Kane & Lynch: Dead Men will forever go down in history as one of the most controversial games of all time. It was the eye of the notorious "Gerstmanngate" storm, slap-bang in the middle of an event that exposed the problems between game reviewers and marketing departments when GameSpot writer Jeff Gerstmann lost his job following a negative review of Eidos' third-person-shooter.
There is no doubt that the game will forever be linked with Jeff Gerstmann and his review, and there is also no doubt that opinions of the game itself were tarnished by the controversy. The Xbox 360 version of the game has an unimpressive 65 on Metacritic, and our own Destructoid review sits at the bottom of the pile with a damning score of 3.0.
Was it fair to rate this game so poorly? Were reviews negatively influenced by Eidos' corrupt actions? Is Kane & Lynch a bad game, a good game, or a good game let down by bad design? Two years after the title's release, I decided to step into the shoes of Adam "Kane" Marcus, and see what is worse -- the game, or the game's reputation.
Kane & Lynch stars Adam Marcus, otherwise known as the murderous mercenary Kane. The game starts with Kane on death row, in transit to his final destination as he attempts to write a letter to his estranged daughter Jenny. The man sitting next to him, however, seems to feel that something big is about to happen. His name is James Seth Lynch, and as soon he tells Kane to put his head down, the prison van upturns and all Hell breaks loose.
After Kane and Lynch escape with the help of some mysterious mercenaries, Kane finds himself in the presence of The7 -- a group of hard-bitten criminals who Kane allegedly betrayed and left to "burn." The7 want back what Kane is supposed to have stolen from them, and if he refuses, his wife and daughter will be killed. Left with little choice, Kane agrees to recover the mysterious goods he took from The7, with Lynch joining him as a watchdog for the sinister killers.
The only real problem is that Kane can't find what he stole, and Lynch is a paranoid schizophrenic who is prone to random acts of violence and may have murdered his own wife.
Kane & Lynch's story is definitely in need of better pacing, since it frequently hops around the world and jumps forward in time with very little warning or build. However, the raw meat of the plot and the characters within it are incredibly memorable. The most commendable part of Kane & Lynch is the fact that it dares to be different -- often. While it looks -- and sometimes acts -- like a generic shooter with nothing to offer, the game provides more unique ideas and narrative elements than a game of its quality ever should.
First of all, the main characters are truly different from the average videogame protagonist. Videogame heroes nearly always have to be completely redeemable, mostly because if a player is to take control and pretend to be somebody, they're going to need to identify with him in some way. Not so in Kane & Lynch, a game that manages to outshine Grand Theft Auto when it comes to playing somebody completely irreedemable. Even in GTA, characters are often portrayed as having little choice, or some form of charisma to make up for their heinous crimes.
Kane and Lynch are never redeemable. They are killers. Even Kane, who is relatively sane in comparison to Lynch, is a sociopathic murderer and a selfish coward who uses other people for his own ends and only cares about his family -- if he even truly cares about them more than he cares about his own residual guilt. Kane's only saving grace is that he knows he deserves to die, and has at least come to terms with the fact that he's a worthless and vile piece of shit. Lynch, in several ways, is both better and worse than Kane. Better insofar as he's insane and the majority of his murders are committed due to hallucinations. Worse insofar as even when he is relatively stable and reasonable, he still refuses to accept responsibility for his actions and possibly hides behind his mental illness to escape any sense of remorse.
Kane and Lynch are evil. They are about as close to evil as a videogame character can get. The only thing keeping them even vaguely noble is the fact that the people they're after are slightly more evil than they are. This is simply something that other videogames don't do, and there is a striking frankness in that. Just look at some examples: In the Uncharted series, Nathan Drake is something of a sociopath himself. He guns down countless human beings in his games, for a cause no more gallant than stealing some treasure for himself. He's pretty villainous when you think about it. In Grand Theft Auto, we play as heartless sadists and selfish murderers who will lie, steal and kill if it means saving their own hides and making some money. But of course, these characters are given charming one-liners and are portrayed as heroes or anti-heroes, so we accept the crimes of Nathan Drake or Niko Bellic and move on.
Kane & Lynch: Dead Men is more honest than this. Neither character is charming and neither of them spout one-liners to keep them likable. They gun down just as many mercs and cops as Nathan or Niko, but they do so with bitter intent and an obvious lack of morality. They don't even look like heroes -- both men are old, scarred, ugly and broken. They're balding, their skin is pallid and pock-marked, Kane's nose is shattered and bloody while Lynch looks like that creepy uncle who's house was burned down by an angry mob of parents. They are not cute like Spyro or sexy like Lara. They look like what they are -- hideous, callous, nasty little men. In any other game, they'd be the villains ... and not even the main villains. They'd be the stooges. Bottom feeders. Scum.
This, to me, was a refreshing experience. While I can totally understand how it would be hard for some people to get into the role of a heartless and selfish mercenary, I relished the chance to play as somebody as irredeemable and downright grotesque as Kane. Not only is it unique, it's also deeply interesting to play as a man who knows he's dead and understands that he deserves it. It's fascinating to take on the persona of somebody who has no inherently good qualities whatsoever. Ultimately, it's just ... different. Different in a good way, not just different in a different way.
Those playing the game in co-op mode get an even more interesting experience, as James Seth Lynch is a paranoid schizophrenic prone to hallucinations. If playing in co-op, Lynch will freak out during certain points in the story. While the AI will make Lynch do this automatically in single-player, the game very cleverly forces the second player to act out Lynch's insanity during a co-op game. During these blackout moments, the second player will see everybody -- bystander or enemy -- as a cop, and will have to shoot them. What this means is that the person playing Lynch will be gunning down innocent civilians while the first player watches on helpless. The second player is seeing cops everywhere -- some with animal heads -- while all the first players sees is Lynch wigging out and blasting everybody in the vicinity with his shotgun.
It's simply amazing that a game with Kane & Lynch's reputation would be so poor yet so inventive. We often talk about videogames using their unique traits as an interactive medium to drive forth story, and Kane & Lynch is one of the few games that actually does it. You simply can't convey that kind of brilliance in a book or a movie. It's an awesome idea, unique to videogames, and it's in a game like Kane & Lynch. Astounding.
The game is full of these outstanding and memorable moments. Almost every level is different in some way, with its own interesting setpieces. Whether you're trying to shoot your way out of a busy nightclub, escaping from a bungled bank robbery, or breaking friends out of prison, each chapter of Dead Men is distinguished and feels like a new experience. The game's ambition cannot be denied -- it attempts to wow the player at every turn, and it sometimes even succeeds in creating a "holy shit" moment or a movie-esque scene. The moment when Kane loses his mind and beats a man to death with a shovel because he wasn't allowed to speak to his wife one last time is a truly standout segment.
Of course, the problem is that Kane & Lynch is simply incredibly poor as a videogame. I don't think it's half as terrible as some people have claimed, but it's certainly not good. The shooting is twitchy and far too loose, even on a PC. The cover system doesn't work at all. Ally AI is terrible and frequently refuses to help you out. The game is unnecessarily hard, usually because it throws a ton of enemies at you with no real cover and characters that can only take a handful of shots before dying. It's completely imbalanced, and firefights frequently become frustrating affairs.
Not helping are the game's graphics, which frequently take huge framerate dumps, some of them rendering the game unplayable until they mysteriously fix themselves. The saving grace is that the game is rather short, but that should never be one of the most positive aspects of a game's campaign. All told, the game is depressingly poor, doubly so considering all the good it frequently tries to do.
However, the game is far from unplayable, and if you can struggle through the frustrations, there are some great things to take away from the experience. It's sad that a game is so bad, yet is clearly capable of so much brilliance. It's easy to write off a game that was lazily made, rushed and thrown out for a quick buck. We expect games like that to be bad. For an ambitious and, in some ways, skillfully crafted experience to be as sub-par as Kane & Lynch? That's somewhat hard to accept. In some ways, it makes the game even less forgivable than a game that was never intended to be good in the first place. A game with wasted potential is worse than a game that never had any potential to begin with.
Bad games are easy to dismiss as sloppy, hastily developed games that nobody cared enough about to improve. I don't get that impression with Kane & Lynch, however. Instead, I see a game that the developers honestly cared about. A game that earnestly, sincerely attempts to be memorable and different and do interesting things with the medium of videogames. IO Interactive gave this game their best shot, but they just made mistake after mistake after mistake along the way. The game is undeniably poor, absolutely disappointing. But it really does do some truly great things.
Having played Kane & Lynch: Dead Men to its conclusion, I am genuinely excited for Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days. There is every chance that IO could make the same mistakes again, but there is also a chance that they learned from everything they screwed up in the first game. If they have learned, and manage to create gameplay that rivals Kane & Lynch's ambition and inventiveness, then we will truly have a fantastic, artful, and thoroughly unique title on our hands. At the very least, I am glad that IO is getting the chance to make Kane & Lynch into the game it deserves to be.
For it most certainly deserves to be better.
What's Up? Our panel at PAX Prime 2014, Far Cry 4, Destiny Beta, Vietnam & a ferret
8:00 PM on 07.25.2014