Review: Kane & Lynch 2 – Dog Days (Xbox 360)

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My problem with Kane and Lynch’s first outing was its heavy handed and clumsy take on making these two guys reprehensible bastards at nearly every turn.

There’s the kind of cool badness that Robert DeNiro can deliver onscreen, and then there’s the annoyingly preachy kind that has to remind you with every line of dialogue just why a character has had a maladjusted life after making that point several scenes earlier. Both Kane and Lynch fell into the latter category.

That, along with a lame boss fight against a giant dump truck, trashing its gritty start with a sudden about-face as a jungle shooter, and its weak multiplayer, Kane & Lynch felt squandered like so much loose change at the toll booth. So now we have the sequel, but while it improves a few things, it also manages to commit new criminal acts along the way.

This time, Kane & Lynch are in Shanghai making it the second major sequel this year to take place there along with EA’s Army of Two: The 40th Day. It’s been some time since their first job blew up in their faces and Lynch actually has a normal life after finding some love and a job in Shanghai.

Then he gets a lead on a deal that could be the big score he’s been looking for, calling Kane to cut him in on the action. Of course, nothing goes to plan after a mistake lands the two of them in hot water with the entire Chinese underworld who now aim to perforate their chances of survival with lead injections. The only thing that these two can do against an army of death is to find a way out of Shanghai. Fast.

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There’s not much else to tell about the story, though. The game automatically assumes that you already know the history between these two since playing Dog Days essentially feels as if IO Interactive had scrubbed the story from the first game and decided to start off on new footing. This might work for newcomers, but veterans hoping for more than the shallow level of banter that is swapped between the two might wish that there was more. More, such as some idea of what these two were doing before they had decided to hook back up for one last job. Or why Lynch chose Shanghai to set his roots down in.

Outside of the distinctly Chinese flavor that a setting such as Shanghai would supposedly bring to the table, it misses the opportunity to actually make something more of it. You can dump Kane & Lynch in San Francisco’s Chinatown or any other major city in China and not know the difference with as little as they did here other than with the skyline.

There’s nothing that says that this is “Shanghai” other than what the story tells you, nor does it delve into other possibilities such as expanding on the triads (or even mentioning them at all). It turns what could have been an impressively colorful array of bad guys into a generic army that is simply out to kill these two. I’m not asking for the kind of organizational detail that Sega’s Yakuza series has brought to the table, but what was the point of putting this in an exotic setting and then lining it with what boils down to generic filler? It’s not as if Shanghai has a monopoly on storefronts.

One unique thing that it actually pulls off is in how Dog Days’ third person action is shown through the imperfect lens of a cheap digital camera, a slick effect that lends the game a sense of being told as a snippet of social media that might have made it to Wikileaks. Unfortunately, if you don’t like this patina of scarred bits and bytes in your face all the time, there’s no way to actually turn it off.

Gunfire, and lots of it, are matched with brutal reports and the detail that had gone into rendering the alleys, docks, and seedy streets of Shanghai’s slums made me wish again that more could have been done with the setting than in turning it into another shooting gallery. As the player is bounced between Kane & Lynch during the story – though co-op keeps friends in either role for the most part – the solid voice acting backs the frank dialogue which felt less forced to listen to compared to the first game.

Music in the game is restricted to the local flavor via car radio, the title screen, and the end credits leaving the soundscape of violence in Shanghai as stark and as raw as its characters. There’s no rising thunder of music, no themes to match the blood spattered firefights that burn through apartment buildings and side streets. Only the sense that this is a slice of ‘reality TV’ saturating the public saturates the game in the same way that Facebook has with the internet.

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There’s also a lot of destructibility packed into each level. Wooden walls and cover can be blown out by bullets, glass shatters, propane tanks can be thrown and exploded like improvised grenades, and office spaces quickly become littered with shredded plastic and cubicle walls. In addition to cover, people nearby can also be taken as human shields to take a few hits for the team. At first I thought that all of this would add to the frenetic action of its shootouts, turning its firefights into cinematic explosions of noisy, brilliant action. But I was wrong.

As marred and flawed as its world is, the actual gameplay doesn’t quite live up to its presentation values and feels as wasted as its setting. At fault are enemies who too obviously advertise themselves as bullet sponges, often absorbing clips of bullets before falling over, especially much later, presumably because of teflon polo shirts and uniform pants. They’ll often run at you, taking hits before realizing that the bullets should actually hurt. That gets numbing after awhile, especially in the end when ridiculous numbers of enemies start to show up turning Kane & Lynch from a promising crime caper into a covert war stretching any sense of immersion. And thanks to the threadbare story, that’s all that there is to look forward to.

The cover system won’t hold your hand by covering every part of your body with some cover breaking apart, so taking a few hits behind it isn’t too unusual. Take too many, and you’ll keel over onto the ground as a ‘last gasp’ before being able to get back up behind cover to help regenerate your health. As comforting as that might sound, it also turns both Kane & Lynch into circus freaks as I routinely watched them fall before telling them to get back up behind cover, turning them into bullet sponges along with the rest of their targets. It was interesting once in making it feel as if I were on the edge of life, but doing it over and over again made dancing on death’s doorstep feel as routine as a bathroom break.

But the worst crime committed here is that the barely-there story mode. After blazing through its admittedly detailed set pieces filled with destructible props ranging from computer monitors to glass countertops, it all comes to a crashing end a mere five or so hours later – less if you’re playing through it in co-op mode with a friend. There are higher difficulty levels to ramp it up, but shooter veterans might find themselves at the end before realizing it.

And if you’re hoping for an actual ending, IO Interactive forgot to put one in, rewarding the player with absolutely nothing other than the sinking feeling that they had spent money to find this out on their own. The credits cut in right at the end creating a cliffhanger for the presumably inevitable sequel – or DLC – that might follow later. The lack of any real ending on any degree makes the single player feel like it was tacked on to the superior multiplayer. Which it probably was.

For those of us (like me) that had wished the first game was as close as we might get to a heist film like Michael Mann’s Heat, multiplayer delivers more excitement than its solo act. It’s the better half of this deal with a strong selection of colorful capers and a number of fun dynamics that make having eyes in the back of your head an advantage instead of a genetic defect.

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There are three major multiplayer gametypes spread out across six compact and fast playing maps with each having a specific tweak appealing to everyone’s sense of greed, revenge, and high powered arms. IO has also given plenty of color to this mode with voiceover narration laying down the feel of each venue as ‘the boss’ sets up the job as it loads. There’s also plenty of radio chatter in-game such as that belonging to the whining getaway driver who just wants out adding to the feel of the action. It all comes together in making the sequel’s online criminal underworld the real reason to join up with a crew of strangers for the big score.

Fragile Alliance makes a comeback from the last game, turning eight players into a team of cutthroat robbers attacking everything from a fish market with diamonds hidden in the goods to an airport where barrels of dope lie in wait for shipment. Cash is everything as it can be used to buy unlocked weapons as you rank up, but it’s also your score. Should you stock up on weapons before heading in? Or be a greedy penny pincher and let everyone do your fighting for you?

Dead players will also turn into cops who now have to fight their former comrades to foil their plans making team play important…up to a point. Players can also turn traitor and kill their allies for their take to score the big time. Traitors don’t share their split at the end while everyone else does depending on whether they make it out alive.

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It’s funny how betrayal can affect how you think about playing online, especially when the game shows everyone just how much you happen to be carrying. A reputation system advertising how often you might turn on others or relish bloodbaths also lets everyone know just where you stand in the criminal community, pushing that psychological ‘what if’ even further though team play is actually emphasized to everyone’s advantage.

Playing with someone with a Scum reputation indicating that they often turn on everyone else adds a wonderful sense of paranoia to simply shooting your way through another online mode. Given how variable this can be, no on really knows if everyone will work together to make the big score or if that one guy will eventually turn traitor on any stragglers that might have missed the first window to escape.

Even in the getaway vehicle, you can turn traitor by splitting your cash with the driver to leave everyone behind to wait for the next ride. Or you can be the nice guy who tells the driver to wait a few seconds more. Of course, the vehicle can also be shot and blow up by the cops, especially by player cops who also know the score, ripping victory from the hands of whoever was in there at the last second.

Undercover Cop is a new mode which plays like Fragile Alliance, only this time, the game picks a lucky player for the badge. Figuring out when to turn on everyone else makes this mode exciting for the cop as well as their potential victims now that betrayal is all but certain. Last is Cops & Robbers which also plays like Fragile Alliance, only now all of the cops are players and vice versa, switching sides with each subsequent round.

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Playing online was relatively smooth and despite keeping player numbers low (a total of eight players for Fragile Alliance and Undercover Cop, but up to twelve for Cops & Robbers), each mode was exciting fun thanks mostly to the human element adding enough wrinkles to keep things interesting. But it wasn’t perfect. There were occasional lag issues forcing players to move around like stiff action figures on ice, seemingly invulnerable to bullets, and then there were the bugs. There was one instance that forced everyone to wait around until the clock ran down even after all of the bad guys had fled.

Opting to continue into another session of play with the same players will often dump you out into your own lobby by yourself which gets annoying after so many games. It also kicks everyone out of a lobby when the host closes out, forcing another search of available games wasting time better spent in actually starting the next session right afterward. It simply doesn’t make much sense to inconvenience the player this way.

Arcade Mode allows players to storm through as many rounds of a Fragile Alliance mission to rank up – though reputations are unaffected since the AI doesn’t care – and practice without fear of getting stabbed in the back. The player is given three lives to survive as many rounds and score as much as they can and can get a feel for each map before joining the big leagues online. Players can even give themselves a ‘criminal’ name for their personal scoreboard though you have to literally exit the game and get back in to change it again if you had already it once before.

Dog Days is a sharp improvement over Kane & Lynch’s first debut in some ways, but it also barely lasts as long as watching two of your favorite films, back to back. Taking a job in Shanghai for a few in-game days of mayhem may depend more on how social you want to be in playing everyone else online as a sociopath gunning for that last score. But even then, renting your time out might be a better alternative to the heist that it might otherwise make with your wallet.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
Square Enix / IO Interactive
PC / Xbox 360 / PS3
Rated: M for Mature