Developer: IO Interactive
Publisher: Eidos Interactive/Square-Enix
I was genuinely excited for this sequel after my time down at the Square-Enix offices at the preview day a couple of months back. The guns felt solid, the pace was breathtaking and the presentation came across like a Michael Mann film marinaded in extra grime and stewed under a tramp's armpit. But gradually the worry began to set in that this reaction had only really been provoked by having played the immensely disappointing first game just the weekend beforehand. Still, it certainly looked like progress was being made.
Having the final product in my hands, Dog Days, then, is something of an apology - IO have come out and said that they wanted to make the game that they felt the first one deserved to be and Square have responded with an ad campaign the likes of which are usually only reserved for painfully average big budget movies that are all mouth and no trousers. They're pretty sure they've clocked it this time.
By and large, the first game was one of those salvageable titles that was big on innovative concepts but short on fun and fulfilled potential, a hotchpotch of gripping narrative elements and alienating gunplay that was, quite simply, broken. A bit like Mass Effect in that respect, but worse.
The comparison, although somewhat heretical one side of my brain is thinking, is actually pretty apt. As with BioWare's sequel, this second pass has tightened up the action. No longer do you feel as if you have a Super Soaker in your grasp. The controller recoils nicely in your hands, the rifles feel robust, the SMGs like barely contained hives of spitting death, and the shotguns dispense emphatic brutality that's often followed by the game's pixellation of severe violence, punching the heads off of people with their shot.
But in spite of all of this, the weapons feel somewhat underpowered. Unless you have the precision rifle, firing at any range sometimes feels ridiculously hit-and-miss, like a lucky dip...but with bullets and screaming. It's compounded by the fact that enemies can hit you from over half a mile away, creating firefights that are often incredibly frustrating, especially on the higher difficulty levels. Chance and general perseverance seem to have just as much of a bearing half the time as actual skill, which is slightly unnerving. Middling Spoiler Alert: It's only really in the last couple of levels that you feel like a badass - ironically after shit has hit and destroyed the room that the fan was standing in, with you desperately needing medical attention - as the game thrusts a heavy duty, rapid-fire support machine gun into your hands and has you take on a helicopter.
The cover mechanic, suitably derided and deplored in the first game, has been more or less fixed. Although not quite as smooth as the one you'll find in Army of Two, or indeed Mass Effect 2, it works well. If anything, it can be a little too sticky at times, having died once or twice because Lynch clearly felt that my opinion was bollocks and that staying in cover was far better than turning to face the guard who'd flanked me and was firing rounds into my spine. For the most part, though, it works fantastically, the game doing a brilliant job of providing environments littered with natural cover rather than clearly contrived battlezones.
Let's talk for a minute about environments and presentation. IO have done a simply fantastic job in creating a gaudy, neon-lit underbelly in Shanghai, one that oozes danger and grimy menace, but also colour and vibrancy from the fish market you reduce to splinters and shavings to the worker-packed sweatshops of your criminal adversaries to the shimmering streets of the financial district. Everything is falling apart, from the collapsed ruins of previously condemned buildings to the dilapidated downtown streets. The whole game shrieks distress and decay, something that goes firmly hand in hand with the deliberately amateurish Youtube-esque presentation. This is always going to be a matter of personal preference, and there's always the option to turn off the queasy shakycam, but I found that all of the little effects absolutely added to the feel and atmosphere of the game.
The film grain never really impedes the visuals, but adds yet another layer of filth to these dirty dealings and shady escapades. The camera glare blinds especially after you've been in a dark area for a while, never getting in the way, always looking to enhance the proceedings. I like the pixellation of the X-rated stuff, I like the way the camera shakes with heavy explosions. It will occasionally make aiming a bit of a hassle as you fight to wrestle control back again as if trying to keep Lynch from hyperventilating. I like the 'down not out' mechanic which gives you a last fighting chance to get back on your feet after a shotgun's dropped you to the floor. It all adds to the bullet-ridden, blood-drenched, action-packed theatricality of it all, and it keeps the tensions and the pacing tight and fast.
Unfortunately, this condensed gameplay runs its course after around four to five hours. The main campaign is criminally short and the ending is so very unassuming that you don't really feel like you've accomplished anything. The alienation factor I spoke of in my preview doesn't help matters. All of these dizzying effects help make you feel like you're alongside Kane and Lynch, but you're never really a part of their story...not that there's much of one this time around. Although Lynch clearly cares for his woman, we don't. We're never given a chance to. Nothing's really explained, no scenes set, and newcomers are likely to be incredibly confused. Considering that half of the words spoken are variations on the words 'f*ck' or 'sh*t', we never really get the opportunity to get to know these guys again either aside from recognising that they seem to suffer from Tourette's.
It could be argued that games don't really need narrative, but for something like this, a game that's been so aggressively marketed using cinematic techniques to supposedly showcase such things, it's a little disappointing. The new experience is actually a pretty good one, when you're playing it, but you really don't get much of an opportunity to enjoy that. It's not a case of outstaying it's welcome either, you'll decide in the first ten minutes if this game is for you and the demo is an excellent marker for it, the but the incredibly short playing length and the complete lack of variation in the gameplay leads me to believe that IO actually just ran out of ideas. As such, you leave the main campaign really quite underwhelmed, which is a real shame because it technically does pretty much everything right.
That leaves the much vanuted multiplayer components, and it's clear that some serious work has gone into making these modes much more than mere add-ons. There weren't a huge number of people online over the past week but, that said, I did manage to play several matches of Undercover Cop and Fragile Alliance and two of Cops vs. Robbers. There's always the Arcade Mode too, so you can hone your skills offline should you wish.
The basic premise that kicks off all of these modes is that there's a load of money somewhere, some robbers go in and get it and then fight their way out towards a getaway vehicle. The various in each three modes are thus: Fragile Alliance sees you all start off as the robbers; Undercover Cop has the same set up, but one of you is a rat tasked with eliminating all of the others once a crime has been committed, and Cops vs Robbers is a pretty self-explanatory take on team deathmatch.
It's the first two that are by far the more interesting game modes, both of them involved in duplicitous backstabbing and riotous fun. In Fragile Alliance, for example, if you escape with your mates, you get a score multiplier. Kill them off, though, and you can steal more cash for yourself. To add another twist into the mix, if you find yourself killed you can respawn as a cop and choose to exact revenge on the turncoat who eliminated you, or take the team down for a small cash prize yourself.
One scenario had me in the bank vault, happily lining my pockets when a load of gunfire went off behind me and I turned to see two of my fellow criminals shooting off against one another. Not knowing which one to go for, I picked up a fire extinguisher, threw it in between them and blew them both up before stealing all of their money. Unfortunately I didn't make it to the exit...I didn't even see the attack dogs until it was far too late.
Undercover Cop requires some keen decision making here too and is a mode built on paranoia. It works best when everyone is jacked in with a headset and mic, with people pointing the finger everywhere, accusations screamed out over the airwaves. As the cop it's all about picking your moment to strike: too early and they'll gang up on you, but designate a patsy or wait for the cavalry to start shooting back and things get a lot murkier.
As the online community begins to swell, this will really be the aspect of the game that draws people in, aided by the fact that your reliability and traitorous tendencies are available for all to see so reputation making will undoubtedly come into play as the year progresses. It's a brave and bold move, an exciting one too, and it earns Kane & Lynch 2 an extra star because of it, but if you're more of a solo gamer I'd give this one a miss. Five hours for a single-player campaign with some nifty tricks but the bare minimum of a plot at £40-50, with little reason to play through it all again, is laughable. The multiplayer saves it, because it really is a lot of fun and will probably just get even better, but that makes this something of a speculative score, and one that you can knock a few stars off from if you prefer flying solo.
- Excellent, innovative multiplayer modes that thrive on paranoia and deceit
- Some brilliant attention to detail in capturing the seedier side of Shanghai
- Interesting and brave style of presentation
- Main story far too short
- Little variation and gets repetitive fairly quickly
- Not worth full price for the solo gamer
The Short Version: There are some things that Dog Days really does get right. Shanghai, the thrill of the chase, the grimy, sordid atmosphere that pervades and saturates everything. But a lack of variety and a woefully short main story make it an unbalanced game. The innovative multiplayer, deliciously built upon foundations of fear and paranoia, is fantastic fun and highly addictive and earns Dog Days a 7, but it won't be enough to save this for some.