Image: Kane and Lynch
Kane (left) and Lynch prove that you can be over-the-hill and balding and still be a badass.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 11/29/2007 2:18:31 PM ET 2007-11-29T19:18:31

Games have an uneven record when it comes to character development, storytelling and atmosphere. Too often the emphasis is on frames-per-second and surface textures. It’s no wonder many games leave me feeling cold and unmoved.

“Kane & Lynch: Dead Men”, out now for PS3, PC, and Xbox 360, is an exception to the graphics-driven norm. This hard-boiled, game-noir gem had me absolutely absorbed in its juicy tale of revenge and loss. It’s not without some technical shortcomings, but they don’t take away from the game’s emotional power.

The opening scene sets the dark, violent tone for the rest of the game. Kane, a battle-scarred mercenary, is in a prison transport en route to death row when an explosion rocks the truck. He’s rushed off by a crew led by a profanity-spewing, 70s reject named Lynch. Lynch brings Kane to meet a shadowy group called The7, leaving a trail of dead cops and SWAT troopers in their wake.

Turns out that The7 broke Kane out of prison to return the money they accuse him of stealing. If he fails, they’ll execute his wife and daughter. Lynch is assigned as his watchdog and, thus, a twisted buddy story is born. In the single player campaign, you control Kane and Lynch is handled by artificial intelligence.

The voice acting, long the bane of video games, is superb in “Kane & Lynch.” Kane’s menacing edge and the whining, nasal tone of Lynch are pitch perfect for their roles. The acting is critical to the success of the game since there’s constant dialogue throughout. The exchanges range from expletive-filled rants to terse, darkly funny quips.

I was intrigued by both these anti-heroes because of their back-stories, revealed throughout the game. Kane is haunted by regret for the life of violence that has distanced him from his family and Lynch pops anti-psychotic meds to quell his demons. They’re much richer than one-dimensional baddies and I found myself feeling sympathetic toward these killer bad guys.

Happily, the cinematic action and character design don’t suffer for the deep story. Kane and Lynch are both past their physical prime. Looking at Kane’s bald spot from the game’s third-person perspective and hearing the characters complain about being over the hill was a welcome change from gaming’s usual strapping young heroes.

Some of the excellent set pieces are straight out of crime film epics. Michael Mann’s “Collateral” and “Heat” are both lovingly referenced by the game developers. In one scene you make your way through throngs of patrons at a Tokyo club while trading gun fire with Yakuza henchmen. Another situation finds you and Lynch in a bank heist gone horribly wrong. SWAT snipers target you as you’re forced to escape on foot through the city streets.

The gameplay is a mixed bag that doesn’t hold to the same stellar standards as the title’s artistic elements. Taking cover, an important activity considering the non-stop gun play, is a hit and miss affair. Kane is supposed to automatically take cover behind a wall or object but the touchy detection takes some getting used to.

There are basic commands you can issue to Lynch and other squad mates: attack, hold, regroup and defend. While tagging a target for an attack sounds like a helpful feature, your comrades will often run, kamikaze-style, straight to the target. If one of your crew goes down, you’ll need to revive them to avoid a mission failure —  but playing doctor turns you into a sitting duck.

The revival process in “Kane & Lynch” is a cool touch, though. You and your pals can take a certain amount of damage before dropping. The only way to revive from a serious injury is with an adrenaline injection. Lynch will automatically give you a shot but Kane needs to revive everyone else. The trick is that if you need another shot too soon, you’ll O.D.

After the campaign, you and a pal can play through the game in the co-op mode, controlling both Kane and Lynch, but it’s the local, split-screen variety. I recommend heading straight to the online multiplayer. “Fragile Alliance,” the only multiplayer game type offered, is an eight-player heist with a twist.

Here, the goal is to finish the job alive and end up with the most cash. If you all work together, the take is split evenly. Things get more interesting when you decide to double-cross your crew; you might make out with all the money if the cops and your former buddies don’t kill you first.

While “Kane & Lynch: Dead Men” has its problems, none of the mechanical shortcomings can take away from the game’s sublime drama and style.

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