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May 6, 2008Glenn Turner

Kane & Lynch: Dead Men opens bombastically with an explosive car crash, sending you tumbling free along with an array of criminal scum and professional psychos. The truck, carrying the lot of you off to complete your death sentence, has been tactically ambushed, setting you free to scurry and battle your way through a litany cops if you want to survive. Bullets shear the air as you guide Adam Marcus (a.k.a. 'Kane') towards cover among the gunfire, helping to keep this mercenary alive, a man with a family that kindles a special sort of hatred for him; he's a man with the sort of regrets that loosen the fear of death, a man who has made peace with the public verdict bestowed upon him.

But instead of the 'publicly just' death sentence he was about to receive, he's been let loose, albeit cruelly. The crash? Nothing but a planned escape from a group named 'The7', a collective that Kane previously wronged and left for dead while he collected the reward they sent him to retrieve. Now The7 want payback. They want Kane to recollect the reward or else his family will bear the weight of his crimes. And the man they have to watch over Kane while he collects their dues? A bent man named 'Lynch', a loose cannon who routinely breaks out in exceptionally violent bouts and later rewrites his actions as rational. He's your 'guardian', your 'buddy', your 'lifeline', but he's also an untrustworthy fuck who can launch into an incomprehensible fury at any second.

These are men spiraling downwards, bottoming out, and utterly incapable of doing anything to derail their ever-worsening situation. And yet we, those animating their skins, are expected to 'make the best of a bad situation', just like they would.

And so I did. I plowed on through, gritting my teeth, turning an blind eye (and occasionally, my aim) away from the cop killing, as Lynch and I drove towards our objective. Even as he senselessly murdered hundreds, including several key, and very necessary, characters, even as The7 battled back with insurmountable odds, I was there to battle back. The Yakuza, cops, prison guards – they couldn't stop us. Erratic third-person perspective aiming, dodgy hit boxes and hopeless objectives? No matter. When I'd succumb to gunfire, Lynch was there to bring me back, thanks to a jolt of adrenaline, as Kane helplessly laid there and recounted his prior life, piquing my interest to see just how far these two would fall.

The following contains severe spoilers.

It wouldn't take long. Thanks to Lynch, The7 take Kane's wife and daughter hostage, then kill off his wife and run off to Havana with Jenny, Kane's daughter. Kane & Co. follow suit, only to find themselves embroiled in a Cuban Civil War, funded by The7. At this point, we're practically traveling on rails, plodding along without a thought of the circumstances around us, oblivious to the rationale of the civil war. We're mindlessly following the routine orders delivered via on-screen sub-titles, not questioning bizarre truck-based bosses or the extreme change of scenery as we venture into The7's darkness, uncaring of anyone's needs – not even the soldiers we enlisted to help find Jenny.

And so we use the soldiers for our own needs and spit them out. Squad-based tactics here are practically useless – despite the gameplay command options, you're too busy staying alive to issue them and they're too busy dying to follow them – you're best left looking after yourself and Lynch while storming Havana, no matter whether it results in mass causalities or not. At the end of the Cuban nightmare we're reunited with Jenny but Kane's offered the opportunity to fly Jenny and yourself out of Cuba, ditching your fellow thugs in an inescapable firefight (and completing the game), or try to save those you dragged into the quagmire. While escaping Cuba will grant you Jenny's life (and never-ending scorn), Kane is a man pursuing nothing but absolution through death. He has to see this through to the bitter end, even if it means endangering the ones he swears to love and protect.

Flying off to help your enlisted, Kane lands in a war-zone. Jenny insists on aiding you, brandishing a gun and becoming another member of your squad. Upon reaching the chapel housing your fellow ex-fighters you find that all but one, a reborn Christian named Shelly with quite a history with Kane, are dead, and those who did die went to their graves cursing Kane's name (thanks to his caustic remarks concerning how disposable he considered his team, remarks he believed his team couldn't hear). And once you battle off the initial wave of incoming fighters, Shelley storms off again, leaving Jenny, Lynch and yourself to survive the rest of the onslaught, a battle that unfortunately, fells Jenny.

Kane refuses to acknowledge the inevitable and doggedly foists her onto his shoulders (a moment that would be poignant, if it weren't for the developer's decision to exploit an upskirt opportunity), restricting his ability to ably aim his gun, effectively preventing him from shooting anything, much less able to run or evade enemies. Consequently, his life is mostly left to Lynch's severely incapable hands, leaving you little to do but limp along. Lynch manages to drive the straggling forces back and, as you approach the pier, you find yourself stepping over Shelly's dead body, a portentous symbol of the upcoming trip. Kane, Lynch and Jenny's husk push off from the pier when one last skirmish appears and a bullet smashes into Lynch's shoulder, slowly pulling the man into unconsciousness while leaving Kane to muse over Jenny's body. The game closes with Kane drifting alone, mulling over the letter he wrote to his daughter at the opening of the game. The boat bobs across the waters, full of dead weight, wandering aimlessly in silence.

It's a cold, but inevitable, ending and I'm glad it's an ending that they followed through on. It'd be all too easy to skimp out and simply have 'the good ending' and 'the bad ending' but the Xbox Achievements label the endings appropriately: 'Damned if you do' and 'Damned if you don't'. Kane's a doomed man, he's a man utterly entranced by the allure of a burning flame. Whether that ember was burning prior to him becoming a mercenary is questionable but, whatever the reason, Kane has enough baggage and guilt from his prior crimes to want to take himself out, to embrace his death sentence, but is too weak to do the job himself, despite knowing that his continued existence threatens everyone he's ever known. Lynch is in the same boat, but he lives in a perpetual state of delusion, ignoring the consequences of his actions – even ignoring his actions – in the name of eluding guilt. He's crazed, disconnected from reality, unaware of his own actions; is it any wonder why he's the computer-controlled sidekick?

Consequently, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men becomes a lyrical (albeit, occasionally in a stream-of-consciousness way) trip into how far guilt can delude a man. Kane repeatedly purports that he's doing this for his family, but they end up dead in the end. His soldiers? Dead. His worth? Nothing. He's a man running on fumes, and the amazing stakes invoked by The7 are utterly superficial. He knows it, they know it, and the player (hopefully) knows it. Dead Men is a futile tarantella, the player endlessly dancing around Kane's dirty little secret, leading him along all of these missions, only to find no absolution. The end of the game finds Kane with no reason to continue on but nothing to put him out of his misery. The7 have been dispersed and everything else of worth has been lost along the way. And you, the player, brought him to this point. You ruined him en route towards your quest to 'beat' the game, leaving him unsatisfied, left as a tortured soul.

And that's the tragic beauty to Kane & Lynch: Dead Men: The player's forward progress does nothing but damage the main character. Every step you take, every button you push digs him in deeper and scars him, and those around him, more and more. The best path in Kane & Lynch is inherently damaging, inherently unrewarding for everyone involved.

But I found value in the coldness, in the lack of redemption and empathy. Kane & Lynch: Dead Men tells a tale that many narrative games have been reluctant to do, expecting a player to guide an irredeemable hero towards failure. IO Interactive set this guy up for the fall and, in my book, it paid off in spades. Granted, it's a terribly frustrating experience at times and obscenely difficult at others, but the end result heralds in a degree of interactive character exploration that we, as gamers, rarely see: His success in every objective results in bitter failure, and he's left scarred and defeated as a result, left to face the consequences of his action and existence, an existence that'd probably be best left nullified.

While Dead Men is hardly quantifiable as fun, this journey has meat on it, it has well-articulated baggage that the player adds to instead of alleviating (or worse, ignoring). Kane & Lynch deserves to be praised for pinning its characters into a corner, and for forcing the player to be part of that experience. While the process of completing Kane & Lynch may be lined with complications and frustration, the end bestows us with Kane's unadulterated regret, loss and realization. And if that's not worth seeing a game through to the bitter end, I don't know what is.

This review was written in regards to the Xbox 360 version.

2 comments for ‘Kane & Lynch: Dead Men - To the Bitter End’

#1 jt-3d May 9, 2008 02:57am

Well, now this sounds like an excellent way to spread some middle aged misery; making video game character even more miserable than I am. Not that I need any scripted help getting my whole team to be dead. They always seem to end up that way when I play.

#2 WholeFnShow Jul 2, 2008 01:56pm

I finally got around to playing this after being interested since hearing about it last August. The first thing that attracted me to the game was how horrible unattractive the characters are. They didn't gussy these fools up for anyone.

That being said, throughout the early parts of the game, I ended up caring a little less if they got shot. It was a weird thing. I didn't care a lot for Kane or Lynch in the beginning. I'd send Lynch barreling into a swarm of officers and I'd run in guns blazing too.

But by the time I gained control of those alleged victims of Kane, I was doing everything in my power to keep them safe. More often than not, I'd find a corner somewhere far away from the mess and run in my damn self, with Lynch close by to lend a helping hand in case of excess bullets to the everywhere, to clear the place out before proceeding.

Lynch made a grinding game fun with his voice always ringing in my ear. I was, admittedly, laughing terribly when he opened up on the crowded bank. It was such a great character defining moment. And if that one wasn't good enough, the scenes involving Ketamoto's daughter completely solified him. I've never been more comfortable calling someone in a game a "worm" before. I mean, even most villains have some redeeming qualities. This guy is supposed to be on my side, which made the whole thing a different kind of enjoyable.

Jenny becoming all gung ho at the end bugged me a bit since I couldn't tell her to sit the hell down. But I suppose that fit the dynamic since she hated me and wouldn't want to listen to me anyway. The fact that she pulled a gun on me in the cockpit made me very happy. They didn't sugarcoat the reuinion of ex-con and daughter. Nothing Kane ever did redeemed him in her eyes. You can't BUY guilt like that. And That is specifically why I chose to go rescue former victims when the choice scene came up. I felt I had to give her something to be proud of, so I went in to save them as best I could.

And then she got shot. Like a bunch of times. To the point where I had to drive a dose of adrenalie into a 14 year old girl's heart. I, personally, at that point began to emulate Kane's mindset. Or, at least, what I felt it should have been. I felt him losing it and becoming frustrated with everything. Jenny included. I was Screaming at her to "GET BACK!" when she'd rush into a firefight. After we get Shelley, she starts to complain and I literally, honestly found myself threatening to shoot her if she didn't shut the hell up. I surprised myself with that one. But it felt like par for the course with this guy. He didn't know her, and she's being a bad team member, daughter or not. But I still felt bad about it.

Then the pier scene came. And yes, minus the gratuitous upskirt (which lends that they raped that poor soul. She had jeans on last I saw her. +guilt), the futility reeeeaaly began to sink in. When it floated away, I was hoping for another scene, but I knew it would be a cop out. This is what happened. Everybody died.

But I was still desperate for vindication. A reason for putting everyone through this. So I quickly loaded up the Choise section and went with the chopper path. Endless spite and derision from my daughter. I suppose I could take solace in the fact that I sacrificed hundreds of lives to save her. That's pretty noble right? Right???

I've never had to fool myself into liking an outcome before, but I wasn't doing it so that I'd enjoy it. I enjoyed the game and both endings very well. It's the human response of needing to find that silver lining in a big pile of muck that made me appreciate how this was done.