A closer look at a solid take on a Michael Mann video game. Spoilers abound.
Kane & Lynch is an attempt to recreate the epic bank robbery from Heat while borrowing a few of the typical plot points from Michael Mann’s films. As in Heat and Collateral, this is a game about two dissimilar people at odds finding commonality. More specifically, it explodes the relationship between Robert DeNiro’s character and Kevin Gage (Waingro, the bearded guy DeNiro kills in the hotel). While the film is content to define the difference between these two men under codes of professionalism and brutality, the game confronts how flimsy a difference this actually is. Waingro may murder prostitutes and hostages, but how is that different from the people DeNiro shoots or the woman he abandons? Kane, depicted as the consummate professional, continues to stand by a code that has slowly destroyed his family and his own life. Lynch, relying on medication and prone to violent delusions, has no code at all. The way that their relationship develops throughout the game leads to their supposed differences slowly dissolving. I’m going to ignore the Gerstmann Gate fiasco for this breakdown of Kane & Lynch. Although the scandal may have made for good headlines, I don’t really see what it has to do with the actual game.
The game opens with Kane reciting a letter to his daughter on his way to Death Row. He writes, “As you know if you’ve read the papers, my life as a mercenary and all the pain I’ve caused, most of it is true. I should regret it all, I should be scared of dying, but I’m not. I can’t anymore. The only feeling I have left is regret that I’ll never get to know you.” This refusal to feel any guilt creates a kind of moral blindness in Kane. He wants his daughter to love him but is unwilling to acknowledge his own personal flaws that make him so unbearable. The game is literal about this: Kane is blind in his left eye just as he is blind to his own personal failings. This repressed guilt also comes up whenever you are wounded, the screen goes white and repressed memories will play until a squadmate rescues you. Kane’s wife screaming at him for keeping a gun in the house, children playing in a park, or Kane trying to stop himself from murdering people.
Lynch interrupts Kane’s letter monologue when a prison break occurs and Kane is freed. In terms of game design, the levels work like an organized Grand Theft Auto encounter with the police. Rather than have the game generate a steady stream of police assaulting you, it is a roller coaster of running from building to building while fending off the cops. One of the refreshing things about this being the premise of a “duck and cover” game is that the plot actually matches what you’re doing in the game. As Mitch Krpata points out about Gears of War 2, when your game design consists of ducking and crawling through a war zone it creates a dissonance with a story about being the ultimate badass. Kane & Lynch’s game design matches its plot because these are both scarred and tormented individuals. Kane has a broken nose, a blind eye, and scars that mark a person who has seen too much combat. Lynch is equally unimpressive as he is bald, overweight, and wears glasses. These are the kinds of people you’d expect to be ducking under cover just as much as you’d expect them to be up to no good.
The two chief complaints about the controls are that the camera is sluggish and the cover system is terrible. On the issue of the camera, what this complaint refers to is that the reticule moves slowly when you aim from the shoulder. It helps to consider the timing of the game’s release in regards to this design choice. Call of Duty 4 and Gears of War were the current smash hits, and they also relied heavily on aiming from the shoulder. The difference is that there was no slow down when you move to shoulder aiming in those games. Although technically the game was just relying on the exact same setup as the developer’s previous game Freedom Fighter, a lot of people try to play the game like they’re playing Call of Duty 4 or Gears of War, and it feels sluggish when you do so. You often don’t need to aim from the shoulder and these variables can be tweaked from the menu anyway.
The other complaint is about the cover system, which will automatically cause your character to drop down when you hit cover and also turns the camera around corners for you. Again, the source of the complaint mostly seems to be that it doesn’t working like Gears of War. All of these arguments boil down to a preferred method of control but blaming a game for not being like a different game seems a bit backwards. Once I broke myself of old habits while playing Kane & Lynch, the game worked fine for me.
The combat scenarios after the escape from Death Row continue to explore and test the relationship between the game’s two title figures. After the 7, a criminal organization Kane abandoned, kidnaps Kane’s family, they stick him with Lynch and a plot to steal a briefcase. The game’s tutorial then teaches the player by having them teach Lynch how to fight. The game tells you how to throw grenades, then you throw one, then Lynch mimics it until he understands this himself. It establishes an authoritative relationship for the player, making Lynch both distant and inferior to Kane and the player. The subsequent bank robbery and theft of the briefcase goes wrong when Lynch, while left in charge of the hostages, hallucinates and starts shooting them. In Co-Op mode the person playing Lynch will find their perspective distorted and all the hostages will literally look like cops to that player during these moments. Kane curses and swears at Lynch for being unprofessional once they escape, but, in the next level, the player has to kidnap a woman from a packed Tokyo nightclub. Once the bullets start flying, the player is stuck in a situation where they have almost no choice but to shoot a hostage themselves. The very moral stance that you criticize Lynch for in one level must be violated by the player in the next.
Kane exacerbates the situation by leaving Lynch alone with yet another kidnapped victim, resulting in Lynch losing control and accidentally killing her. Because we know Lynch is unstable, the repeat accident starts to shift the blame from Lynch to Kane’s irresponsible reliance on him. The downward spiral continues as Kane reports back to the 7 that he wasn’t able to recover the briefcase and the 7 kills his wife as a result. Sending his daughter away to “find someplace safe,” Kane abandons her to get his revenge. Throughout these exchanges, it is Lynch that is constantly seeing the hiccups in Kane’s logic. He points out that he wasn’t entirely at fault for the second hostage incident, and he points out that Kane isn’t going to be able to help his daughter by abandoning her. Kane, still blind to his own flaws, mostly just tells Lynch to shut up.
Facing the constant criticisms from his squad of “Dead Men” and Lynch, the player’s position as the superior authority that began during the tutorial slowly comes into question. Kane’s desire for revenge becomes steadily more murky as he is forced to confront the fact that, like leaving Lynch with the hostages, he shares in the blame for his wife’s death. Were it not for the botched kidnapping and Kane’s constant reliance on violence as a solution, she would still be alive. The last third of the game loses a great deal of its appeal by having the levels involve a Civil War in Havana. For a game that differentiated itself by being a hard boiled crime thriller, these final moments feel like the very games Kane & Lynch stood apart from.
The game eventually forces the player to curb the urge to just shoot their way through every problem by having Kane’s daughter be the one held hostage. If the player moves or tries to shoot the 7 while they have Jenny, they’re both gunned down. If they calm down and think up an alternative solution, they can escape.
The final level of the game echoes the decision made by Robert DeNiro in Heat. In the film, DeNiro chooses to finish off Waingro instead of walking away. In the game, Kane must choose between saving his daughter or saving his stranded men in Havana. To emphasize how trapped Kane is by his own criminal nature, the designers make either choice a hollow one. If you save Jenny, then her hatred for your own hypocrisy and refusal to care means she will despise you. If you save your men, redeeming yourself as a traitor, then Jenny will be shot and killed during the process. While Heat chose to emphasize that DeNiro’s own criminal code ended up robbing him of a decent life, Kane & Lynch forces the player to see the shallow life DeNiro would have had either way. Whether Kane saves his daughter or his men, he must still pay for his past crimes.