I found the first Kane & Lynch an important game. It was not very good as an action title – although by no means bad, either – but it was very interesting.
Games should generally be more interesting.
What made it interesting was its sad bastards of protagonists. These guys are the same in the sequel. They’re bad guys, but human. They’re trying to do right by their own, skewed perspective. They’re trying to meet their own gaze in the mirror, no matter all the shit they’ve gone down with.
What made it interesting was the setting. They used that Michael Mann cool, hard criminal urban aesthetic really effectively. Despite sometimes lackluster graphical technical quality, that game had atmosphere and cool more than it knew what to do with. The sequel does the same thing, only this time with Shanghai’s exotic underground, and nobody can fault their technical execution. It’s a gorgeous game.
But its ultimate triumph was the narrative. Riding as Kane, a morally bankrupt gangster trying to do right by his family, but only knowing his criminal ways and violence, makes a sad mess of his already messed up life, and every attempt he makes, he just draws himself and everyone he loves deeper into a hopeless situation. It was intense. Games are rarely intense on a narrative level.
It is this last point IO Interactive fumbles in the sequel. It is still an interesting title and well worth the ride, but the narrative just doesn’t have the same gravitas.
The problem is that the protagonists are mostly reacting to stuff happening to them. They don’t take action. They don’t plan. Run and gun can never replace intent. When you decide that you are going to do a Bad Thing and then you carry it out, that’s powerful stuff. When dudes show up to shoot you up, shooting them up isn’t very interesting.
They do still know how to use their setup for very effective scenes. There are multiple memorable moments in the game. But the shocks are never as effective as in the first game, and that’s because you don’t have a similar emotional bond to these absolutely flawed protagonists. You don’t care.
I felt very conflicted about playing the first game, because on a level I did sympathize with Kane’s plight, but goddamn, he made a lot of very bad calls and did a lot of very bad things. This was not an easy man to like. In the sequel, mostly because the guys are constantly under fire and on the run, it’s easy to side with them. Of course it’s okay to shoot at guys who are shooting at you. Of course it’s okay to blast some guys who have just tortured you and killed your girlfriend.
While the central conflict is not as engaging, the gloriously improved, stylized presentation makes up for it. This is a journey well worth taking, if not living up to its full potential. Kane & Lynch titles are some of this medium’s bravest writing and for that alone they’re worth your time.