While it's obviously great that we're allowed to play all the biggest titles before anyone else, video game hacks are often required to keep tight-lipped about the projects we are shown. There are embargoes that must be respected, non-disclosure agreements that must be signed, and all sorts of other stipulations that must be agreed to before we're allowed into the underground thermonuclear bunkers where developers keep their preview code. That's all fair enough, but sometimes it can be damned tricky to keep your mouth shut - particularly if you're a blabbermouth like me.
I say this because I'm now finally allowed to talk about Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, and after a month or so of having to hold my tongue, this comes as something of a relief. You see, Dog Days is a bit mad. Yes, it's a dark and violent third-person shooter, just like its predecessor, but the art style is highly unusual. While most action games try to make themselves look as slick and well-groomed as possible, aping the look of whichever Hollywood blockbuster is currently en vogue, Dog Days takes its cue from JJ Abrams' Cloverfield and its shake-o-vision peers. While the game's camera maintains its standard position slightly behind Lynch (he's the anti-hero this time), it feels as if you're watching the chaos through the eyes of a camcorder. It's a bit like the world's most violently unhinged edition of You've Been Framed... although a better title would be You've Been Repeatedly Shot In The Face.
Alright, so right now this revelation may not sound like much of a bombshell, but I assure you that you'll be taken aback when you see this game in action for the first time. When Lynch is dashing down a corridor, the camera lurches as "we" attempt to keep up with him; when bullets fly towards him (which happens frequently), digital interference speckles the screen. And in addition to this, there's a grainy filter laid over the top of everything that gives the game a delightfully sordid look. On paper it sounds like a bit of a dubious design choice, but from what I've seen so far, the results are quite remarkable. There's no background music either, so unless you happen to be near something in-game that's parping out a tune, you'll be left with the noise of your surroundings - a cacophony of gunshots, screaming and the hustle and chatter of downtown Shanghai.
Ah yes, Shanghai. I've not yet mentioned the setup for Dog Days. After the bloody events of the first game, the psychopathic Lynch has settled down in Shanghai with his loving girlfriend (we don't know much about her aside from the fact that her name is Xiu, but it's safe to say that her taste in men is appalling). Kane has meanwhile returned to his mercenary ways, but it's not long before Lynch summons him out East to assist with "one last job". And surprise surprise, it takes all of five minutes before the faecal matter hits the proverbial wind turbine. Cue another violent helping of badness and shooty bang bang, drawn out over the course of two days and nights.
Beyond this the story is still somewhat cloaked in mystery, but if the dark-as-ebony first game is anything to go by, it'll probably end badly for all concerned. Kane and Lynch are not the kind of men who ride off into the sunset; indeed, judging by the brief gameplay demo I was shown in December, it seems as if it's hard for them to even sit down to a quiet meal without someone having their frontal lobes blown all over the nearest wall.
The demo kicked off with a stylish, shaky close-up of our favourite miscreants shovelling noodles into their ex-con maws. Neither man looked particularly happy, but then they rarely do. After a moment or two of sullen chewing, the meal was interrupted by angry shouts - at which point the camera whipped around to reveal several armed men bursting into the restaurant. As the first of many gunshots rang out, Lynch dived away from the table and... well, to be honest it was kind of hard to keep track of what happened immediately next, as the camera was shaking all over the place. Essentially what I saw was an extremely smooth transition from cut-scene into gameplay - except that the camera movement itself wasn't smooth at all. It's hard to convey the contradictory nature of this scene, but in a nutshell it felt like all hell broke loose in the space of about two seconds, with a fearless Handycam operator attempting to document the whole thing.
The actual gun battle itself that marked the start of the demo was, in pure terms, everything we've come to expect from a third-person shooter. Here's Lynch cowering behind cover; here he is popping and blazing away at a bunch of gangsters; there he goes dashing about like a lunatic. There's a new mechanic called Down But Not Out which means our two protagonists don't instantly die when they get gunned down - instead they crawl about and bleed all over the shop, firing off stumbling rounds, until someone comes to their aid; this too is something we've seen done before, to various degrees. In short, Dog Days should feel a bit generic... and yet it doesn't, because of the way it looks and handles.
I'll naturally have to reserve full judgement of Dog Days' presentation until I've had a chance to properly test it out for myself, but I can say right now that the game is pretty exhilarating to watch. The camera work, camcorder effects and the general grittiness all conspire to create a remarkably strong flavour. There's no gloss here, just a coldness that verges on being scary. The absence of backing music also helps to give the action a real sense of pace, because when things ease up a little, you can hear the difference. There may be no Hollywood glamour, but the game feels deeply cinematic: it's like one of those stylish-but-nasty Asian thrillers that Tartan Video used to import in the late 1990s (RIP Tartan).
Despite its brevity, the demo was filled with memorable touches and moments. From the initial gunfight in the restaurant, Kane and Lynch fought their way through the kitchens to a back alley. Here, for a moment, there was tense quiet, allowing us to soak in a bit of the alien Shanghai atmosphere: the bright lights, the bustling crowds, the evening pedestrians skulking about in the shadowy road. Then, almost out the corner of our eye, someone ran down the street and off around the corner. This hurried movement immediately seemed like a bad omen, and so it proved: a cop car pulled up at the end of the road, and the duo once again found themselves under fire.
A short while later, I watched as Lynch battled foes from the inside of a DVD store in which he'd temporarily taken shelter. Bathed in neon lighting as he crouched behind a rack of boxes (most of which seemed to reference Mini Ninjas and the Hitman series), he began to mutter to himself about something in a strained voice. I couldn't quite catch what he was saying, but he didn't sound particularly stable. Lynch has hardly the soundest of minds at the best of times, and IO Interactive has already stated that his "condition" will once again cause you a few problems on your travels. Given that last time around he ended up executing a whole bunch of innocent hostages, the results could be messy.
When a game succeeds in generating tension just as you're moving from points A to B, you know that something is going well. The demo closed with Kane and Lynch fleeing the police and crossing what looked like an empty building site towards the apartment where Xiu lives. Here once again we had the calm before the storm, the camera jogging along behind Lynch as he and Kane moved through the darkness, the two men speaking only in terse exchanges. Needless to say, trouble was lying in wait at Xiu's place - but then with these two, it always is.
It's fair to say that the first Kane and Lynch left quite a bit of room for improvement, but IO Interactive seems happy to acknowledge this. The Danish developer is out to answer its critics, and Dog Days is certainly taking a gutsier, balls-out approach to the genre than its precursor. At the same time we're told that this sequel will retain the better elements of the first game; happily this means we'll get a second helping of Fragile Alliance - the neat multiplayer mode in which players rob a bank together, before backstabbing each other in a bid to escape with all the loot. The bottom line? There's no doubt that the new graphical style will get people chattering, but I think there's also a good chance that the full game will have the stones to back up its bold ideas. As far as I can tell, there's only one potential pitfall: is the shaky cam going to make us all vomit?
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days will be released later in 2010 on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360