It used to be that when a game developer wanted to capture the attention of industry peers, the media, and gamers alike, they did so by making a truly innovative game. These days, it seems, companies get attention not with innovation, but with shock (or schlock in many cases). Marilyn Manson, Howard Stern, John Waters, and Jerry Springer have all parlayed careers out of shocking the public using their respective mediums of music, radio, film and television. So who carries the torch for us in the gaming industry? Apparently, the publisher of Carmaggedon (Interplay) and the developers of Redneck Rampage (Xatrix Entertainment) have teamed up to fill that void and their latest creation Kingpin picks up right where they last left off.
The so-called mature premise of Kingpin revolves around a fallen gangster who is now out for revenge and domination over the underworld. No heroic macho lead character or buxom heroine here, just a thug out to do no good. While politically incorrect, it's certainly conceptually interesting and has a similar appeal to films like GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction, which also revolve around bad people doing bad things. But it's too bad that Kingpin is nowhere near the caliber of those two films, as virtually all of the "unique" ideas of the game go undeveloped and get cheaply exploited faster than you can say Amy Fisher.
Thanks to the early demo released, Kingpin quickly became notorious for its extremely liberal use of profanity, which is ingrained in the interactions with the game's many non-player characters (NPC). This basically meant that I could talk to NPCs with a choice of positive, neutral, or negative responses (all of which somehow managed to contain the F-word). Depending on my choice, NPCs would appropriately give me information, chill out, or attack. I'll be the first to admit that I was deviously looking forward to all the expletives when first playing, but as I progressed through the game, I found that different responses pretty much produced the same result, making the whole thing rather pointless. It became even more of a moot point in later stages since characters are far more likely to shoot off their guns than their mouths. Dialogue wasn't used for communication or advancing the plot, it was just another opportunity for Xatrix's crack staff to string together more offensive sentences. And like Andrew Dice Clay, who sounded cool at first too, Kingpin proves again that vulgar material is easily played out.
Graphically, the game goes beyond what everyone thought was possible with the Quake 2 engine. Xatrix certainly worked hard on recreating a run down inner-city neighborhood, but for all its visual splendor, the same hollowness that plagues the dialogue afflicts the gameplay and level design. It's not only silly, but cartoonish the way I was subjected to run around in an overly realistic looking environment, yet unrealistically blasting everyone in sight, all the while looking for obscure switches, lock triggers, and other strangely placed items. Nicely rendered thugs are everywhere (in every building and on every street corner), but where are the ordinary, decent people to populate it? This may not be a game review-relevant question, but is everyone in the inner city a thug? That's the impression I'm getting from the game and I don't know whether Xatrix is aware of that or if they really care.
Perhaps the most obvious and lamest attempt at dressing up the Quake 2 engine with a pseudo urban flavor is the rap soundtrack by Cypress Hill. Xatrix sought out "urban music" for some quick street-cred and much of the advertising focused heavily on this association. But for all the hype, we are treated to only three tracks from Cypress Hill's horrible album, IV, for the entire game. To make matters worse, we don't get music; we get an incessant beat that is looped from the start to finish of each level. Xatrix should study up on Aliens Versus Predator if they want to successfully integrate genre music into gameplay. From my standpoint, it looks like Cypress Hill pulled a Vanilla Ice on this one by cashing in their integrity.
I am convinced that their original concept was to use vulgarity and gory violence to appeal to an audience much younger than they claim to, and everything else was secondary to that directive. It's a shame that Xatrix went this route with Kingpin because underneath all the controversial language, violence, and pages upon pages of parental advisory warnings, lies a beautifully dark and grim world with some interesting, yet unexplored ideas that are ultimately marred by a silly gimmick. When all is said and done, Kingpin is the Dr. Jekyl And Mr. Hyde of first-person shooters; interesting ideas on the outside, unredeemed by nasty intentions on the inside. Purveyors of shock from other mediums like Marilyn Manson at least raise issues about alternative Christian ideals and even Jerry Springer makes bold claims about non-celebrities and their rights to public humiliation. But does Kingpin contain any redeemable ideas of its own? How's this: "Dressing up Quake 2 with tons of violence, profanity, and hip-hop culture will sell millions to impressionable white suburban teens."