Kane & Lynch: Dead Men probably did more for the industry by highlighting the dubious relationship between publisher advertising and review sites than it ever did for the growth or evolution of video games. Though, given the rise of influencers, maybe not even that.
Released in 2007 by developers IO Interactive – of Hitman and Freedom Fighters fame – it advertised a mature and gritty crime-thriller. However, in a generation packed with third-person Gears of War-inspired shooters, it was the prospect of another couch-coop title that got my attention.
My fuzzy recollection was mostly positive, filled with snippets of snacks and beer and anarchy ‘til the wee hours. As a result, I immediately picked up Kane & Lynch: Dead Men (and the sequel) when they were recently re-released on GOG for dirt cheap. Perhaps unsurprisingly, time and the lack of a coop partner made for a less positive experience.
Great premise, awful protagonists, incessant grimness
I’m theory, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men has a solid premise. Kane, a former mercenary that betrayed his organisation “The7”, is sprung from prison and forced into a final set of heists after his family is taken hostage. His “handler” – and the second player in coop – is the barely-functional Lynch, dependent on medication to avoid crippling hallucinations and violent outbursts.
Naturally, things start off bad and only get worse for the pair. Kane is angry, belligerent, and burnt out, yet still positions himself as the leader and happily leads others into danger for his own goals. Lynch is out of his depth and slowly losing control, responsible for the deaths of multiple innocents and hostages, and serves as the catalyst for several set pieces. They’re both awful and while Kane gets the chance at a mini redemption arc in the final moments, neither is relatable, sympathetic, or even charismatic enough to feel like a good villain.
Kane simply uses everyone else to further his plans, while Lynch shifts from lamenting his situation and condition to using it as an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for his actions. To Kane and Lynch: Dead Men’s credit, it never uses the ceaseless carnage and frequent murder of innocents for any awkward dark humour, but the alternative is incessant grimness and the “mature” content doesn’t amount to much more than hearing the word “fuck” in every conversation. Should either player go into a DBNO state in-game, you even get to hear the angry voices in their heads condemning them for their behaviour and innumerable failures while waiting to be revived.
A crime film montage
Where Kane & Lynch: Dead Men can impress is in its Hollywood-inspired set pieces and several locations that feel epic in scale – at least by 2007 standards. Most of the chapters and several cutscenes draw on classic heist and cartel films – most notably Heat – for inspiration. It’s the perfect excuse for a lengthy murder spree through a dozen chapters made up of shorter scenes.
What did surprise me most was how basic the gameplay is – even in contrast to the earlier Freedom Fighters and Hitman games. You’ve got their distinct brand of clunky third-person shooting with highly inaccurate guns and illogically slow bullets, combined with a finicky situational cover system and rudimentary squad control for allies. Unlike their prior games, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men is strictly linear and cinematic, making any gunplay and AI limitations strikingly obvious.
On the upside, the brisk pacing, some large environments, and several set pieces are enough to impress – at least for a while. A chaotic prison convoy escape – with aircraft coming into land overhead – leads into a failed bank heist, followed by a wild car chase and gun battles with the police. Before long you’re fighting through a packed Tokyo nightclub, breaking back into prison to rescue former mercenaries, and then making a return trip to Tokyo for a skyscraper assassination and more running street battles with the police. It’s all style over substance but that makes it easy to ignore braindead NPCs and enemies that run straight into gunfire, or teammates that can barely follow the basic commands available.
We’re going to Havana
Unfortunately, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men shifts gear in the second half. With a full team and a vendetta against the surviving members of The7 organisation, the action shifts to a revolution in Havana and moves on to raiding a cartel hideout in the Venezuelan jungle.
At this point, the difficulty suddenly spikes. Enemies have more accurate and powerful weapons; your AI teammates become a run-ending liability, often going down in the open; while the generic mercenary squads that join you are as useless as the police and SWAT that oppose you in the first half of the game.
Death comes swiftly and although the adrenaline revive system provides a few second chances, it was at this point I really missed my coop partner. Kane & Lynch: Dead Men moves from being a forgiving twitch shooter to an almost tactical shooter. Cover becomes vital, teammates are only useful in supporting roles, and survival in several set pieces can feel entirely dependent on RNG when enemies are flinging rockets and grenades your way. The finale is suitably violent and grim – with one bad and one less-bad alternative – but the frustrating gunfights and frequent restarts spoil the experience.
Is it still worth playing?
Like so many games from a decade ago, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men gets some bonus points for running almost any PC and it can be picked up for less than a cup of takeaway coffee – think the cheapest filter variant. So, if any of what you’ve seen or heard has left you mildly curious, it’s a low-risk gamble. If you’ve got an old Xbox 360 still plugged in or can hook up your PC and two gamepads to the TV, couch coop is the way to go.
However, if your time is limited, I’d avoid Kane & Lynch: Dead Men as it didn’t hold up the way I hoped it would. It’s a strictly linear, cinematic experience; the narrative is insufferably grim; the AI is frequently stupid to the point of immersion-breaking; and the simplistic gameplay just isn’t paired with complex levels that offer multiple approaches like it was Hitman or Freedom Fighters.