Were it not for one thing, Kane and Lynch: Dead Men might have been one of 2007's most original and entertaining shooters. Some of us who played it loved it for its brave, gritty storyline, its tense, violent atmosphere, and just the fact that - for once - we had an action game that didn't follow all the usual space marine/Saving Private Ryan/Call of Duty cliches. Instead, IO Interactive made a game that riffed on the crime thrillers of Tarantino, Tony Scott and Michael Mann, packed with terse, brutal firefights, realistic locations, and a healthy dollop of swearing and psychosis.
Unfortunately, Kane and Lynch had one problem that we just couldn't overlook. Mediocre graphics can and will be forgiven. Painful, frustrating gameplay? Not so much. The cover system - somewhat important to a cover-based, third-person shooter - didn't really work. The AI was flawed. Weapons were spectacularly inaccurate, to the point that you couldn't really trust your crosshairs at any kind of range. Kane and Lynch was hideously frustrating, too, to the point that some sections needed inhuman levels of perseverance. It all dragged the game back from greatness.
Still, the sequel is IO's chance to make things right, right? After all, all Kane and Lynch 2: Dog Days needs to do is fix the issues while retaining all the good stuff, and we should be on to a winner.
Well, maybe not. The tragedy of Kane and Lynch 2 is that the overall feeling is the same as with the first game. It's a brave, distinctive third-person shooter, practically bursting with potential, but at the same time it's not actually always that much fun to play.
Good news first. Dog Days retains the harsh, gritty feel of its predecessor, and even amplifies it through the use of a very nifty, documentary-style shakey-cam effect, and some very nice filters that give it the look of cheap digital video, complete with colour artefacts and lens flare. It's not far off the look of Michael Mann's Miami Vice and Collateral movies, but shot by a twitchy youth with an iPhone. The visuals still have some faults when it comes to low-quality scenery textures, rubbery skin and ropey-looking characters, but the overall style is slicker and more coherent than in the notoriously up and down original.
The plot this time isn't as strong, and the characterisation is nowhere near as sharp, but in both respects the game is still miles ahead of the likes of Army of Two. The game begins with the original's criminal anti-hero, Kane, arriving in Shanghai to do one last job with his psychotic ex-colleague, Lynch. Both men are deeply dislikeable in their own way, but each has some shred of humanity to keep your interest. Strangely, the game makes the curious choice of having you play as the crazy Lynch instead of the more sympathetic Kane, though our protagonist has calmed down considerably for the sequel). The tale that follows isn't a whole lot more than an excuse for a long series of shoot-outs, but it's a reasonably well-written excuse with a couple of genuinely shocking moments.
Sadly, the actual shooting still isn't as accomplished as it needs to be. Aiming remains worryingly imprecise, and while you could say that some of this comes down to realism, it's a constant frustration that, while you're struggling to nail the triad goon with your SMG - even when he's sitting right in the middle of your crosshairs - he doesn't seem to have the same problems hitting you. The cover system works better this time around, but still slips when it comes to manoeuvring from one bit of cover to another, and the sprint action can be a nightmare to activate. Enemy and allied AI is also much improved, with Kane providing more reliable backup than Lynch did in the first game, but there are still moments where sensible behaviour goes out the window. Dog Days offers decent gameplay, but when Gears of War 2 and Uncharted 2 have raised the bar for duck and cover gunplay, decent isn't really good enough.
It's not a disaster, by any means. Better weapons in the second half of the game seem more accurate, and the action picks up accordingly. There are some fantastic set-piece sequences around crowded apartment blocks and abandoned ship-fitters, and a genuinely brilliant section where a naked, post-torture Kane and Lynch make a bid for freedom. At its best, Dog Days is raw, thrilling and edgy, with a strong grasp of shooter dynamics and a real desire to do something different, but there are just too many rough edges to ignore. Worst of all, a game that can easily be cracked within 5 hours still manages to feature levels that drag on 30 per cent longer than you'd like them to. £35 for an accumulated 3 hours of fun isn't anyone's idea of good value.
Dog Day's saving grace - as much as it has one - is its multiplayer. Not only is the single-player campaign more enjoyable when played through with a mate, but the main online mode, Fragile Alliance, is even better than it was in the first game. If you missed it before, you play as a member of a gang of crooks on a heist, and it's your job to help eliminate the opposition, steal the goods and make it to the getaway car alive. The twist is that, along with AI controlled enemies, you also have to deal with your fellow criminals, who might turn traitor, kill you and run away with the loot at any time. Players killed in action return as cops, giving you a chance to get some sweet revenge on your murderer. The trick, then, when turning traitor is not to do it too early - you'll end up with too many cops on your tail - but to do it early enough to grab a decent share of loot. Played well, it's hugely enjoyable; arguably more so than the single-player game.
One problem with Fragile Alliance in Kane and Lynch: Dead Men was that - in many games - no players were brave enough to turn traitor. The new Undercover Cop mode gets around this by secretly assigning one player as (you guessed it) an undercover cop, practically ensuring that at least one player will turn traitor every time. On top of this the game also offers a straight deathmatch mode, Cops vs Robbers, though there are other games with better gunplay if you like that sort of thing.
There's no getting past the fact that Dog Days is a disappointment, only occasionally living up to the potential of the first game, or the bold visual style of the new. For occasional moments it promises to soar above its average shooter status, only to come crashing down to earth with another over-extended section of uninspired cover-based gunplay. However, the multiplayer mode offers some consolation, with fun co-op and the still unique and interesting Fragile Alliance. Fans of the original might give it a look, but you can't help wondering if this dog will ever have its day.