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An Intimacy with the Handcam in ‘Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days’

The documentary-like visual style gives the camera, and therefore the player, a physical presence in the world.

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is a pretty typical third-person shooter. You take cover behind various objects, some of which can be destroyed, and you shoot a lot of people. The gameplay presents nothing new, but this is still a game worth playing because of its unique visual style. Everything looks like it’s being shot from a handheld digital camera, and all the little flourishes that stem from this stylistic choice enhance the experience, making it something special.

The most obvious trait of this new style is the shaky camera. When running it violently jerks up and down, and when you’re knocked over it collapses to the ground with you. To an audience, this aggressive camera shake looks more jarring than it really is. For the player, it evokes a strong sense of movement while still framing the immediate dangers ahead.

When running at a full sprint, the shaking makes it impossible to look far ahead since small and distant objects move around too much to be quickly identified. But the game knows this. There are no enemies during the rare moment when you’re running across wide open spaces; most of the time, this sprint is used to move from cover to cover. In these cases, the destination is so close that heavy shaking won’t last long enough to confuse you, but it’s still violent enough that it makes you feel as if you’re already being attacked. When movement itself is intense, it only adds to the ferocity of combat.

Like in any third-person action game, the direction of your movement depends on where the camera is looking, so when the camera shakes from side to side in Dog Days, it feels as if your trajectory is changing slightly. This isn’t actually true, but the effect is pronounced enough that you’ll naturally make little “corrections” to keep yourself running on a straight course. While this may sound frustrating, the effect is subtle enough that you won’t ever overshoot or miss a piece of cover. The net effect of all this shaking is that running becomes a major event. It looks and feels as if the character is running with all his strength; every step forward has a desperate urgency to it.

When you’re knocked over, the camera doesn’t just pan down as you fall, it spasms for half a second and then drops to the ground, bouncing when it lands. This shaking adds a tangible force to whatever knocked you over; it’s enough to make you wince.

The documentary-like visual style gives the camera, and therefore the player, a physical presence in the world. Certain first-person games already use these techniques to portray physicality (Far Cry 2 and Mirror’s Edge being the best examples), but third-person games have largely avoided them because you’re not in the body of the characters, so it wouldn’t really make sense for you to see what they see or feel what they feel. But this encourages a detachment from the characters; the player becomes a neutral puppeteer with nothing at stake in the current conflict. By using this style in a third-person game, we feel like we’re crawling through the dirt and grime with the characters, and so the action becomes more intimate. Dog Days especially benefits from this battlefield intimacy because its protagonists are rather unlikable anti-heroes. Kane and Lynch may be psychotic, cold-hearted killers, but when we’re in the shit together, it’s hard not to bond with them. We become brothers in arms.

If a person is shot in the head at close range, rather than showcase his head exploding, the game censors the gore with a mosaic of pixels. This is a bizarre stylistic choice since it suggests some sort of post-production editing, which goes against the spur-of-the-moment, barely-caught-on-tape feel implied by all the camera shake. However, this self-censorship actually compliments the gritty tone of the game. The camera never slows down or zooms in to admire a headshot or dismembered limb; it never revels in violence because doing so would kill the intimacy created by the camera shake. If combat becomes a sideshow of violence then we’ll cease to care about keeping the characters alive and instead just focus on how to get the coolest kill. By censoring the most extreme moments of violence, the developers have found a way to avoid desensitizing the player while at the same time packing the game to its brim with M-rated action.

The first Kane & Lynch was hyped as the video game equivalent of a Michael Mann crime epic. While it didn’t live up to that hype, IO Interactive did create a pair of memorable characters. With Dog Days they’ve now found the perfect visual style to complement the pair’s brutality, but they’re still missing an effective story. At the rate they’re going, the third time should the charm.

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