For two guys who debuted as Dead Men back in 2007, Adam "Kane" Marcus and James Seth Lynch are in pretty good shape. Kane's nose is no longer broken, Lynch's medication is keeping his inner psycho under control, and their gritty second outing improves upon the first in just about every way. Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days looks better, sounds better, and plays better than its predecessor, and while its story mode clocks in at an all-too-short four hours or so, a handful of other modes are fun to keep playing for a while after the credits have rolled. Kane and Lynch still aren't characters you're likely to empathize with, but shooting up Shanghai in their company isn't a bad way to spend a dog day afternoon.
The first thing you can't help but notice about Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is its aesthetic. The entire game is seemingly played from the perspective of an invisible drunk who, armed with the world's worst camcorder, has decided to follow protagonist Lynch everywhere he goes. The shakiness of the camera is optional, but other effects such as compression artifacts, lens flare, and lights smearing vertically across the screen are mandatory. You might initially find this visual style quite distracting, but because the treatment is always consistent, it doesn't take long to get used to it. Opting to keep the shaky cam switched on can make the game a little more challenging in spots because it interferes with your aim, but other than a few cutscenes in which the camera sways for no apparent reason, its movement is very much in keeping with your own and with your surroundings. And, invisible cameraman theories aside, it makes sense that your view and your aim would be a little compromised when sprinting as fast as you can or getting knocked to the ground after taking a bullet--both of which you spend a lot of time doing.
That's right, in Dog Days you spend a lot of time getting shot. It's unavoidable. The push-button cover system works well for the most part, and you can do all of the usual blind firing and leaning out to take your shots, but your enemies are smart enough to flank you when the opportunity presents itself. And, more to the point, they're quite handy with the weapons they're carrying. Furthermore, enemies can and do use cover in much the same way as you, and they even mix up the ways that they lean out so that resting your crosshair where their heads popped up a second ago rarely means you're ready and waiting the next time they try for a shot. When you combine this mostly good enemy AI with the fact that you're almost always greatly outnumbered--not to mention that many of the objects you take cover behind are realistically destructible--Dog Days poses a decent challenge even on its default difficulty setting, which is the second of four available.
If you take too many bullets, you fall to the ground where, rather than having to wait for another character to rescue you as in the first game, you can crawl back into a relatively safe spot before getting back on your feet and, where possible, straight into cover. This "down not dead" mechanic makes for some memorable moments as you lie on your back shuffling away from and shooting at enemies, hoping that the game's regular color palette will return to replace the bright red tint that bleeds onto the screen every time you're shot. Enemies aren't quite as smart on their backs as they are on their feet, but, like you, they're able to defend themselves and, if you don't finish them off, to get back to their feet. Remember how the psychotic, AI-controlled Lynch used to unload shot after shot into enemies who were already dead in the first game? In the second, you might catch yourself doing exactly the same thing--just to be sure.
For the most part, playing as Lynch is really no different from playing as Kane, which a second player has the option to do in cooperative play. Lynch is a slightly more interesting character to play through the story as though, not only because he's the one leading the charge this time out, but also because as his motivations become overwhelming, you occasionally hear him struggling to contain his psychotic tendencies either by talking to himself or by letting out an angry roar. The other downside to playing as Kane is that you can't always trigger or even view cutscenes properly, and in online play, you're more likely to experience lag than the player who's hosting the game. If it weren't for the lag, which is occasionally bad enough that it makes aiming at animation-skipping enemies frustratingly difficult, online co-op would definitely be the best way to play through the story mode. Levels are usually designed in such a way that two players can work together to flank enemies by taking slightly different routes through them, while the co-op-only ability to revive each other (as well as a number of doors that require two grown men to open) encourages you to stay close.
Regardless of whether you play through the story mode solo or with a friend, you're in for an entertaining though short-lived and largely repetitive ride. There are really only two or three action sequences in the game that stand out as being different and memorable, but the gunplay is good enough throughout that when the story struggles to hold your interest after the first couple of chapters, you still won't be in a hurry to put the game down. Dog Days is played at a much more frenetic pace than its predecessor, in part because you no longer have to concern yourself with giving instructions to AI buddies or managing the arsenals of other characters. You're never pitted against a clock, but there's always a sense of urgency to push forward because that's where your enemies drop weapons and ammo when you kill them. Ammo is rarely in such short supply that you're likely to find yourself unarmed, but it's also not so plentiful that you can afford to camp in a sweet spot for any length of time. The promise of better weapons and more ammo, combined with the enemies who often show up ahead of you when you move to retrieve them, does a good job of pulling you through each level. And on those rare occasions when you might be unsure of where to go next, you can simply tap the D pad (or hit Y if you're playing on mouse and keyboard, which isn't recommended) and have the camera point you in the right direction--assuming you're in an area where the hint system is available.
You can carry only two weapons at a time in Dog Days, and while you do gain access to some more powerful options late in the story, much of the game's arsenal is available from the outset. You're not limited to carrying one pistol and one larger weapon, but you still have to make some tough choices where your loadout is concerned. Oddly, shotguns are the most versatile weapons in the game because while they're believably devastating at close range, they're also surprisingly effective against enemies who are some distance away. Automatic weapons, on the other hand, spray bullets all over the place if you hold the trigger down for anything more than a short burst of fire, so they're not always useful from afar. Rifles offer the most precision, but they fire only one round at a time, and most need to be reloaded after only five or six shots. As you progress through the story, you inevitably have favorite firearms, but because all weapons and ammo need to be scavenged from slaughtered enemies, you often have to make do with whatever is available. This isn't a bad thing, though, because all of the weapons are up to the job at hand, provided you adjust your play style accordingly. When all else fails, you can grab a fire extinguisher, fuel can, or gas canister and throw it toward your enemies and then shoot at it so it explodes. This satisfying strategy more than makes up for the lack of grenades in Dog Days, though the number of flammable containers that are scattered around Shanghai is somewhat worrying.
Outside of story mode, weapons can still be picked up off the ground, but in multiplayer matches and the new Arcade mode you also have the option to purchase better guns between rounds. Because your goal is always to finish the game with more money than anyone else, spending significant chunks of change on firearms makes for an interesting risk-versus-reward mechanic. You earn money every time you kill an enemy, but are you really going to earn enough additional money by equipping yourself with a superior weapon to justify its cost? There are three competitive multiplayer modes in Dog Days: Fragile Alliance, in which up to eight players attempt to pull off a robbery and have the option to betray each other; Undercover Cop, which works in exactly the same way except that one player is randomly chosen as an undercover cop who must foil the robbery; and Cops and Robbers, in which up to 12 players split into two teams so that while one team is attempting to commit a robbery, the other is trying to stop it. Your goal is always the same; fight your way to the money/diamonds/drugs, grab as much as you can carry, and then escape to where your getaway driver/pilot is waiting. All three modes are a lot of fun when played with a good group of players, and because betraying each other for profit is all part of the game, they can be even better against the kinds of players with whom you might normally not choose to play. For example, if one of your gang mates decides to shoot you in the back of the head at the start of the Fragile Alliance mode, not only will you respawn as a cop and earn loads of money for exacting revenge, but he'll be marked as a traitor so that the rest of the gang can kill him without any repercussions.
Sadly, while multiplayer modes in Dog Days are well designed and succeed in making you cooperate with players only for as long as it serves you, they're not everything that they could be. Games end unceremoniously anytime a host decides to quit; the lag that affects online co-op games is even more pronounced when there are between eight and 12 of you running around in competitive play; and the same six, short levels (each designed to last no longer than five minutes) are used in all three modes. An additional three levels appear in the menus, but they, as well as a number of the multiplayer weapons, won't be available until they're released as downloadable content a couple of weeks after the game is released. Those same six levels are also the extent of the new single-player Arcade mode, which is really just Fragile Alliance mode played with bots rather than other players.
The main difference between Arcade and Fragile Alliance, besides your colleagues in the former being less likely to shoot you in the back and occasionally (inexplicably) deciding not to grab any loot, is that rather than playing for just three rounds, in Arcade mode, you keep playing the same level over and over again until you lose all three of your lives. Every round is a little harder than the last, so while you can get away with letting the AI guys do a lot of the heavy lifting early on, they run in like lambs to the slaughter by the time you get to round 12 or 13. Arcade mode is a great way to both hone your skills and unlock better weapons before playing online, but playing the same two to four minutes repeatedly doesn't take long to get old. In fact, if you're good enough to reach round 10 and beyond on any level, there's a good chance that you might tire of said level before you've even uploaded your first high score to the online leaderboards.
For as long as it lasts, Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is a good game. Its biggest problem is that there simply isn't enough of it, though you might experience an even worse problem if you pick up the retail version rather than download it from Steam. Our downloaded version of the game performed just fine, but while playing the disc version (which no patch was available for at the time of this writing) we found that the in-game camera was extremely sluggish and, at times, rendered the game unplayable. The story mode isn't likely to take much more than four hours on your first play-through; the Arcade mode takes even less time than that to get old; and while the multiplayer options are fun, they suffer from lag and there simply aren't enough of them to compensate for the shortcomings of the solo offerings. And depending on how you look at it, the fact that there are additional multiplayer maps waiting in the wings is either good news or insult added to injury. With a longer and more varied story mode and a better, lag-free suite of multiplayer options, Dog Days would've been very easy to recommend. As it is, though, this diminutive package is as noteworthy for the features that it has dropped from the first game as it is for the new ones it has introduced, and it comes with too many caveats to be recommended without hesitation.