Format: Xbox 360, PC, PS3
Release: Out now
Publisher: Eidos / Square Enix
Developer: IO Interactive
By the end of Dog Days our two anti-heroes, Kane and Lynch, have been battered and brutalised – not to mention subjected to some especially grizzly body modification by way of a mobster and his craft knife. But if anything, it’s the city that comes out worst from its clash with the criminal duo. IO Interactive’s thirdperson shooter sequel recreates a Shanghai at its darkest moments, a super-urban nightmare of tightly packed skyscrapers and decaying alleys, the entire hyper-reality lit either by flickering neon or the sallow flat sunlight filtered by a thick pillow of smog.
This is neither a love letter nor balanced travel journalism, but it is a dizzying, dense and powerful fiction, and it makes Dog Days’ opening act a furious, alarming experience as the city crowds in with its cluttered skyline and bustling streets, its linear levels managing to be both claustrophobic and suggestive of a bewilderingly large place.
For reasons that are left largely unexplained through the terse cutscenes, gun-for-hire Kane joins his old partner (and now playable character) Lynch in Shanghai for one final job. The job goes bad – as they always do – and the two are left to blast their way to freedom through all of about six hours of familiar cover-shooter encounters with crooks and cops. It’s a disappointing transition. Those opening sequences see the criminal pair dash after a snitch and his girl as they scarper across rooftops and through apartments.
Although its format of checkpoints and patiently waiting quarries won’t surprise anyone who’s played Assassin’s Creed, it is a more than usually lurid and disorienting chase thanks to the thirdperson camera that replicates the motion and quality of lo-fi handheld video. But as the game continues, the ambitions slowly evaporate. That chase sequence reveals itself as the exception rather than the rule, and the game devolves into a succession of similar battles in different-shaped rooms.
For a shooter, this would often be a sound enough premise, but Kane & Lynch is at risk of fumbling its basic trade. Taking cover is an awkward and prescriptive thing, pulling you into surfaces but leaving parts of you exposed. Crane out of cover to take a shot over a car and you’ll often find that Lynch is unloading directly into the bonnet. Sometimes, Kane clips through Lynch as they both hunker behind the same crate, the back of Kane’s head looming into the camera and obscuring your view. It’s a system without finesse, and its disappointment is compounded by the weaponry itself. With only a few exceptions, the guns feel weightless, and their range is pitiful, spluttering shots into the ether as though the reticule is no more than a polite suggestion as to where the bullets should go.
For the first couple of hours you forgive this, buoyed along by the grim promise of Dog Days’ cruddy environments, by the suggestions of larger, dramatic interaction teased through the cutscenes. But this deal eventually sours – there just aren’t enough options in combat to create variety even across this very short game. With the weapon range so locked down and alternative means of attack through melee or grenades unavailable, the same tactics are recycled again and again. Battles are too often a case of holing up to whittle down the suicidal enemies who pelt straight at you, before cautiously moving forward via a series of small walls.
Kane and Lynch’s early firefights, which spill out into the busy streets, manage to couch these mechanics in dramatic and evolving situations – cop cars skid to a halt to block off your exit, and pedestrians run screaming from the gunfire. But the game’s second half sees the criminal duo bundle through far more familiar scenes of industrial desolation – warehouses, train yards and docks – each drawn with dreary realism, but effectively no more than rooms of crates in which groups of armed men wait to be shot.
When variety arrives, IO oversteps its comfort zone. Some sections imply stealth, but devolve almost instantly into the usual gun battles. An on-rails helicopter ride reduces your input to holding the right trigger at five-second intervals in a methodical exchange of fire with another aircraft. But even as this sequence disappoints in its interaction, the way it’s rendered manages to wow, the plate-glass windows of a skyscraper shattering as your bullets tear up office furniture and security guards. It also sets up the ensuing levels with some panache – you later find yourself battling through the very same high-rise suites you are currently disassembling with machine-gun fire.
At the heart of Dog Days is this tension between alluring aesthetic and lacklustre action. IO understands drama, is literate in its recreation of gangster shtick and has created two genuinely intriguing creatures in the damaged and disaster-prone pair of career criminals. But the studio’s ambitions fail in realising what to do with them – there’s a feeble frame of plot on which to hang a large number of never-escalating gun battles. But though we aren’t delivered into the depths of these characters, it’s to IO’s credit that it feels like a waste. Imagine saying that about Marcus Fenix.
As with so many games, the blights and blemishes are partly concealed by playing it through in co-op, and there are extensive and intriguing multiplayer modes in the package, too (see ‘Co-ops and robbers’). But as a singleplayer experience, Dog Days feels underdeveloped. Its most striking ideas don’t fulfil their promise, and its successes are etched by pervasive minor flaws. The towering, terrifying city, and the lens through which it is shot, drag you onwards through the game’s lesser parts, but you sense that the real crime in this whole bloody escapade is that it doesn’t live up to its dark flashes of imagination.