Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A dog's life

Wednesday, September 15, 2010 9
(Mild spoilers follow. Like you even care, Dad.)

All puns intended, Kane & Lynch 2 is for the dogs.
Admire the poor creatures' appearances in the game itself: briefly and unremarkably, they show up to be gunned down.  They inspire none of the visceral fear of the dog packs in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. or COD4 (or the loathsome retread of the same found in World at War).
They come running toward you and you ventilate them with bullets, and then you wonder briefly why they were included at all. Tellingly, the last two interlopers to attack you right before the game's abrupt non-ending are dogs. The game is nasty, brutish and short, and squarely centered on the de rigueur cover mechanic.

Why would IO put out a game so blind to the company's own best strengths?

Are they so keen to distance their other games from the consistent brilliance of Hitman I wonder? Pressure from Eidos, and then new owners Square Enix? I finished K&L2 on the PC shortly after release, but continued to ponder the design decisions that shaped the game.
Kane & Lynch 1 was chiefly remarkable for the title characters. There was a rare sense of parity between the amoral chaos the duo causes both in the cutscenes and in the gameplay. The game also claims partial inheritance from Freedom Fighters (a well received former title of IO whose IP rights stayed with EA), with a good degree of the gameplay verbs given over to basic squad management. One could swap weapons with anyone in the crew, or resupply ammo; occasionally ordering your crew around made a difference tactically.
Despite the game never really delivering on the HEAT-inspired heisting that it seemed to promise along with the HEAT-inspired gunplay (which it mostly did), there was an admirable sense of belonging. Much of the game's action was centered on working alongside in crew of professional criminals, of which the title characters were in the lead. HEAT was the clear exemplar, as has been repeatedly noted: one only needs to watch the justly vaunted bank robbery scene to see why. Cops and robbers, high-power mayhem among hapless bystanders. In my mind, this counted for a lot of the first game's appeal.

Yet IO chose not to revise and hone that gameplay; it is as if they actually believed everything said about their game and proceeded to rip out all the good along with the bad. Choosing to erode core gameplay until there was nothing but an equally meager and punishing cover shooter subsistence left.
I find this puzzling because well observed iterative design is what turned the Hitman series into such a towering success. There were missteps and false notes in each game, which were gradually corrected until the most recent Blood Money: a classic, highly polished and deeply replayable game with mass-market appeal, strong cross-platform sales. (Hitman is also a remarkable case of a console-centered control makeover making life better for PC players, too. Remind me of that comment for another post sometime.)

So what's with the lobotomy on an already slight game? Virtually all of the heisting and any crew-centric verbs or gameplay/story concepts disappeared. Also missing were the highlight spectacles of the first game--a non-violent ramp-up to a set-piece (the Collateral-inspired club sequence) as well as big shootouts occuring in public with numerous bystanders.
It seems as though in the effort to correct what was critically and popularly reviled about the first title, they trimmed out much of what made the original game admirable.
To be sure there are perfunctory nods to expanding the multiplayer component, and the online co-op and revamped visual style are to be commended. But there again--why so much effort into a multiplayer mode condemned to be a ghost town shortly after release, as most non-CoD or Halo releases are?

The essential relationship between the two misfit lead characters also goes under-served. Despite a lot of the anti-cinematic rhetoric evident in my personal design philosophy I am not against a game that tells a good story, by whatever means appropriate. I like hearing these characters connect--or fail to, seeing as how they are both emotionally crippled, horrible men.
IO have taken time to establish these characters through extraordinarily nuanced choices--the costuming choices throughout the game are frankly industry best--and give us well directed cutscenes only in order to serve up variations on the same template: Oh shit, we're in another firefight. Oh Kane, oh Lynch, we've made yet another poor decision involving a shady underworld boss' daughter getting shot by one or the both of us. Is this really the only plot point IO writers can avail themselves of? Why go through the trouble of drawing the characters so vividly when the player behind them is availed even less expression than the first, "casual"-centered action title?

The game seems to have gone in precisely the wrong direction. Reduced and pared down where it should have expanded; reined in where it should have extended. It succeeds in giving us wall-to-wall action, but isn't that where all the biggest blockbuster titles make their money? Why beg the comparison?

I want to finish by talking a little bit about interstices and infrastructure. The former is where the game misses out, the latter is where the game profoundly disappoints in a way that we see over and over again in these kinds of games.

By interstices I mean the space between things; in the case of Kane and Lynch I am referring to both the gameplay and the gamespace. These interstices are suggestive of all the possible gameplay variation the game so desperately needs, as well as the connective tissue to the story.
 In a key sequence, teased from the very first viral video for the game (though the video promises far more variety than the game delivers), Kane and Lynch have been savagely tortured and must escape, naked and wounded. It is one of the game's startling high points, if only for a moment. In short order the two are re-armed with found weapons and the game proceeds exactly as a few minutes ago.
Surely, the extraordinary circumstances might offer variation, but no such luck. Not even a darkly comic sequence of these two tortured men A) in some back alley stealing ill-fitting clothes off clotheslines in the back alleys of Shanghai, weaponless, and then perhaps B)breaking into a hospital or clinic to seek pain relief or other supplies.
Instead we have another perfunctory albeit in-the-buff shooting sequence exactly like the rest of the game, and cut to Kane and Lynch walking into their next ambush/firefight already with their mismatched clothes on and hasty bandages.
If IO meant to place us in panicked, caged-animal feeling of these two men in their attempt to escape Shanghai with you-are-there immediacy, surely the game would have benefitted from more careful attention to the nuts and bolts of that escape. Instead we are treated to the traditionally jarring videogame cut-to-next-level, all promise of those tantalizing interstices erased. Just press fast forward.

More often than not, the scene we fast-forward to is some kind of lazy level design staple: industry and infrastructure. It makes sense in more strictly military-minded games--after all, American warfare is increasingly fixated on attacking and defending infrastructure for sound reasons.
But this does not excuse most action games forcing us through an endless gauntlet of industrial or infrastructural spaces. I do not mean to single out K&L2 solely for this offense, but to underscore how endemic it is to many videogame level designs.
In K&L2 there are some interesting, highly evocative and quintessentially Shanghai-type locations, but there are also all the old favorites. Over the course of the game we visit a parking garage, a construction site, several warehouses, a shipyard/drydock, a rail yard/depot, a skyscraper's HVAC workings, and finally an airport's hangars and baggage handling.
One cannot help but yearn for the thousand times more interesting and mayhem-filled action to be seen on the other side of the walls one is cattle-gated through. It is appropriate to the story--Kane and Lynch are rotten bastards, trying to escape from this city at all cost--and it is also a highlight from the first game bafflingly left un-revisited in the sequel.
If only there were the checkbox on the application to work at a UPS warehouse, [X] Yes, I have played most action games over the past fifteen years and am therefore an expert in virtual warehousing (specialty in demonic warehousing). [X] Yes, I do know my way around containerized shipping, I have spent close to a month in real time around virtual shipping containers, shipyards, and commercial shipping vessels.

Much as one finds in relationships, one cannot help but feel as though while it may not strictly provide a positive portrait of what is the right path ahead in game and level design, our past nevertheless continues to furnish us with example after example of what not to do: what we have done again and again and hate ourselves for and swear we will avoid next time.

Please let my action games have breathing room enough to admit gameplay beyond shooting.
Please let my action games be set in places other than industrial/infrastructural areas.

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