Kane & Lynch: Dead Men Review

Io Interactive's heist-themed squad shooter has arrived. But is it worth your time?

On paper, Io Interactive's Kane & Lynch: Dead Men sounds like a potentially fantastic title: A duo-centric crime game from the makers of the Hitman franchise, mimicking the excellent squad mechanics of the studio's critically acclaimed but underappreciated Freedom Fighters and wrapping it all in a heist-themed, story-driven piece of interactive entertainment. The big-budget title should've been the one to bring the Danish studio mainstream recognition after delivering several solid games.

It should've been, but it won't be. Though it's certainly not a bad game, Kane & Lynch fails to deliver on aspects that should've been its strong points. It's a game seemingly about group-coordinated high-stakes heists, but doesn't really have any heist-specific gameplay, with the bulk of its squad-centered missions ladening you with typically linear shooter objectives. Its focus on a duo makes it perfect for cooperative play, but it lacks online co-op and provides little in the way of two-player dynamics. To top it off, the whole thing feels slightly rushed and sloppy, with glitchy gameplay, poor pacing, flawed AI, and some downright ugly environments.

That's not to say you won't have fun with the title, as its gleefully gritty crime story and excellent voice acting do a good job of keeping you interested the whole way through. But the game's focus on storytelling rather than interesting gameplay make it far less exciting than it could've been. In the end, Kane & Lynch feels more like an actual heist movie than a game based on heist movies, which results in a fun but flawed and fleeting experience without enough polish or innovation to merit much attention.

You fill the shoes of Kane, an aged mercenary and former member of a criminal brotherhood known as The 7. A failed heist attempt by the group ends with Kane's arrest, but The 7 label him a traitor anyway, thinking he made off with the loot somehow. They send Lynch, a psychotic murderer with the face of a thinner Paul Giamatti, to break Kane out of prison and make sure he gets their money back--and they've kidnapped Kane's estranged wife and daughter to ensure his cooperation.

Though the bulk of the storytelling occurs in mostly non-interactive cutscenes, Io certainly paints an interesting dynamic between Kane and his unstable, pill-popping partner. Both voice actors do fantastic jobs, and the extended dialogue between the two during load times keeps the evolution of their tenuous relationship at the forefront. The game's chapters are broken up into scenes like a movie, with each segment labeled after choice tidbits of talk between the two. With titles like "Stealing your own shit" and "The old fucker took it," you can imagine what the fuck-filled dialogue is like, but the banter between the characters manages to stay within the realm of believability most of the time.

If only the gameplay between these cutscenes were as interesting as the story itself. A third-person shooter, Kane & Lynch uses its crime story as an overlay for mostly the same types of missions we've seen in lots of other shooters. Whether you're going after loot or trying to escape with it, too many of the missions involve traveling from point A to point B in dull outdoor or interior environments. There's also plenty of defense missions, where you'll fend off waves of incoming cops, and a healthy sampling of escort missions, an unfortunate gaming staple.

Fortunately, nonstandard gameplay portions like vehicle chases and some highly memorable scenes make the less innovative sections easier to swallow. By far the most interesting section of the game involves the dishonorable odd couple making its way through a night club in full rave mode. The panic that inevitably ensues showcases Io's well-implemented swarming crowd AI in strobe-lit glory.

But persistent technical problems drag down the gameplay as a whole. You'll undoubtedly have to tweak the control sensitivity to get anywhere near a comfortable level of accuracy, but even then, aiming never feels quite right. This lack of control is coupled with a frustratingly exaggerated level of kickback on some of the weapons, leaving you firing your weapon harmlessly above the heads of your foes after just a short burst of fire. Then there's the twitchy cover system, which snaps your character to walls automatically--or often doesn't. Even in the game's last chapter I found myself backing up and reapproaching walls, trying to make Kane stick.

The squad tactics are fortunately implemented fairly well, with Kane given the ability to send a specific squad member after a target or to a specific area with a button press. You can also make your comrades follow you, and any command can be given to the group as a whole by simply holding the command button down rather than pressing it. Starting with Lynch as your sole AI or second player splitscreen partner, you're slowly acclimated to the use of multiple group members in the game.

The bulk of the gameplay places only Lynch at your side, which would seemingly be perfect for cooperative play. But there's no online coop, so you're forced to share onscreen real estate in the offline only two-player mode. The splitscreen gameplay manages to be fun, and the second player can actually start playing at the beginning of any chapter. Even so, the two-player gameplay lacks any compelling cooperative mechanics, with swapping weapons and squadmates being pretty much the only interaction you'll have with your teammate. And only a select few areas in the game actually force the members of the duo take separate paths, making the unfortunate fact that you can't actually play the single player campaign from Lynch's perspective somewhat irrelevant.

When it's not just you and your buddy Lynch, you'll usually be paired with a total of three squad members who are competent enough on their own to at least survive. But about two-thirds of the way through the game you're sent on a mission that increases the previously well-paced difficulty of the title severalfold, saddling you with 16 squadmates against droves of soldiers in a frustrating standoff. Your ancillary teammates will most likely die within seconds, leaving you to essentially babysit the crucial members of your squad so as to not fail the mission. The chapter certainly seems out of place in what was previously a string of fairly reasonable challenges, and from this point onward, the game keeps up a mildly frustrating trial-and-error type of gameplay that masks the game's short length. And for some reason, the game only saves your overall progress once you complete a chapter--despite the existence of discrete scenes and checkpoints--making you replay a chapter from the beginning if you don't finish in one sitting.

Your squadmates' slightly flawed AI is overshadowed by that of the fairly incompetent enemies, who present a challenge only because of their number and infinite source of ammunition, peppering your team with a constant barrage of bullets. If whittled down to a reasonable number or approached one-on-one, the opposing forces may not even return fire in some situations.

A host of visually related technical problems combine to create a rather jarring lack of immersiveness through the extent of the game. After playing through this title, it's clear Io's proprietary Glacier engine needs to be scrapped. The title's visuals overall are the very definition of decent, and most outdoor and indoor environments are fairly bland looking, save some like the club scene that make use of other effects to present an interesting visual experience. But there's far too many sharp lines, muddled textures, instances of clipping, and glitchy character animations as a whole. A scene in a heavily forested area creates a horrific showcase of all these flaws at once. It presents a sparse, texture-less plane of grass with the same low-res shrubbery strewn sparsely throughout, trees with paper-like sheets of leaves, and blurry moss-like textures pasted on top of rocks in an environment that's really just not visually acceptable on any level in a game of this caliber.

Despite not having online co-op play, Kane & Lynch does sport a fairly unique online multiplayer component. Dubbed Fragile Alliance, the 8-player online mode pits a team of player-controlled criminals against AI-controlled cops in four different heist situations. If players work together to get the loot and make it away to a designated escape zone, they'll split the earnings. But if players turn traitor, they get to keep all the loot for themselves. The first time you're killed in this mode, you return as a police officer. A second death takes you out of the game for good.

I played several rounds of Fragile Alliance with a group of fellow game journalists. It's a somewhat fun diversion and easy to grasp, but it brings with it the flaws of the solo campaign and compounds these with a lack of overall depth, making it an unlikely source of heavy online trafficking. There's no squad tactics in this mode, and though each map has you heisting a different item--be it cocaine or cash--the gameplay doesn't change. The lack of precision in controls is even more apparent when playing online, and lag of any sort would make targets nearly unshootable. Police and criminals alike also puzzlingly sport gamertags above their heads at all times that are visible through walls, making it easy to avoid or catch up with targets. And with all the money you get, you've only got three weapon loadouts to choose from, providing little depth of play or reward for successful runs.

If Io had addressed the most glaring issues in Kane & Lynch, it would still be a hard sell in the current climate of big budget holiday releases. As it stands, it's a playable but flawed less-than-10-hour game with a tacked-on multiplayer component. The game's sloppy implementation and lack of singularity in gameplay give little reason for most gamers to snatch it from stores.

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