Dead Men Walking: In Defense of Kane & Lynch

In a very special ShackBlog post, professional game developer Steve Gaynor joins us to tell you why one of the most controversial games in recent...

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In a very special ShackBlog post, professional game developer Steve Gaynor joins us to tell you why one of the most controversial games in recent memory is also one of the most unjustly panned.

Kane & Lynch: Dead Men has gotten a lot of exposure over the last few weeks. It's spawned countless online articles, topical webcomics, and hundreds of forum posts. But K&L hasn't garnered all this attention for the same reasons as other hyped games: the title was at the center of a well-known internet controversy involving the firing of GameSpot's executive editor Jeff Gerstmann and allegations of backroom shenanigans between media company CNET and publisher Eidos. His 6.0 score wasn't far out of keeping with the popular reviewership's consensus on the title, and if the uproar over his firing had never happened Kane & Lynch most likely would've faded into obscurity, overshadowed by all the year's critically-lauded Christmas season blockbusters.

The game just didn't click with the people tasked with reviewing it, including Shacknews' reviewer, who focused mainly on mechanical and technical shortcomings and said of the title, "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."

As someone with whom the title did connect, and strongly, I feel the need to defend the game from its much-maligned image. From my standpoint it is worth your attention, and I believe that negative associations may be driving away players who otherwise would have found much to love beneath Kane & Lynch's unvarnished surface. The game is a unique experience, one which presents intense and satisfying core gameplay in believable locales, propped up by genuinely interesting, human characters who live out an emotionally compelling, personal story.

Kane & Lynch is antithetical to the epic scale and self-congratulatory empowerment provided by other big-name action games, a game that absolutely should not be passed over by shooter fans looking for a game that says something different from the titles they normally invest themselves in.

First, I should own up to the game's weaknesses. The primary failing of Io Interactive in its treatments of Kane & Lynch was a lack of attention when tuning their gameplay towards consoles. I played through the title on PC, and found it to feature wonderfully visceral gunplay and well laid-out enemy encounters. Seeing so many reviewers mention dodgy controls and frustrating combat was confusing--until I gave the game a shot on the Xbox 360.

The gunfights that took advantage of the mouse's quick target acquisition and precise aiming when I played on PC became slow, clumsy and unsatisfying when using analog sticks; the kickback on weapons that was hardly noticeable on PC made aiming a chore on the 360; and the the inputs' general sluggishness paired with enemies' tendency to stick behind cover and only pop out for a couple seconds at a time extended firefights to the point of tedium.

I've read that when Epic brought Gears of War over to PC, the designers increased the kickback on weapons many-fold to account for players' high mouse sensitivity; Io failed to address this issue on the console versions of Kane & Lynch, with poor results. What we end up with is a wonderfully sharp and well-tuned PC game that falls flat when given over to a gamepad. One would think that this disparity might be reflected in the PC version's review scores, but I found almost no review sites that actually looked at the PC version as a separate entity; in almost all cases, the review score derived from an Xbox playthrough was unfairly applied to the PC version as well. GameSpot still hasn't posted its review of the PC release.

But, speaking as a PC gamer, Kane & Lynch delivered to me extremely visceral firefights that require the player to master the available cover and squad-direction mechanics. It's a game that won't hold your hand or coddle you; you are fully expected to employ your entire tool set effectively to survive. Standing in the open is a sure way to catch a sniper's bullet, and leading a headlong charge into heavy fire isn't going to keep you or your squad alive long.

Kane & Lynch doesn't present cover and squad direction as inessential side-items, but instead expects the player to think out his approach to every encounter, and methodically send his crew to scout ahead, drawing fire and thinning the enemy ranks. Kane is no superman, and while he does have regenerating health, he can't be revived indefinitely or stand up to more than a few bullets before eating dirt. It's refreshing to see a shooter game that doesn't cater to players who just want to run forward and hold down the fire key.

It's an old-school design, one that will punish you for disregarding squad tactics and trying to solo it with guns blazing. It's actually a great experience in this day and age to run up against a tough challenge, get trashed repeatedly, then stand back, consider your options, and realize that you hadn't been thinking through the encounter fully. You then return with a new plan, direct your squad strategically, stick to cover and overcome the obstacle through your own ingenuity.

If you're a gamer that's disappointed with being patronized by big-budget action games, Kane & Lynch is that rare title that actually expects you to pay attention, and only gives back what you agree to put into it. This is especially true in the later missions--while many reviewers regarded Havana as a sudden difficulty spike, the player that adapts his strategy to new battlefield conditions will prevail.

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Tactical squad combat in the streets of Tokyo. Kane sticks to cover, throws back teargas grenades and keeps his squad alive to prevail.

The other aspect of Kane & Lynch that makes it such a stand-out experience is its dark and challenging story and characters. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play a character you might not look up to, one who's not morally justified in his decisions? What would a game be like that asked you to motivate forward the actions of a kidnapper, a cop-killer, someone who wasn't a hero at all, and is barely even an antihero?

In the Hitman games, Io has extensively explored the non-traditional character of Agent 47, a genetically-engineered super assassin. Starbreeze adapted Jackie Estacado, a ruthless mob hitman who executed dozens of police over the course of The Darkness. But these characters' targets are always portrayed as the "real" bad guys, racketeers and corrupt cops; 47 has no past or emotions, and Jackie is controlled by a demon.

Kane, on the other hand, is simply an underworld soldier labeled a traitor, whose motivation in the game is to find redemption and reconnect with his estranged daughter; Lynch is a medicated psychopath, unsure whether he killed his wife during a psychotic break and tortured by his inability to control his own condition. These are far from your standard blank-slate or superheroic video game characters, and they aren't tempered by fantasy or given the moral high ground. These are believable, flawed individuals, who are legitimately intriguing in their own rights outside of the gameplay the figure into.

Without spoiling the plot, Kane's backstory is fascinatingly multi-layered: he's a disgraced cop whose infant son died in an accident involving his service revolver; he's an underworld mercenary who abandoned his family years ago to pursue (protect them from?) his life of crime; he's a man wracked with regret, who desperately wants to reconnect with the daughter he left behind. As the story opens, Kane's old criminal syndicate has busted him out of a death row transport, branded him a traitor, and taken his family hostage. They send him on a mission to retrieve some property Kane says he never stole, and saddled him with Lynch as a watchdog while The 7 stays safely in hiding.

From here, we embark on one man's journey not to save the world, or stop an encroaching evil, to become the city's reigning drug kingpin or change the course of history. Instead, Kane just wants to "fix everything" in his broken life-- to prove to the world and himself that he's not a traitor, to pull his family out of the fire, and finally to deliver a letter he's written that tells his daughter how he's felt after spending so many years out of contact.

How many games have you played where the main character's primary motivation is to read his daughter a letter? It's the story of a man grasping for redemption that's always an inch out of his reach, trying to do the right thing in all the wrong ways, and coming up short every time. Kane is misguided, sure, but his aims are true and his emotional arc is affecting. What was the last game character you could truly call tragic?

The world of Kane & Lynch is far from being painted in black and white. Some might say that's because it wallows in too much darkness for there to be any light, but I say the game begs you to look at these characters from all angles, and if not to root for them or find them warm and lovable, then at least to feel for Kane as a sympathetic lost soul who just wants to return to a normalcy he'll never achieve. Where Gerstmann branded the characters in Kane & Lynch as "impossible to care about," I cared more genuinely and deeply about these damaged individuals than any Freeman-esque blank-slate or superhuman Master Chief-alike I've played in a video game.

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One of the most affecting narrative scenes from Kane & Lynch demonstrates its harrowing tone. Kane just wants to talk to his family one last time. Contains plot spoiler content from the midpoint of the game.

Kane & Lynch is at its strongest when the play mechanics directly support the fiction, which Io tried hard to facilitate throughout the game. I like to relay a particular moment that emerged during my first playthrough of the game. Three individual mechanical elements of the single-player interlocked to make this possible: 1) When an enemy's hitpoints are reduced to some low percentage without being killed, they fall to the ground incapacitated and writhe around in pain instead of dying. 2) When you approach an enemy in this state, they sometimes say things to you, such as begging for mercy or cursing you. 3) When Lynch is left idle and has no hostile targets, he will wander around shooting dead bodies or incapacitated enemies.

The scene: I'm playing the game single-player. Kane, Lynch and crew are escaping a failed bank heist, and must clear a roadblocked highway tunnel to proceed. As Kane, I run down the tunnel looking for an exit, when suddenly a cop car screeches up to block the way. Two cops jump out, a man driving and a female officer with a shotgun. I shoot and kill the man, then wing the woman, pitching her to the ground still alive but disarmed. My personal style is to coldly walk up to any maimed enemies and execute them with a pistol shot, just to stay in character.

As I walk up to the female cop, she starts talking to me: "Please, I have a baby daughter at home. I don't want to die, don't do this to me." It gives me pause: I think, lord that's bleak. Alright, maybe I'll let this one live. Maybe the ambulance will get here in time, and--suddenly, from off screen, a blast of buckshot tears into the cop's face. I turn around to find Lynch standing there, pumping a fresh shell into his shotgun's chamber.

It was an occurrence that emerged from the game's interlocking mechanics, and was more surprising, disturbing, and better illustrated the game's characters than a scripted cutscene ever could have. Moreso than a simple random coincidence, this moment resulted from Kane & Lynch's unorthodox protagonists and setting, its core gameplay, and its designers' dedication to extending the characters' personalities into the playable space. It expressed feelings that don't come from the power fantasies of your standard T-rated shooter, or from the heavy-handed shock tactics of a game such as Manhunt or Postal 2. Like the rest of the game, it felt uniquely understated and human.

Kane & Lynch isn't a perfect game by any measure. It didn't translate well to a gamepad, it could have used a few more months in development, and its visuals certainly don't set a new graphical bar. But it does cater to dedicated gamers who want a satisfying, challenging squad shooter game that doesn't take the player for granted.

Kane & Lynch isn't patronizing and it won't insult your intelligence--it expects you to think about what you're doing, both in and out of combat, and trusts your ability to handle difficult, multi-faceted characters and situations that push the boundaries of what a playable character can be and do. It advances the Io approach to characterization by stripping away all fantasy and artifice from its dark world, and refuses to give the player or the characters an easy out. Shortly, it's extraordinary in ways that may not translate to high numerical score, but if you throw yourself into the world of Kane & Lynch, it delivers that rare game experience that promises to give back just what you put in.

Steve Gaynor is a level designer at TimeGate Studios, maintains his Fullbright blog, and boasts 6+ years as an Io Interactive fanboy. He can be contacted at steve.gaynor@gmail.com.

Embedded videos courtesy of goTha83; used by permission.

From The Chatty
  • reply
    December 14, 2007 1:48 PM

    Wow, that was a really well-written, well-thought-out article. Why isn't this a full story on the front page?

    • reply
      December 14, 2007 2:57 PM

      Honestly, this is a great read and should be on the front page.

    • reply
      December 14, 2007 3:06 PM

      Yeah, that was really well written. I might check out the game now.

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