; aside from actual cut-scenes, what small bites of story remain are presented in bits of grunting dialogue that offers only the slightest ideas of character development against a "buffering" screen.
Ugliness is everywhere, as much as in execution as appearance, and Io relies on it in getting its message across. The ending of the game, which has Kane and Lynch sprinting onto a plane on its way out of Shanghai, abruptly cuts to black shortly after the aircraft takes off, with nothing in the way of dialogue or resolution.
Fused with Dog Days' intentional flaws, the result is a great exercise in nihilistic expressionism - one that reminds us the worst trips through hell are the ones that are ultimately meaningless.