Kane & Lynch 2's Cloverfield-inspired shaky cam, now well documented, only tells half the story. It's not until you actually get to play the game for yourself that you realise this is the case.
The section I'm playing - level four - begins with Lynch on the phone to his girlfriend Xiu. He tells her they need to get out of Shanghai, they need to disappear. He wants to meet in a restaurant. Then we're in the restaurant. Lynch and Kane are eating noodles. You can tell things are going to kick off real soon. And so they do.
Immediately, there seems little to do but hug cover and hope for the best. Loads of cops storm the restaurant. Loads. And they're shooting the crap out of it. Bullet fire is relentless. There's shouting, screaming, shrapnel and all manner of madness spraying absolutely everywhere. Then, just as quickly, I realise that I have to move because my cover is disintegrating and I'm taking damage. So I move, hugging a fridge, popping out of cover every now and then to fire off some desperate shots in feeble retaliation.
Functionally, Kane & Lynch 2 plays like your average third-person shooter. You aim with the thumb stick, zoom in with the left trigger and shoot with the right. Reload and sprint are mapped to the bumpers. A, on the 360 pad, is your cover button (there wasn't one in the first game). X picks up weapons, canisters (which you can throw and auto shoot for extra boom), and kicks down doors. B is Human Shield, Y switches between the two weapons you have in your inventory, clicking in the left stick crouches, and clicking in the right stick switches the camera.
Kane & Lynch 2 is hard, and I'm playing it on the normal difficulty. Enemies aren't afraid to rush you down, and don't suffer from that silly whack-a-mole thing you see AI do so often in third-person cover-based games. Different enemy classes behave differently, too: crooks are ruthless, cops like cover, and SWAT teams, well, they're just double hard bastards. There's barely a moment to think, which, I imagine, is exactly what IO's going for. Really, you just focus on surviving and slowly taking down everyone in sight. The new Down but not Dead mechanic is incredibly useful - I am often downed, but thankfully most of the time I'm able to crawl into cover and get back up again.
The firefight is over quickly. Kane and Lynch agree they need to get out of the restaurant, and head towards a night-drenched ally. As they do, there's more killing. More violent, dark, shooty shooty bang bang. Outside, the environment is impressively detailed; neon lights, little bikes, record stores, 24 hour shops busting out Chinese pop songs, they're all there. People mill about, as you'd imagine, and yes, you can murder them in cold blood. And why not? The cops here in Shanghai do it, and it doesn't seem to bother them. Sometimes, a lonesome cop begs for mercy. "Don't shoot!" they scream. I ignore their pleas.
Eventually, the duo face off against a road block. Here, cars provide cover from the relentless spray of machine gun fire, but, as before, you can't stand still for long. The set piece feels like swimming upstream against a tide of bullets. Car to car to rubbish bin to car to that shop there until eventually everyone's dead, including unlucky locals. I'm constantly on the move, constantly in fear, and I die often. But reloading puts me back to a point just before my unfortunate deaths, so I don't feel frustrated.
Let's back up a bit, and go over the basics. Kane & Lynch 2 is more than just a follow-up. In many ways, it's a completely different game. You play as Lynch this time, the schizophrenic, balding mentalist from the first game. Lynch lives in Shanghai and is working for Mr Glazer, a British crime lord lifted straight out of a Guy Ritchie script. They land themselves an arms deal, but they're in way over their heads. So Lynch has an epiphany and calls Kane, asking him for his help. This, of course, is a big mistake, because when Kane and Lynch get together, bad things happen.
They end up chased around the city by both the cops and the Shanghai underworld in a story that takes place over two days and two nights. It's a story grounded in gritty realism: there are no cutscenes where the main villain reveals his evil plan and laughs maniacally. You're there with the main characters throughout, learning as they learn.
IO talks about unromantic locations, unstaged events and an attempt to avoid the clichés blockbuster games and movies so often suffer from. The developer is trying to present something more real here, something based on gritty YouTube documentaries and CCTV of unspeakable violence. So, expect firefights in parking lots, no thematic music at all, and a camera that feels as if it's just about keeping up with the action.
Our hands-on time is complimented by a hands-off demo of an early level never before shown to press. It loads with a buffering screen - a deliberate aesthetic touch. In a limo, Mr. Glazer is briefing Lynch and Kane on the arms deal. Then, in what is starting to feel like a running theme, all hell breaks loose.
Chaos. Absolute chaos. Outside the car, Lynch is desperately fending off scores of bad guys. The noise of gunfire is deafening. People are screaming. When Lynch takes hits, the camera pixelates. As he roadie runs, it shakes almost uncontrollably, as if some death-defying opportunist with a mobile is trying to score the scoop of the century. Police sirens can be heard in the distance. People lie dead on the concrete, and cover has been obliterated.
"What the f!$k just happened?", Glazer screams.
"I don't know", says an exhausted Kane.
"You, shut it! Get the bloody door open! I'm going to have a sodding heart attack." Me too.
The action slowly proceeds down the freeway into a car park. There is a brief moment of respite, then, gunfire once again. It is relentless. Savage dogs turn up. Lynch throws a fire extinguisher at the pack and shoots it in mid air. Then the action is over in what feels like a blink of an eye. And breathe.
Quite obviously, Kane & Lynch 2 is a better shooter than its predecessor. Graphically, it's incredibly unique, and in terms of excitement, it's off the chart. But I'm most impressed by the moment to moment shooting. IO is trying to create gameplay that's desperate, frantic, and intense. This, combined with the aesthetic, really follows through on the idea of realism it outlined when the game was first revealed. It's about as close to a Michael Mann film as we've ever seen from the video game world, and that's a helluva impressive feat. There is no other game that I can think of that looks anything like Kane & Lynch 2, and in an age when risk-taking gives publishers the fear, that's refreshing.
In a way, though, this is IO's greatest challenge. Kane & Lynch 2 must be a frustratingly difficult game to communicate, because it looks so different. Underneath the gritty aesthetic is what I hope is a quality third-person shooter, and that's the key point. The sequel's camera has told half the story. Now it's time for the gameplay to tell the rest.
Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days will be released throughout Europe and other PAL territories on August 27 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.