Seeing Kane and Lynch back on screen dredges up some contradictory emotions. The original third-person crime spree shooter was, at best, mediocre. An ineffectual attempt at coordinating chaos in a criminal gang. It was meh.
But it was also grimly funny, had character and, if you squinted, you could see what devs IO - makers of the phenomenal Hitman games - were attempting to do. So I was squinting at Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days, and nearly missed what all the fuss was about.
This time you're playing Lynch, the funny, psychotic henchman of the original game. The original's protagonist, Kane, is along for the ride, shadowing the balding madman's journey through two very bad days in the Shanghai underworld. Lynch was always the better character in the original game. Held together with drugs and prone to hallucinations that turn people into dog-headed policemen - what's not to love?
It's Lynch's plan that drags Kane to Shanghai. The pair became unlikely allies in the first game when they were double-crossed by a powerful criminal gang. It was a messy, movie-inspired shoot-out simulator. The second game follows suit. After a botched gun shipment, the two are left to consider their options in a restaurant. It's during this profanity-laced ponderage that a Chinese SWAT team drops in.
You play from a tight, over-the-shoulder perspective behind Lynch. It's not a pleasant place to be: he has greasy hair, he's wearing a stained wifebeater shirt and sporting a bald spot. IO love anti‑heroes. Agent 47 of their Hitman games would happily use a baby as a silencer in order to shoot a kitten delivering presents to deaf orphans. They've hit on an easy way of making their games stand out by making the heroes as anti as possible. The murderous Lynch pumps a few meaty shotgun blasts at the SWAT team, chatting all the time to an off-camera AI Kane.
Yeah, these guys are crims, but the SWAT team aren't exactly honest, working for an as yet unknown boss, so it's OK to shoot back. They pinwheel from the force of Lynch's shotgun. Some don't die right away, screaming and firing back from the ground. They need be dispatched.
Then I start to notice that the game isn't looking too spectacular. The lights are smeared, like they've been captured on home video. When the action gets more intense, with Lynch ducking behind cover being hammered by enemy bullets, the screen starts breaking up, crumbling behind digital artefacts. This is the hook. IO have gone out of their way to make the game look like this.
Incongruously, considering the two stars are crusty, mangled dinosaurs, IO want Dog Days to feel familiar and modern. The idea is that we consume so much digital media - YouTube videos, etc - we're used to shaky, scratchy and unfocused footage. Applying the effect to a game makes it feel like you're a mixture of observer and participant: when Lynch runs through the levels, it's like he's gone off by himself and you're pelting along behind, trying to keep the camera trained on him like something from The Blair Witch Project.
When he moves to different lighting conditions, the 'camera' adjusts, street lights spreading across the screen. Even the sound has the tinny quality of something playing on a mobile phone. Kane & Lynch 2 comes pre-squinted. It's been YouTubed.
It works, supplementing the action, which feels more immediate than Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. Throughout the restaurant fight, your enemies are never more than ten feet away. It's chaotic, but they move with purpose, diving for cover when necessary and returning fire to keep you suppressed. The screen artefacts start piling up when Lynch is in danger or taking damage - a digital representation of the hallucinations that plague him.