If Dog Days was a schoolkid it would probably be the loud, obnoxious bully: the guy with the big voice, running his mouth at kids and teachers alike, flirting with girls with all of the bolshy style and panache of a punching bag filled with lead. He's in your face, demanding to be noticed, he has a leather jacket and started smoking at 11. He boasts he lost his V-plates just two years later. He swears more than drunken sailor and is obsessively concerned with peddling an aura of attempted adulthood.
Kane & Lynch 2 wants you to know straight from the word go that this is not a game for kids. We're in strictly mature territory here and it shows...perhaps a little too much. I had to stifle a small laugh at the preview day when Lynch screamed 'shoot those f**king c**ts'.
Still, we're immersed in the mad topsy-turvy world of the psychotic, gruff, balding Lynch. A world where 'sending a message' involves a chaotic killing spree that takes us through the grimy back alleys of Shanghai. A deal's been set up - the deal to end all deals - courtesy of a shady benefactor named Glazer. Lynch has found himself a woman and wants to settle down and break free of all this madness and he's gone and called his old buddy Kane to lend a helping hand. But someone's running their mouth, and that someone's about to pay.
Cue four levels of impossibly frenetic action that kind of blur into one in spite of the shiny cutscenes. There's just no pause to the action, with the game resembling a seemingly never-ending chase that has you lurching from one cover-based firefight to the next.
That might sound pretty familiar, and so it should. 2007's effort was broadly similar, but hamstrung by game-killing mechanics, poor handling and mediocre combat. Put simply, it just wasn't particularly fun to play, no matter how good the narrative, how fresh the idea or interesting the story. Thankfully, IO Interactive have sorted most of that out with this title.
The gunplay is so much more satisfying with this game. One of my main criticisms with the first game was the fact that firing an assault rifle felt like you were spraying people with a hose. There was no impact, no recoil, no sense of solidity. Dog Days feels much more robust and is all the better because of it. This extends to the cover system too, which was a travesty in the last game. There's really no excuse for a poorly implemented cover system these days and, what with all of the bullets flying around in this game, I was incredibly pleased to see that IO had done something about it. Moving in, out and between cover is smooth and responsive and the layout of the locales themselves offer plenty of opportunities to get your head down without making it seem (ahem...Mass Effect 2) as if someone just mysteriously dropped a load of oh-so-convenient boxes down into a room.
Put simply, the combat kicks ass - although my impressions on the day might have been tainted by emphatic relief seeing as I'd tried busting through the first game from top to tail. Firefights are tense affairs, made all the more interesting thanks to explosive items and destructible environments. Ripping chunks out of a multi-storey car park with an shotgun to try and flush a bunch of goons out of hiding is hugely satisfying as is the new Down Not Out feature. Standing too close to an explosion or get hit at close range by an impact weapon? You'll be knocked to the ground, dazed and confused for a few seconds, but still capable of crawling to relative safety to recover and lick your wounds as your health regenerates. It's ludicrous of course, and highly OTT, but that's absolutely fine.
This extends to the presentation, and the game's much touted YouTube, Cloverfield-esque shaky cam documentary stylings. A word of warning: it'll make you feel intensely queasy as a passenger. The shaky cam, inspired no doubt by Mssrs Greengrass and Mann, actually comes off a little like that of Marc Forster's Quantum of Solace: imitative, slightly amateurish and frustratingly over emphasised. That said, the perspective changes once the controller's in your hands and I found, after a five minute period of adjustment, that it was actually incredibly captivating indeed and quite hard to shake. Spend enough time with it and snapping back to reality holds traces and tremors of the dizzying effects.
The little touches are welcome too, the pixellation of severely violent scenes, along with that of naughty bits of nudity and the occasionally raised middle digit adding a nice bit of uniqueness to proceedings along with the screen glare and the deliciously grimy film grain. It can be a little irritating in the darker areas sure, but kudos to the devs for really working with this design concept. It's bold and interesting and it makes the game stand out. It's also completely optional so if all you're looking for is a bog standard shooter then that's fine too.
My largest worry is that in tweaking the gameplay so very much, the narrative elements that piqued our interest in the first game have been left by the wayside. Indeed, this feels like an apologetic sequel, one made because IO didn't get things right the first time and so much of it has gone into rectifying past mistakes that I wonder if that has taken too central a role. Immersion is a term that gets bandied around a lot and, although the technical trickery is all up to par, it actually serves to distance the player somewhat.
Although mesmerised by the effects, I never really felt like I was a part of this world and, such is the breakneck speed of all of the action, you never get a chance to admire the work that IO has put into it nor are you given much reason to. In the first game you knew exactly what the score was from the word go, with various twists and turns throughout, there was a reason for this odd pairing. But in Dog Days, despite the impressive and encouraging improvements IO have made, it all seems a little forced; saturated in misdirection we never really get the opportunity to ponder why we're here again, why there's a small army intent on killing us, why Kane's even here particularly. Although Lynch's world, it still feels like we're seeing things through Kane's eyes and it doesn't all quite stack up. Maybe that's the point, but I'm really hoping that IO manage to surprise me in a couple of weeks' time.
Second Opinion - SP Demo Impressions
A true sequel should set out to right the wrongs of its predecessor whilst pushing the brand forwards- and it seems that IO are certainly on target to fulfil the first part. Whilst I'm still unconvinced that the unpleasant duo truly deserves another outing, the game mechanics have been vastly improved since 2007 . As I discussed in my hands-on multiplayer impressions a few weeks ago, the cover system actually works this time around (in stark contrast to the original's embarrassingly broken effort); and the new Improved AI also makes your companion a lot more capable, with Kane able to intelligently flank your enemies and help you out in a pinch.
Don't get me wrong, there's a lot of room for improvement. Kane & Lynch 2 is still annoyingly clunky and stolid compared to its peers, with a camera and movement speed that manages to feel both twitchy and cumbersome at the same time. Easy comparisons can be made with EA's Army of Two series, though this lacks Salem and Rios' weapon customisation and enjoyable OTT vibe.
No Kane & Lynch 2 discourse is complete without discussing the art style. Graphically, it's designed to resemble an amateur Youtube video replete with camera grain and shaky camerawork. Whilst many are heaping praise on the new graphical idiom, I have to report that it's an acquired taste rather than a universal improvement- and I simply haven't acquired it. The perspective and film grain is distracting, frequently nauseating and more than a little aggravatating (especially when sprinting through dark environments, causing the screen to become a blurry mess of confusing fuzz). Sure, you can turn it off... but doing so reveals some decidedly sub-par graphics and texturing. Your choice.
Square Enix has been embarking on a furious hype assault to get us excited about Kane & Lynch 2... and I've allowed myself a tiny sliver of cautious optimism despite my serious reservations. Since the demo's now freely available, I urge you to try it out and let us know what you think! - Jon