Reinstall invites you to join us in revisiting PC gaming days gone by. Today, Andy goes back to the grotty alleyways of Kane & Lynch 2.
About 14 million people live in Shanghai, and by the end of Kane & lynch 2 I felt like I’d killed most of them. The crowded, neon-lit streets of the world’s largest city become soaked in blood as murderous psychopath Lynch drags his reluctant partner Kane through endless waves of gun-toting gangsters, corrupt cops, and the Chinese military.
The game was released in 2010 to mostly negative reviews, but has since developed something of a cult following. After a year of complex open-world blockbusters, I thought it would be interesting to revisit a shooter so lean it’s positively starving.
This is a game with one word in its vocabulary: kill. It’s a singleminded, uncompromisingly violent third-person shooter that’s so minimal, there isn’t even a grenade button. You can shoot, reload, use cover, and that’s it. There’s a story, sort of, but it doesn’t really matter. The thin narrative is little more than a means of getting the duo from one place to another, and the majority of the dialogue is Lynch shouting variations of “Fuck!” as he wades into yet another hail of gunfire.
But while Kane & Lynch 2 is about as low concept as shooters get, the art direction is anything but. A dirty, distorted VHS effect degrades the visuals, with compression artefacts to suggest you’re watching the action on YouTube. The camera shakes and wobbles as if someone’s filming you with a handheld camera, and gore is pixelated. These effects combine to give the game a rough, documentary feel, which makes everything seem grittier and more brutal. When you shoot someone in the head and see pixels rather than blood, it somehow feels more savage. More real.
It’s a gimmick, but an effective one. The sickly glow of neon signs, the trash-strewn streets and dark, dingy alleyways make for an almost tangibly grim setting when viewed through this glitchy, grainy lens. You move from wide, busy thoroughfares, through apartment blocks, into illegal sweatshops, and up to rain-soaked rooftops. The pacing is frenetic and the scenery constantly changes around you, which may explain the game’s short length. It’s five hours long, and that’s enough. Any more and you’d collapse from exhaustion.
For a game entirely about shooting people, the combat is maddeningly imprecise. Submachine guns spray wildly with exaggerated kickback. Shotgun blasts only seem to make contact half the time. And you can empty an entire assault rifle magazine and your target will still be standing. The sloppy, unpredictable firefights add to the game’s sense of messy ultraviolence—Kane and Lynch are criminals, not trained soldiers—but it also makes it a pretty unsatisfying shooter. When you run out of bullets you toss your gun away and pick up another from among the mass of bodies at your feet, although an automatic shotgun is about as exotic as your arsenal ever gets.
But here’s the thing. As simplistic and one-note as Kane & Lynch 2 is, it’s strangely compelling. The level design, combat, story, and pretty much everything except the setting and visuals are unremarkable. But in the thick of a firefight, with the camera shaking and your guns blazing, you get caught up in the moment. Your senses are overwhelmed and you forget you’re playing a completely rote thirdperson shooter. It’s all smoke and mirrors. The equivalent of a photographer waving a stuffed toy around to get a distracted baby to look at his camera. But it works.
There are no real set-pieces to speak of. The game is, somewhat admirably, light on Call of Duty-style nonsense. But there are a few brilliant moments. After being kidnapped and tortured, the duo are forced to escape their captors while naked and covered in blood. It’s gruesomely hilarious: the stuff of a particularly exploitative ’80s video-nasty. You spend the whole level staring at their blood-soaked arses as they sneak past guards in the pounding rain—although their junk is, mercifully, pixelated.
IO’s environment design has always been incredible, and Kane & Lynch 2 is no different. There’s an early sequence where you barge through an apartment complex, bursting into people’s homes as you pursue a fleeing gangster. You get snippets of the inhabitants’ lives—a family eating dinner at a dining table, a junkie slumped in front of a TV—and it makes for a convincingly real, lived-in world. The visuals have aged badly on a technical level, but the vaseline smear of the VHS postprocessing and camera shake hide it well. Proof that strong art direction can make a game timeless.
There are moments when you emerge from the dark alleys of the city into busy streets teeming with traffic and people. Flanked by giant neon signs, civilians are caught in the crossfire as you exchange bullets with cops and gangsters. This collateral damage is shrugged off, which is bleak, but fits the dark, ruthless mood of the game. The only glimmers of humanity are Lynch’s concern for a largely unseen girlfriend and Kane talking about his daughter – whose rescue was part of the first game. But it’s only touched upon, and there’s no character development whatsoever.
Phil Savage prefers a lynching.
“Kane & Lynch 2 is a game about firing a gun for five hours. You’d find more variety in the blandest level of the worst Call of Duty . The inept cameraman following Prick and Bigger Prick should have put a bullet in their heads and saved us all the trouble. In the bin with it.”
Then the gruesome twosome foolishly leave Shanghai behind and find themselves fighting through dreary warehouses and grey train yards. It’s a jarring change of scenery and marks the point where the game loses all its momentum. Without the bustling neon haze of the city to flood your senses, you become increasingly aware of how little the game has to offer. The smoke clears and the mirrors shatter. Your eyes glaze over as you murder endless waves of riot cops and plead for it to end. It does, eventually, and you’re left with an empty, hollow feeling.
You wonder what all that death and destruction really achieved. Kane and Lynch successfully escape the people who, perhaps rightfully, wanted them dead, and live to fight another day. But is that a good thing? It’s not like you’re rooting for them, because they’re unsympathetic, one-dimensional killers. Your desire to keep them alive is so you can finish the game, not because you’ll be sad if they die. In this respect,
Kane & Lynch 2 is a deeply cynical, misanthropic game with absolutely no heart. And I think that’s the point. It’s a brazen, ghoulish murder-fest, as twisted and amoral as its heroes, and has no pretensions otherwise. And you’re a voyeur, watching their wanton barbarism on YouTube, unable to turn away, complicit.
Kane & Lynch 2 is, fundamentally, a bad game. It’s clunky, simplistic, and unimaginative. But I love it because of its distinctive, powerful art design and its utterly unapologetic nature. It’s not trying to tell a story or develop its characters. The only message you’ll get from it is kill. It’s a grotty snuff film found on an unmarked, worn-out VHS tape. A grotesque celebration of violence starring a pair of morally barren criminals. Those first few hours, when the streets of Shanghai erupt with gunfire, are exhilarating, but also troublingly intense. As you unload a shotgun into a police officer and pixels obscure the ensuing mess, you feel bad for enjoying it. But you do. You monster.