Sunday, December 18, 2022

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days (PS3)

While IO Interactive (IOI) is best known for their long running Hitman franchise, they have developed a handful of other titles. One of these was Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, which garnered a mixed reception from critics and indirectly led to the creation of gaming outlet Giant Bomb after GameSpot fired editor Jeff Gertsman for his 6/10 review score for the game. Despite the reception, IOI announced a sequel, Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, which Square Enix would publish in 2010. Upon release, Dog Days received a mixed reception from critics, with criticism aimed at its short length, story and experimental visual style.

Despite all the negativity that surrounded the game when it came out, I actually always had an interest in playing Dog Days, largely due to the unique and gritty presentation that resembled footage from a cheap handheld camera. Sometime after release, I ended up ignoring the game until I was made aware that the game had developed a cult following over the years for the exact reason it caught my attention (and convinced that I didn’t need to play Dead Men beforehand). Although you can easily buy the game cheap secondhand for about $10-15, I bought a brand-new sealed PS3 copy off the Square Enix store (normally $20 now), largely because I could and partly so I could have the freshest experience in honor of this blog’s 12th anniversary.

As it turns out, while there is plenty that one could criticize about Dog Days, largely when it comes to its gameplay, there truly is something about its presentation, and to an extent its story, that keeps the experience engaging and worth (re-)visiting.

Four years after the events of Kane and Lynch: Dead Men, Lynch has started a new life in Shanghai with his girlfriend Xiu. When Lynch is told about an arms deal that could make him rich, he convinces Kane to join him in exchange for a split in the deal. After Kane arrives in Shanghai, Lynch decides to go on a detour before the arms deal to threaten an informant named Li “Brady” Lung. After the plan goes south, they chase Brady and end up killing his girlfriend in the crossfire, followed by Brady committing suicide. Unfortunately for the duo, killing Brady throws a massive wrench in the arms deal, as they have now incurred the wrath of crime lord Hsing and a powerful man named Shangsi, the father of the girl Kane and Lynch accidentally killed.

Although the story as a whole isn’t all that memorable, Dog Days, which mostly ignores the story of Dead Men, at least tries out some interesting ideas that fit the setting. Between the titular leads, most of the story is told from Lynch’s point of view and both his dialogue and combat barks make it clear that he’s mentally unstable by referencing his medication. He’s worked hard to get past his issues and live a normal life, as evidenced by his love for Xiu, but he still doesn’t make the best decisions, since everything that happens to him and Kane in the game comes out of his botched and poorly considered side errand. In spite of this, Kane is still a loyal friend to Lynch and tries his best to help him get out of Shanghai once they’re both screwed over by someone that they thought they could trust.

Kane (right) and Lynch (left) stick with each other to the end.

In a rather unique move for the time of its release, the game shows the player realistic violence and consequences. The seemingly innocuous decision of intimidating Brady summons both the fury of the criminal underworld and even the police, since Shangsi has political influence. One particularly noteworthy scene even shows the aftermath of Kane and Lynch undergoing torture, their naked bodies covered almost head to toe with bloodied cuts until they find a change of clothes (and even then, some blood still seeps through). Both of them also get into serious danger of losing everything important in their lives, including each other.

One thing I also appreciated was how the game handles the loading screens. In most modern games, these screens would display the bare minimum to hold the player’s attention, with images, music and maybe hint text. Here, however, they actually help bridge the game’s Chapters together with unique dialogue, maintaining the plot’s momentum, while displaying relevant pictures. At least once, this effect does an excellent job of leaving events to the player’s imagination, primarily Lynch’s torture.

Less interesting, however, is the gameplay. For the most part, Dog Days plays like a very standard third-person cover shooter, complete with regenerating health, with somewhat nonstandard but simple controls. You aim and fire with L1 and R1 respectively, while the standard L2 and R2 are instead respectively reserved for running and reloading your weapon. This frees up the face buttons for taking/swapping cover and vaulting (Cross), swapping between your two allotted weapons (Triangle), taking human shields (Circle) or performing context-sensitive actions (Square). Holding down Triangle will also throw away your current weapon, which is really only useful when it completely runs out of ammo. While holding a human shield, you can throw them into other enemies or execute them outright with a single button press. There’s also a dedicated button for tracking points of interest (Right) and another for locating nearby guns (Down).

Although the core design of Dog Days isn’t anything to write home about, there are some small twists on the cover shooter formula that make it a relatively smooth experience. Players going through the campaign solo don’t have to worry about reviving their AI partner(s), as they are invincible and can even operate independently, sometimes picking up the slack and killing enemies the player can’t. The sole exception is when escorting Glazer in Chapter 2, “The Details”, as he’s completely defenseless and has a health bar. If you take enough damage, there’s a chance that you’re merely downed, not dead, and can either continue shooting while in this position or, if you’re close enough, get back up and into cover. Additionally, when throwing a canister, there’s a certain window where the next shot you fire will automatically strike and explode it, regardless of what weapon you have at the time.

Other noticeable design choices include giving guns fairly realistic recoil, which discourages squeezing the trigger for long bursts, and having your loadout persist between Chapters when playing normally. Despite the extremely linear design with no incentive for exploration, there are some sections where Kane and Lynch can potentially sneak around enemies, which at least once made me consider replaying certain sections just to see if I could perfect the stealth approach. Since I played on Easy due to certain circumstances at the time, I also noticed that you can run past certain encounters, potentially despawning some enemies, but even then, you can still die if you’re too careless. In one section near the end of Chapter 3, “Blood, Sweat, and Tears”, I spawned a small number of cops before the intended story trigger with this method. Due to some issues with my PS3 at the time I played the game, I was also glad that the main menu had an option where you could track your current Trophy progress (and the progress towards each individual Trophy).

Official screenshots make the gameplay look better than it is.

If there’s anything any one would know this game for, however, it’s that the entire campaign, across all 11 Chapters, is only about four hours long. This means that most players could get through it in a single sitting and experience nearly everything the game has to offer. On the other hand, the number of Chapters means that those who can’t play for four hours straight or have limited time can get through the story in bursts of roughly 20 minutes each. That said, there’s little replay value, as there aren’t any collectibles and you only miss dialogue if you move too quickly between event flags. You’ll also most certainly want the subtitles on, as the default audio mixing in certain parts of the game leads to some drowned out dialogue.

The only way you could potentially squeeze more playtime out of the campaign is playing it in Co-Op. When played locally, the screen splits horizontally and each player controls either Kane or Lynch. The game will note that the tutorial is in the Single Player campaign. Otherwise, the experience is nearly identical, but now either player can die and must revive their partner while next to them. Dying players can delay the inevitable by mashing Square until their partner saves them. The only other difference I noticed from playing the first level this way was that players could outrun Brady and the girl with him and Brady once stood still in one spot, preventing an event flag from triggering until we backed away a bit. In other words, there’s potential for breaking the game wide open.

Surprisingly, Dog Days still has an Online component, with three Multiplayer modes: Fragile Alliance, Undercover Cop and Cops & Robbers. In Fragile Alliance, as an alliance of criminals, up to eight players must pull off a heist and escape with as much money as possible. All players share the score, but greedy players can turn traitor and kill others for their cash (but are branded with a yellow card and have a reward on their head). Dead players respawn as Cops to try and recover the loot and take revenge on their killer, with all surviving Cops receiving 10% of the recovered loot.

Undercover Cop adds a twist to Fragile Alliance, where a random player is secretly a Cop. It is the Undercover Cop’s job to stop the heist and prevent any criminals from escaping, all while blending in with everyone else. If they survive, they receive 10% of the recovered loot.

Cops & Robbers adds a team-based element where up to twelve players are divided into Cops and Robbers. Robbers try to steal the loot and escape while Cops try to retrieve and protect the loot. The winning team is the one that ends the session with the most money and while each team is composed of the same players for the entire game, they switch sides each round.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t form an opinion on the Online modes because even though the servers are miraculously still active, good luck finding any players. I tried starting a match for at least ten minutes in each of the three modes, as well as hosting a lobby myself, but not a single person showed up. It probably doesn’t help that the servers are not only region-locked, they also discriminate between players who own a digital or disc copy. I don’t know if owning the digital version or any of the DLC would yield different results, but I didn’t want to spend $15 on another copy of the game just to find out. Either way, your best shot at trying an Online match and getting any of the multiplayer trophies would be organizing a group yourself. Similarly, I tried finding an Online Co-Op player out of curiosity, but had no luck, so those without a friend on the couch will need to organize this as well.

All the multiplayer modes involve playing as
random people (screenshot from Steam version).

I could, however, play the Arcade Mode, which plays like an offline version of Fragile Alliance, complete with a ranking system and access to all six maps (nine with the Doggie Bag DLC). The main difference, however, is that the other players are bots and you have three lives. If you lose all your lives, the game ends. Thanks to this, I learned that when you reach the getaway vehicle, you can choose to either hold the door open for the others or leave immediately and split your take 50/50 with the driver. From there, you receive bonuses or penalties based on your performance, which affects how much you can spend on new weapons between rounds. Certain weapons are also locked behind either the player’s current Rank or DLC.

Though I didn’t play for very long, I had some fun as I played and could see the potential for hectic or even tense matches when played with other unpredictable humans. When the servers do eventually die, this would be the main way of experiencing at least some of what else the game has to offer, as well as increase the longevity of your play session.

What really saves Dog Days, however, is its presentation. While the game may look ugly by today’s standards, the streets of Shanghai offer a unique setting for an action game and provide a perfect contrast of bright and colorful lights against the game’s dark and gritty tone. Other neutral locations like building interiors and a trainyard can feel more generic, but the finale, which takes place around and through an airport, loops back to memorable for its sheer scale and variety of set pieces.

An ugly game with a unique look.

Of course, the most well-known aspect of the presentation is how everything is filtered through the capabilities of a cheap handheld camera, almost resembling a found footage film. Title menus and levels don’t just load, they “buffer”, as though loading new footage. The third-person camera view truly feels like you’re really a cameraman following Kane and Lynch, as walking creates a certain amount of screen wobble (with a stabilization option in the menu for easily disoriented players) while running temporarily affects the audio quality and creates some noticeable pixelation without getting in the way of the gameplay. Reaching a checkpoint makes the camera flash the time at the top of the screen. In an interesting twist, when the player character dies, the cameraman collapses to the floor, as though the enemy had shot them (aka you) as well.

In addition to the buffering, the way the game handles onscreen kills can give the impression that someone had edited the “footage”. When enemies or civilians die, their faces are sometimes blurred out, effectively leaving what they look like at that point to your imagination. This approach extends to pixelating Kane and Lynch’s genitals when they run naked through Shanghai following their torture, which in this case doubles as a clever–not to mention convenient—way to maintain the game’s “M” rating.

While some players may not notice it, the gritty realism of Dog Days extends to its music, with a score that hits the player on two fronts. In the first, German composer Mona Mur offers complex and experimental ambient soundscapes that capture the oppressive atmosphere of Kane and Lynch’s journey in service of the game’s gritty realism, with a noticeable industrial feel. For better or worse, it sounds nothing like a traditional action game score but still works in a subtle leitmotif that ties the seemingly disparate tracks together. In the second, EMI Music Publishing Scandinavia and audio house Dynamedion created twenty-three tracks that fit the Shanghai setting, complete with Mandarin vocals. Players can hear these Asian tracks in a variety of sources, but mostly during the main menu, the end credits and diagetically throughout the environment. Though there aren’t full versions of any of these tracks available, the dedication required for creating this much original music for the sake of realism is truly admirable.

When divorced from the context of the game, the score is an interesting listen, though the enjoyability depends largely on your tolerance for ambient soundscapes. Otherwise, the short Asian tracks sound nice on their own and may be the more accessible portion of the score.

Taken as a whole, I wouldn’t recommend Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days if you’re looking for a good game, as the actual gameplay feels lacking even when compared to other shooters available at the time. IO Interactive’s sheer commitment to their intended vision, however, results in something worth experiencing at least once for its artistic merit alone, provided you don’t mind the flawed mechanics. It helps that its current price, especially if you can find it on sale, is a much better value than paying full price at launch.

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