IO Interactive’s Kane & Lynch is a strange game. It is the work of a very talented developer taking a break from their lucrative Hitman series. This clear talent shines through K&L, but primarily through the cracks in the game’s finish. The game that players of Kane & Lynch see before them is an absolutely incredible game utilizing a setting that almost no other game in the current game industry environment utilizes and, on top of that, it’s a setting that IO Interactive not only understands and embraces, but has a great deal of love for. K&L received a strange critical reception, in part due to controversy surrounding Gamespot and Jeff Gerstmann, but also simply a generally mixed reception concluding in the unfortunate final result of Kane & Lynch being colloquially/casually considered a poor game.
The idea of the ‘heist’ as a full-on premise is one that’s been lost on game developers (and maybe Generation Y as a whole), so it ends up appearing only in certain missions in larger games, such as “Three Leaf Clover” in Grand Theft Auto 4. The reasoning for this, as far as I’ve been able to piece together, is that bank robberies simply aren’t “epic” enough. That and there appears to be the belief that most gamers don’t want to play the criminal or the anti-hero, which are the kind of characters that are traditionally displayed in heist movies and stories. All of this runs contrary to the existence of popular television shows over the last decade having characters like Vic Mackey in The Shield and Dr. Gregory House in House, both of whom are morally compromised individuals doing objectively bad things for eventually-sympathetic reasons. Kane & Lynch is not only a heist game with an intimate (non-epic) story-line, but its two leads are vulgar, ‘bad’ people. Kane an ex-mercenary know-it-all who constantly needs to be take charge of situations and Lynch is a psychopath who, in fits of blind fury when he’s off his meds, goes into a violent rage. So, quoth the Gamespot review of the game, “[e]very single person you play as or encounter is despicable and wholly abrasive; thus, it’ll probably be tough for you to find anyone to latch onto and care about.” Lynch looks out for Kane and appears to be haunted by whether or not he was the murderer of his wife while Lynch indirectly got his wife killed and only wants to find his daughter so he can read her a letter. Maybe not the greatest characterizations ever, but certainly sympathetic to some extent.
The critical press indicate that Kane & Lynch is a ‘bad’ game. In most mediums, a 65 average would equate to a better-than-average product that is still well worth one’s time. Hell, RottenTomatoes considers a movie with an aggregate rating of 60 points or higher to be “fresh.” This is another tangent altogether, but the gist of the matter is that with an aggregate score of 65, Kane & Lynch was widely considered to be an “average” game at best and, with a score like that, more generally labeled as “bad.” This is, arguably, a semantic quibble, but the inflated notion of the meaning of review scores somewhat infuriates me as both a gamer and a developer. The mere concept that a game can be rated on a scale with 100 points of granularity, or split into its components (gameplay, audio, lasting appeal, and so on) is completely absurd.
When I played Kane & Lynch, I played a game that was, to some extent, marred by a variety of technical inconsistencies, bugs, and the occasional straight-up flaw. The controls are not as responsive as a shooter-heavy game like K&L should be, nor is the AI behavior excellent, and the gameplay spaces throughout the game are hit-and-miss (har). Ten minutes into the game, though, none of this really mattered to me. I found myself completely engrossed from the unexpectedly intense beginning through the ridiculously depressing end. I also found the game’s “exceptionally short single-player campaign” to not only be a well-sized chunk of game, but in the case of Kane & Lynch, I’d argue that the campaign was too long.
The structural arc of Kane & Lynch aims to convey its intensity much in the way that Portal conveys its focus. A game’s length is in direct relation to the experience in which it aims to provide. This does, at times, run contrary to the price, hype, or marketing of the final product, but to consider a game’s temporal length as a criterion for its overall value or effect is not only ludicrous, but irrelevant. There is an analog to movies in regards to the critical relevance of length, but often a movie is hailed as “too long,” rather than “too short.” Very few movies suffer from a short duration, a number of movies suffer from a long run-time. A long movie is, and I’m speaking in total generalizations here, more often to be reviewed as unfocused than it is to be reviewed as an appropriate length for the price of my ticket/DVD. Making comparisons from games to film is both annoying and error-prone, but as far as media comparisons are concerned, the movie/game parallels are the easiest to draw.
Kane & Lynch attempts to draw that parallel in its structure, form, and mechanics. It starts with the prison break, the confused, hurried introduction to the characters and the game world, and the frantic, hurried attempts at resolving it (that, naturally, ultimately go haywire). The character and aiming controls are not as fluid as third-person shooter gamers would like, nor is the cover as beefy and useful as, say, Gears of War, but the entirety of K&L’s combat system manages to from a cohesive ludic package: simulating the heist movie shootout. Whether it was intentional or not, it’s difficult to aim, enemies are often brutal in both numbers and ferocity, and the ‘solid’ cover in a given level is almost impossible to find. It’s frustrating, but fittingly so. And much like any ‘squad’ game, the system reinforces the role of your friends, and I use the term loosely for Kane & Lynch, in the experience. Ignoring a majority of the Havana segments for the moment, every part of K&L wants to ludically recreate the experience of a heist movie by providing the thematic framework and allowing the game systems and encounters to do the rest.
Thinking back on my playing experience, I am continually impressed at how well the night club scene worked out. The game is, at times, brutal with the details it puts in front of players and the resulting expectation it has of its players’ ability to react. When working through the night club scene in the mission after “shit has gone down,” the crowd of dancing men and women are oblivious to the fact that a knocked-out Asian woman is being carried on the shoulder of a long-haired psychopath trailing a man in a suit with a gun and a broken nose. A crowd in a busy, foggy, colorful night club would be oblivious to a thing like that, I suppose. So when an enemy is approaching the player through this sea of people, he blends in. What IO Interactive does to highlight these enemies is simple: give them a flashlight. One hand on the flashlight, one hand on a gun, that’s it. The player sees these men in suits with flashlights and, almost without thinking, opens fire on them. The game does not call this out, it allows this beautiful moment to play out: shots fired, men with flashlights fire back creating a blend of muzzle flare and a flashlight lens flare blending amongst the fog and laser lights, people throughout the club are running around in a panic, crossfire takes down random civilians, and all the while Lynch is in the back mere moments from a blind fury pyschopathic breakdown.
And that is the Kane & Lynch I played. Bits and pieces of the rest of the game touch on the brilliance of the night club ‘mission’, and they make the totality of the game an exceptional experience. If IO Interactive hadn’t lost their focus with the Havana endgame, they would have created a superb heist game. Instead it’s simply ‘good’, but games shouldn’t be wary of that word. There’s room for improvement, there is in every work, but just because it’s not ‘great’ doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.