I was enthusiastic about Kane & Lynch. Perhaps that was naïve. Still, at this year’s E3 Business and Media Summit, when everyone else was off giving Rock Band the goo goo eyes, I was sitting on a plexiglass bench filled with cocaine and bullets, watching a presentation of what looked like the game to beat this holiday season.
Fast forward to five months later, after I’d pestered Eidos for a review copy, ignored all the trashy schlock they’d sent in the interim and started – but stopped – downloading Kane & Lynch wallpaper about a dozen times. I was actually in distress the day Kane & Lynch hit the home office. I was in the middle of Call of Duty 4, had Guitar Hero III and a half dozen other games sitting unopened next to my TV and was pondering a Sophie’s choice; which game to neglect in favor of the long-awaited Kane & Lynch?
I made a bold choice that balmy November day: I decided to put another few hours into Call of Duty 4 and hopefully finish it before moving on. I felt like a traitor at the time. I felt like I was betraying the trust of the Eidos representative who’d faithfully packaged and sent me a copy of the game, like I’d betrayed the review process, the integrity of my profession and the expectations of the audience. I felt like I was a failure as a game journalist.
It’s times like these when, looking back, I realize I take things far too seriously.
As I scurried through the last few levels of Call of Duty 4, mouth open, eyes bugged, head spinning, I felt the guilty thrill of doing something selfish at a time when my game playing should have been reserved for one of the myriad titles up for review. I felt like a bad, bad boy, and I felt certain I would pay for this insolence. I was wrong.
I popped Kane & Lynch into my Xbox360 the next day, certain I’d be setting off on another thrill-a-minute ride of gaming glee. Five minutes later I was ready to quit. Not just the game, but my job and all pretensions that I enjoyed playing games and writing about them. I went from feeling like the betrayer to feeling like the betrayed. I realized the E3 presentations all looked so slick because the material shown was as representative of the actual gameplay in Kane & Lynch as Pamela Anderson is of the female species. I realized the cocaine and bullets were supposed to distract my attention from the half-assed engine upgrades and clunky mechanics. I realized the ad campaign, rumors of a movie in progress (starring Bruce Willis) and the highly choreographed press demonstrations were a cynical attempt to attract attention to a game that’s little more than cheap knock-off. And I realized it had all worked. I’d been duped into hyping a game that, by all reasonable standards, is simply “meh.”
Kane & Lynch has last-generation graphics, miserable gameplay mechanics, dunderheaded writing and a voice cast that sounds like it’s trying harder to sound like Bruce Willis than acting. Playing Kane & Lynch is like playing Hitman without having to be sneaky, which sounds like a good thing but isn’t. Hitman doesn’t promote stealth play so much as it demands it. Try playing the game with a run-and-gun approach, and see what happens; the game just isn’t fun. There are a hundred games that do that sort of thing better, and most of them look prettier doing it, which is exactly how any decent review of Kane & Lynch should read, so we’ll leave off there.
Kane & Lynch isn’t a bad game, but it’s not really all that good either. And it’s certainly not the kind of game you should be playing this holiday season, when there are so many games out that actually are good. Save Kane & Lynch for sometime in March when you’re burned out on games that thrill you and need to play something to remind you why those games are actually worth playing in the first place. It’s essentially a movie tie-in in reverse. Loveless, uninspired and ugly games are usually created after the movie they’re tied to breaks box office records, but somebody at Eidos obviously thought it’d be a good idea to subvert that process. If only their subversions had stopped there.
We’ve been following the firing of Jeff Gerstmann from Gamespot pretty closely, and we hope to have more detailed information on that story very soon. But here’s how it looks right now: Eidos bought hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of ad space at Gamespot, to promote Kane & Lynch. Gerstmann then gave Kane & Lynch a pretty negative review, scoring it a 6 out of 10. He also had a lot of bad things to say about the game on his video review, which I understand is now hard to find at Gamespot. Gerstmann was then fired.
The burning questions are: 1) Did Gamespot’s deal with Eidos include an expectation of editorial coverage, or of a certain kind of editorial coverage, and 2) Was Gerstmann fired specifically for his negative review. If the answer to either of these questions is “yes,” we’re all screwed. We kind of already are screwed merely because even if the deal didn’t go down this way, it’s so plausible that it did.
Game journalists spend a great deal of time feeling inferior to actual journalists, and so often do silly things like engage in long debates over what is or isn’t journalism, and who’s going to be gaming’s Lester Bangs, as if anyone at home really gives a shit. But this insecurity is important in how it manifests in the field of game reviewing. Reviews are where the rubber meets the road in terms of earning money to write about games.
Most people who call themselves game journalists, and with whom most people who digest game journalism are familiar, are reviewers. So these folks, and how they operate, tend to be representative of the industry as a whole. So when an event like the Gerstmann firing happens, it validates the negative perceptions of reviewers, their executives and the publishers who’ll happily exploit both as just another arm of their marketing machine. It degrades the trust essential for maintaining an open dialogue about the quality of games in general, and of a specific game in particular. And it makes us all look like chumps and pretenders, when, in fact, there’s little more separating game journalists from any other kind of journalist than what we happen to be writing about.
You wouldn’t know it to hear how information in games is handled, though. Game-makers act like every crumb of information on a game’s stats, content and staff is a national secret, akin to where the bombs are stored, and dole them out like a Democrat handing out tax refunds. Requesting an interview with a game’s producer is like asking the Mayor’s daughter on a date; even if she agrees, you’re not getting laid. Interviews are conducted with PR agents in the room, and a question asked the wrong way will end it.
For example, I asked Red Octane a few months ago to quit playing around and simply release the song list for Guitar Hero III already and the line went dead. Apparently there’s a marketing strategy to the revelation of things like that, and attempting to spurn it results in being ignored – or worse. Which is why it’s so unusual when a developer actually speaks his mind and admits his game has flaws. We treat it like it’s Christmas when someone speaks honestly, and what you probably don’t know is that even the smallest game companies have someone employed solely to keep you separated you from information they don’t want you to have. It’s called “community management,” but it’s actually marketing. It’s less about keeping you informed than it is about selling to you. The dirty secret in games is that it’s less about journalism than advertising. Sorry. I know some of you guys had hopes of changing the world through writing about BioShock, but Ed Murrow we are not.
The worst part is when something truly does go awry, and an editor gets fired for telling the truth about a game his company has accepted money to promote, all parties involved then go into lockdown and pretend it never happened. We were all a bit shocked last week when this happened – not because it did happen, but because we now finally had something approaching evidence that it does happen – but I suspect, once word starts trickling down the editorial trees of the other sites in this industry who also take money for editorial consideration, that following the money too closely may lead us places like Getting Fired Town, we’ll start to hear the riotous voices taper off.
I don’t know Jeff Gerstmann, but I can’t imagine what’s preventing him from telling the truth about what happened last week. I know CNET and Gamespot have a vested interest in not revealing they’re on the take, if that is indeed the case, and I imagine the folks of a similar stature who received the same deal from Eidos may be loathe to admit it. But if Gerstmann had any balls he’d be on every website and podcast he could find, telling his story, and if this industry had any self-respect, he’d be offered every job available as a result. Unfortunately for all of us, neither seems to be the case.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.