Kane and Lynch: Dead Men was, for lack of a better pun, dead on arrival in the minds of Internet savvy gamers, all thanks to the fiasco surrounding Jeff Gerstmann’s scathing review for Gamespot.com, and Eidos Interactive’s possible manipulation of the site. That being said, if the controversy never occurred, I don’t imagine the game would have fared any better. The signs of a troubled development process are all over the place, and the final product is a constant stream of highs and lows.
Where to start? Visually, the background objects are gorgeous, but the foreground environments are criminally ugly. The game often tries to hide this by placing levels in the dark, or by filling setpieces with several layers of tear gas smoke. It doesn’t always work, and when I got the chance to stare at some of the more atrocious urban environments, I wondered if I was looking at an Xbox 1 game.
Mechanically, it tries to do too much and too little. You have the ability to issue commands to your AI controlled squad of allies, but each individual order takes up its own face button on the controller. As a result, the actions for your own character (Kane) are limited to the A (or X on PS3) button and the shoulder buttons. There’s no way to enter or exit cover manually, because there’s no room for such an operation. Meanwhile, the A button becomes multipurpose, and you have to push the left joystick to both sprint and to bring up your next objective. In other words, the controller layout is clunky, and the controls themselves are insufficient compared to the options and abilities you technically have.
This would be more understandable if the game was designed around its squad mechanics, but it fucks this up as well. Most squad oriented games either allow the player to issue orders to the whole team, or to no one at all. Here, some commands are sent to everyone, while others are issued to specific people. Having the ability to specify targets for your mates is worthless when you have to cycle through each one to tell them to attack. After the first two levels, I mostly ignored the squad mechanics; I was too busy trying to keep myself alive, scrambling to find a piece of cover that Kane would actually hide behind.
Not that it would make too much of a difference – for whatever reason, you can still get hurt when behind cover. Rather than being a protective barrier, cover simply allows you to die a little more slowly. When the difficulty starts to ramp up in the later levels, this makes it hard to get your bearings straight and determine a course of action. If you sit around thinking for too long, you’ll be killed. But if you move around in open, you’ll be killed even faster.
What to do in such a situation? I was never quite sure. Kane and Lynch is the kind of game which thinks that challenge should come by putting the player in increasingly unfair matchups. Early in the game, you’ll be fighting cops at close range, using automatic weapons that outmatch their pistols and shotguns. Every shootout is from close distances. Later on, you will fight with soldiers and mercenaries from long range, often with inferior firepower. The inaccuracy of your arsenal makes it much harder to kill even a single foe, all the while they respond with a literal hail of gunfire. I’m not quite sure how I ever got past some of the shootouts near the end. I suppose using the squad commands might have made things easier, but the game never gives the player any strong indication that they’re effective. That isn’t to say that your AI buddies never kill anyone – they just don’t do it much when you tell them to.
If you’re like me (or should I say “me before I played this game”), you might be wondering why Kane and Lynch wind up having to fight hardened mercs. The answer, at least for me, is that the story is nothing like what I imagined it to be. I thought it would be about a pair of longtime partners in crime, trying to get complete last score with their heads intact. Instead, Kane and Lynch are strangers at the game’s beginning. Their plans switch from bank heists and prison breaks to battles with revolutionaries and mercenaries in South America. It is one thing if a person has a short attention span, but in this case the game itself can’t get through a whole game of “Cops ‘N Robbers” before deciding to switch to “Army Men”.
What’s more, the game isn’t really about Kane and Lynch. The “Dead Men” suffix of the game’s title refers not only to the duo, but to the posse of cons who follow them around for much of the narrative. While these crooks don’t get anything in the way of character development, their presence ensures that Kane and Lynch don’t get much either. We barely learn anything about Lynch’s violent, psychotic episodes. In fact, after a certain point in the game we stop hearing about them at all, nor do we ever see him take his medication (or even see him struggle with his lack of it). As for Kane, he is the real focus of this story, but he’s not so much a character as a loose collection of vague statements. Much is said about the man’s past, but none of it is ever placed into context. This doesn’t just hurt the characterizations – the story itself is driven by the thinnest of motivations as a result. There’s no reason to care about anything that happens in Kane and Lynch.
Not that there’s much to care about. I finished Kane and Lynch in two days, in a handful of sessions. Normally, when a critic pegs a single player campaign at six hours, it ends up taking me quite a bit more. With Kane and Lynch, I was shocked to see how fast I got to the end credits. Even with a multiplayer component, there’s no possible way this would have been worth full retail price.
I thought (and still think) that Kane and Lynch is a great concept. In an industry filled with heroes and anti heroes, I’m fascinated by the concept of a game in which the protagonists are criminals and fuck ups. Bad people without a chance for redemption. How do you convince the player to play through an entire campaign as such monsters? What low depths could you explore without becoming too tacky, or treading into exploitation territory? These are questions which this game is unable to answer, because the entire experience feels like an incomplete thought.