Thursday, July 14, 2011

Post Play Analysis: Kane & Lynch: Dead Men (XBox 360)

When most people think of IO Interactive, the obvious franchise that comes to mind is the Hitman series. I haven't played much of the Hitman games (the most I know of their games is Freedom Fighters, a squad based shooter), but I was onboard with the idea of Kane & Lynch from the start as a grimier, more darker take on shooters with slight squad based gameplay. After the review incident at Gamespot and average to mediocre reviews, I hesitated to get the game until a much later date. It took a while, but I did end up finishing the game recently.

Cover Based Mechanics

When people think about the creative process, they always think of great people coming up with absolutely original ideas that have never been seen before.


That is absolutely not true at all. There's a pretty good vidoc on this called Everything is a Remix (I highly recommend watching it) which points to media and creativity as a reinvention of what has come before it, and while it focuses mainly on other, more "mainstream" mediums such as movies, it also apply to games.

Shooting out of cover from Kane & Lynch

While Kane & Lynch never bills itself as a cover based shooter, because of it's release date, players will always associate the gameplay with Gears of War, released over a year earlier.
Cover in Gears of War

...which, of course, is predated by WinBack or Kill.Switch, depending on how you interpret "cover system as core gameplay mechanic".
WinBack and Kill.Switch, with their early cover system ideas.

The fun part of the history lesson is that a) No, Gears wasn't entirely original, even Cliff Bleszinski have acknowledged that he was inspired the earlier games and b) If someone's done it before it, steal it, improve it, and make it yours.

More importantly, for Kane & Lynch, having such well known predecessors means that their cover system will be judged in comparison even if that was never the original intention. Kane and Lynch utilized a contextual "auto-snap" mechanic that automatically places players to a cover if they are in proximity. In theory, this streamlined process would make the action simpler, allowing players to focus on other tasks; in practice, it became a frustrating exercise in trying to figure out why certain things that look like cover isn't cover, and took players' attention away from focusing on attacking the enemy.

In both Gears of War and Kane & Lynch, cover is a vital part of the mechanic, as players are strongly encouraged to stay in cover (no damage while in cover) and only attacking at certain opportunities. The problem with Kane and Lynch is that Gears of War came first (yes, this is a valid complain), which puts player expectation on how a cover system is suppose to work; when it doesn't work the way players expect, then it feels broken and unfinished. Too often I found myself wishing the cover worked better or not work at all, as the seemingly randomness of it made the game difficult to play. Context sensitive actions are great in theory in reducing the number of actions that players have to manage, but if it becomes a critical point of gameplay, it's probably a safe bet to hand it over to the player to control.

It's interesting to note that Kane & Lynch 2 greatly improved upon this by COPYING Gears of War's cover system down to the icon prompts.

Squad Based Gameplay

What was most disappointing about Kane & Lynch was it's rather bland squad based gameplay. This issue was the most apparent late in the game when you gain control of your own army (of sorts)...
So many guys in your command...

...only to have them die right away. The biggest sin of any squad based game is having useless squad AIs, where players are pretty much required to babysit the AI for long durations of the game. While making the AI too powerful means players don't end up worrying about the life and death of their AI partner, making them too weak or too unintelligent decisions (in this case here, not taking cover) makes the experience a chore. Other sections of the game seems just as inconsistent, where the AI is powerful enough that you never really have to do any work (there's even an achievement for it). Ultimately, the problems with squad based gameplay is that it's always going to be difficult to strike the perfect balance between tedium and excitement. Too much autonomy leaves little room for players interaction and decision making; too little, then it becomes an escort-like gameplay where it becomes tedious and possibly frustrating.

One counter-intuitive way to make squad based gameplay more playable, however, is actually making the AI units even dumber. A good example of this is Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, where units do not make any decisions unless you explicitly instruct them. While unrealistic from a realism standpoint (if an area is clear, they don't get out of cover and catch up to your position), it makes for a much simpler, more clear gameplay mechanic that players can identify and work with. While the units feel dumber and less realistic, they give the player a greater sense of being in command, which is ideally what controlling a squad should feel like.

Also interesting note: squad based gameplay was essentially removed/minimized in the sequel.

Game Atmosphere

For all the average and mediocre gameplay issues, one of the standout points of Kane & Lynch was it's atmosphere, and it's most evident in the nightclub section.

While the game does it's best in delivering a diverse range of environments and settings (warehouse, another warehouse, a bank, office building, jail, jungle, etc.), the Nightclub stands out as one of the most memorable because of how much it actually changed the gameplay. Shooting enemies in the dark with just the strobe lights illuminating the environment was a pretty unique experience, and really worked in emphasizing the character's motivation and the situation they're in. For the first half of the game, you may enjoy the shooting mechanic, but the game does a very good job of reminding you that you aren't the good guys here.

Die, Die and Die again

Before I go, I must present this:

One mechanic that Kane & Lynch relies on is the tried and true mechanic of "a boss fight", and it runs into the same issues that most "realistic games" run into: it doesn't make any sense, and it's absolutely frustrating. In the above case, you have around 2 minutes to defeat the dump truck (by precisely shooting out the driver) before it runs over your daughter. Why it's frustrating? a) You'll never figure it out unless you die a few times, b) It happens after a large firefight, and you may not have the right guns/enough ammo to do it, c) It's completely different to all the gameplay mechanics prior and d) Did I mention you'll die a lot trying to figure this out?

The checkpoint before this section is a welcomed decision, but it still doesn't guarantee the player has enough ammo, and after repeated tries, players are more than likely to give up on the game entirely.

Sequels do make things better!

While Kane & Lynch was mediocre at best, the sequel managed to improve up on all the issues of the first significantly. I'm sure the issues I've pointed to above were probably raised during their development cycle, but hindsight is always 20/20, and it probably took public feedback for them to really look at how to make things better.

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