Kingpin: Life of Crime
a game by Xatrix Entertainment, Inc.
We gasped when we saw this. And you know why? It was outta respect. We hang out on the street, chew a matchstick and dream of being a Kingpin.
Scarcely a day goes by without some kind of impromptu tough-guy dialogue turning the air blue, usually delivered in an excruciatingly bad approximation of a Bronx accent: You foggin' muddafoggah, we cry at each other. Why, I oughta bust yo' balls, ya foggin monkey." That kind of thing. We're hilarious.
Anyway, it seems we're not the only ones. Pesci's terrifying tirades have pervaded the global conscience. A Pepsi ad campaign currently airing on US TV features a little girl with Pesci's voice, remonstrating a cafe owner for serving the other cola. And now there's this: Kingpin, a kind of Quake meets Goodfellas first-person shooter. It's sure to offend many by virtue of its two main features: ultra-violence and gutter language. Yes, swearing. The odd swearword has cropped up in games before, but never have our ears witnessed such a torrential flow of profanity. Kingpin, you see, is set in the world of the underground urban criminal - a demographic not traditionally noted for its linguistic restraint.
Actually, it's genuinely shocking. The enemies in Kingpin don't just run at you, guns blazing, they shout, Yo, kill this motherf***er" first. Add to this a blistering soundtrack courtesy of blunt-smoking rap legends Cypress Hill (who also contribute some of the dialogue), and you've got an authentically atmospheric experience.
The game uses an enhanced version of the familiar Quake II engine, and having seen it running at September's ECTS show we can vouch for its speed, fluidity, and superior animation. We can also confirm that, Carmageddon II aside, it's one of the most violent games you're likely to come across this year.
Set in a slightly skewed version of the present day, blending a '30s-style Chicago gangster ethos with '90s urban grime, Kingpin nevertheless looks unerringly realistic. There's plenty of machine-gun-toting mayhem, and realistically gruesome mayhem at that. Claret all over the shop, in other words. The superb sound effects add to the fun no end.
As a player, your aim is simple: starting out as a lowly, put-upon street punk, you must rise to the dizzying heights of mafioso Mister Big, the Kingpin of the title. Achieving this daunting task isn't easy, and you'll have to bust a few heads to get there. Strong stomachs only need apply - the developers aren't ruling out torture scenes, in which your character wrings information out of rival hoods by being spectacularly horrid to them. With implements.
It's not the first unconventional 3D shooter from developers Xatrix, they were also responsible for last year's hick-baiting Redneck Rampage (another game with its own fair share of cuss words). In this country, Redneck was unfairly overlooked; Kingpin looks set to fare much better. We're keeping a close eye on this one, and so should you. More news as we get it. Ya goddam lunk-assed moddahfoggers. Geddoudaheah!
Cross Goodfellerswl The City Of Lost Children, sprinkle it with Quake 2-flavoured icing, add a bit of blue language, and you've got Kingpin.
What's The Big Deal?
Kingpin boasts superb graphics and sound effects. It runs on an Improved version of the Quake 2 engine. There's lots of swearing! And Cypress Hill! And an agreeably gritty tone!
May offend wusses, or help contribute to eventual bloody downfall of society as we know it.
We first happened upon Kingpin a few months ago, tucked behind closed doors on Interplay's stand at ECTS. We were actually supposed to be looking at Galleon, which is being developed by ex-Tomb Raider chaps Paul Douglas and Toby Guard, but whenever Toby began to demonstrate the wonders of his new game engine, our attention was distracted by a succession of loud expletives emitting from the speakers connected to a PC on the opposite side of the booth.
Of course, once Toby had finished his demo and everyone had agreed that it did indeed look a bit 'spesh', the consensus was that we just had to find out who, or what, was responsible for such disgraceful behaviour.
We were greeted by a very pleasant chap from developers Xatrix, who informed us that the game we were listening to, and now looking at, was Kingpin, a gritty Quake-meets-Martin-Scorcese-style romp set in a fictional retro-tech urban world of violence and crime, populated by whores, gangs and drug addicts. Our interest noticeably pricked, we set about interrogating him further as to the game's credentials.
A few minutes later and we were gagging for playable code. Far from being just another Quake-clone, Kingpin enables you to explore numerous storylines and sub-plots, interact with numerous NPCs, team up with them, torture them and, of course, shoot them dead. Having spent the last couple of weeks playing the excellent Half-Life, we were more than ready for our next dose of totally immersive, movie-style, gun-toting shenanigans, and Kingpin looked like it might fit the bill perfectly.
Like Half-Life, Kingpin uses an enhanced version of ID's fiber-engine, and is full of rather neat graphical effects, architecture and superbly animated characters who behave with varying degrees of hostility towards you. Far from being an out-and-out blast-fesr, if you're too cheeky too soon you can expect to get your head blown off, which means cunning, stealth and a silver tongue are as useful as an itchy trigger finger and the ability to shoot people in the head from across the street. We were highly impressed by what Xatrix have managed to accomplish. Like Confounding Factor's Galleon, Kingpin has immediately established itself at the top of Most Wanted for '99 list. We'll be keeping a very close eye on its progress over the next couple of months.
Drew Markham's a big man. He is, in his own words, "about six foot six and an imposing chap, you might say". Like we say, a big man. He's also lead programmer on Kingpin, the gangster-flavoured Quake 'em up which got us all hot and bothered when it premiered at ECTS back in September.
Drew is part of Xatrix Entertainment, who are no strangers to the 3D action genre. They were the maniacs responsible for the single funniest Quafce-u-like of all time: the undeniably twisted Redneck Rampage, a kind of Hickpocalypse Now in which the players gunned down trailer trash and alien invaders while chugging back the brewskis and munching on pork rinds. But while Redneck was total toontime, Kingpin's sewn from altogether darker fabric. Get this: it's a 3D actioneer in which you can wound people. Not just obliterate them. If you want to put the shits up an enemy character, pop them in the thigh. Or the elbow. And if they don't talk or won't give in, relent and go for the head shot - then watch as they slump to the ground in an eerily convincing manner, leaking claret from a disc-shaped hole in the forehead. Kingpin takes place in a world of grimy backstreets and night city steam, of piss and garbage and people saying "motherf**ker". There are guns. There is fighting. There are foolhardy mobsters choking on a stinking gut-full of pain. This is not a 'feel good' game, it's a piece of cold-steel violence.
Sing Like A Canary
So, Drew Markham's a big man. But he seems pretty gentle. He didn't put us in a headlock or crack our toes or stab us or anything. Instead he sat down smiling and patiently answered our Kingpin questions with a certain swaggering charm and a broad US accent. We asked him to describe Kingpin - and this is what he said.
"Kingpin is a game inspired by Martin Scorcese movies. I think I probably watched Goodfellas one too many times and had it in my dreams, and the game's kind of come out of that. It's very violent, it's very gritty, it's very realistic. We tried to take a lot of the cues that Scorcese uses in his films - the atmosphere, the ambience, the violence, the character involvement..." And the fruity, earthy language...
'There is rather a lot of fruity, earthy language, yeah. But the game will be available with a parental lock so if parents want to turn that off they can... but we didn't want to short- change adults who are old enough to make that decision for themselves."
What's the rudest phrase in the game? "Well, the language is so realistic and so over the top that it would be really hard for me to give you a taste of it without having it heavily censored."
But presumably with the lock switched on, the characters say things like "you blooming cad... I'll hit you"? "Yeahhh... things just like that. Or we might keep the language in, but bleep it. Also, we may put in a lockout for the blood. It's a very violent game. When you shoot someone it's very realistic." You didn't go out and actually shoot people in the name of research, did you?
"Nah. There's plenty of that research available on film now. We just had to get a few movies together and we were fine." Kingpin is quite distinctive visually, isn't it?
"The game has a lot of different looks. When you start out basically you're a street punk in an alternate world. I kind of stole a line from Terry Gilliam's Brazil: when Brazil starts it says it's set 'somewhere in the 20th century', and that's kind of where Kingpin's set. It's a retro-tech past here - where time sort of stopped around 1939 and went off on a different track. There's some very contemporary elements and also some elements you might recognise from the '30s and '40s. It's kind of'gangster' meets 'gangsta'." What engine are you using for the game?
"We used the Quake II engine - well, a very heavily modified version." Why choose Quake 3 "We used it because we worked on the mission pack for iD (The Reckoning), so we knew the engine very well and it was a natural thing to continue on with it. A lot of people asked us why we didn't switch to Unreal or something like that, but we've managed to put a lot of effects into this engine. I think you'll see that it has everything that you'd expect to be in a game and a lot more." Being a Scorsese-style gangster game, does all the action take place from a Joe Pesci perspective - you know, ankle-height to everybody else?
"Well, you might be considered to be shorter than everyone else. You start out as this street punk. You've got absolutely nothing around you, not even a gun at the beginning. You gotta get your brass knuckles, you gotta work your way up. You want to be the crime boss, you want to be the Kingpin. So you've got to gather a gang of guys around you and take everybody out on your way up to the top of the ladder."
Will you get to stab people repeatedly with fountain pens like Joe Pesci did in Casino? "There will be some things like that. Torture will figure in the game. There will be characters who have information that you might want and it would be an... acceptable thing to at some point maybe shoot them in the kneecap or something to get them to talk." Will you get to stick their head in a vice and tighten it until their eyes pop out, also like Joe Pesci in Casino?
"Well, that was one of my favourite scenes in Casino, but I think we're probably a few years away from depicting something like that. So we're gonna start off with the lower end of the "violence and torture' spectrum. But/know, maybe in a few years we might work our way up to something like that."
People are bound to complain that the violence that is there is far too explicit. Would you have anything to say to people like that - or would you just track them down and have them killed?
"No (laughs), I wouldn't have them killed. I don't subscribe to the theory that watching violent material necessarily makes you a violent person. I'm not a violent person in real life. I don't go out and get in my car and run people over just because I played Carmageddon II. I don't watch Goodfellas and go out and shoot people. I think that having a healthy fantasy life is fine - it's a good way to release aggression. We've been doing that for a long time and there's nothing wrong with that."
There's a distinctive soundtrack, isn't there? 'Yeah. The music's by Cypress Hill. They're the best hip-hop band in the world as far as I'm concerned. Incredible music, and we feel very lucky to get it. We got three songs from the new album and two old songs."
Have the 'Hill seen the game? "They haven't seen the game per se, but they have seen a video of it. What we did was we took one of their songs - Ain't Goin' Out Like That - and we had some nice violent gameplay which we cut to that song. I think they said they watched the tape a coupla hundred times and told us we were trippin' on doing some violence. They liked what was in there, said it was very cool, and wanted to be a part of it. In fact they liked it so much they're going to do voices in the game. So the three main guys from Cypress Hill will actually be in the game."
The Adventure Game
So: lotsa violence, lotsa hip-hop. Fine. But it's also an adventure game. Xatrix are promising a strong, unfolding narrative that will link the episodes together, as you get to know and like (or hate and loathe) the characters you encounter. There's also a smattering of resource management... Well, you can burgle warehouses for extra funds, at any rate. We'll be covering these gentler aspects of Kingpin in further detail in a future issue. For now you'll just have to gawp at the pictures like a slack-jawed chimp.
Drew Markham, lead programmer on Kingpin, the gaming world's answer to Goodfellas: "I I got into a gun battle in a stairwell last night. I A spiralling, four-storey stairwell - like the I one in Vertigo, almost. There's armed guys all over this thing. I burst in with my gang, and my guys start yelling at their guys: 'Die, you f...!', and 'F...you!' and so on. Then the machine-guns start going bam bam bam, and there's shots flyin' by, sparks flyin' off the metal, people giftin' whacked all around...
"That was last night. And that was the first time it really hit me: I felt that as this thing comes together, as all the elements congeal, it's really starting to feel like a movie in places. And that kind of creeps me out. But in a good way."
Drew's company, Xatrix, is based in Santa Monica, California. It's a beautiful place populated by beautiful people, blessed by almost ceaseless sunshine. You might expect someone living in such an environment to create upbeat, happy-go-lucky platform games about cartoon rabbits or drawling surf dudes. But no. You know what Drew was getting excited about when we spoke on the phone? Popping people in the forehead with Magnums and dashing people's brains out with lead pipes. Something way wrong with Markham's mind.
Didjoo Foggam Eye Wife?
The preoccupation with pipes stems from the game's latest development: the choice of default weapon - the tool you have to rely on in those desperate moments when the ammo runs out. In Wolfenstein 3D you had a knife. In Doom your fists. In Quake the honours went to a squirty little popgun. And in Kingpin?
"We had to come up with a default weapon - that's part of the paradigm for any first-person game - and I said I didn't really want to give everybody a gun as the default, because then you've gotta give 'em infinite ammo, and that's just not realistic. And everybody's lookin' at me thinking, 'Oh God, he's not going to suggest a melee weapon, is he?' And I said 'Absolutely.' You know - crowbars, golf clubs, whatever we can come up with."
They eventually settled on the lo-fi murderer's favourite: a Cluedo-style chunk of lead piping. Close-up, man-on-man combat is notoriously difficult to pull off in a first-person shooter. The best example so far is the crowbar in Half-Life - a sickeningly proficient cudgel for multiplayer mode. One moment you're flailing away at someone in an accurate frenzy, the next thing you know their skull's opened up like a ripe tulip and there's gooey lumps of brain dripping from your chin. As an emulation of real-life murder, it's reasonable, albeit luridly impressionistic. Kingpin's toe-to-toe butchery is grittier all round. The body of each character is divided into individual 'zones', each of which reacts individually to damage. Smack someone's arm, and the arm buckles; smack their head and it looks so damn painful you want to climb through the screen and apologise in person.
"In Kingpin you really are making contact and it's... pretty gnarly," leers Drew. "You whip this lead pipe out and start crackin' somebody in the head with it, and getting your own head cracked in... and it's unbelievable. It's one of the most brutal things I've ever seen. When they first see it, people are invariably shocked for a moment, then they ask if they can have a go."
The blows themselves are nauseatingly convincing, but what about the fight itself? Won't it just degenerate into an exercise in mindless swiping? Drew thinks not: "We had so many guys here who were initially sceptical about melee. But we worked hard at it and we've got something cool. It plays well. You can't spoof the AI. These guys are tough. If you try to circle-strafe around 'em they'll track with you; if you back away they jump toward you and hit you. They are nasty with these pipes."
Once the body-impact algorithms and AI routines were in place, the team realised that the one-on-one scraps were proving to be just too much fun to skimp on.
Drew: "We hadn't figured on the lead pipe combat being so cool, so originally it wasn't going to figure much in the game. But now... well, let's just say that in the first episode you get to beat the crap out of a lot of people with the lead pipe."
Having programmed, tested, tweaked and re-tweaked all of Kingpin's close-up fighting non-stop for a number of months, Drew and the team are probably the world's foremost authorities on one-on-one blunt object combat. In which case, do they have any tips to pass on to would-be murderers?
"Yeah," says Drew, "aim for the head or the chest. If you hit 'em in the head it's really really nasty - you definitely want to go for that. But then in a pipe fight any limb'll do, as they say."
Alkil Yewya Moddafog
Unless you've got some downright bizarre eye condition that prevents you from looking at pictures, you've probably stared at these Kingpin screenshots and noticed:
1) that they're lovely;
2) that any one of these men could have you with one hand tied behind their back because you're such a blubbering wuss; and
3) that Kingpin is set very much in the real world. In fact, glance momentarily and you could be forgiven for thinking you'd seen stills from a grainy documentary about gang violence rather than a game. And that's no accident, says Drew.
"We've put in a lot of work and a lot of effort, and we've tried to create something that's different. Not just different for the sake of being different, but because... I'm 40 years old now, so I've been doing this for quite a while. And my taste has changed a lot as I've gotten older. Not just my taste in games, but my taste in movies has changed, and so on.
One of the things I'm reacting against is that a lot of games are fantasy-based. They're not very 'real world'. I think I know why: it's because the real world is extremely tough to portray in a game; it's much easier to set it all on Planet Y or in dungeon Z or whatever the hell you want to call it.
"But I happen to like the grimy, seedy, gritty side of things, and it's something we don't get to see much. Games to me are things that should provide opportunities to do stuff I can't do in real life. I suppose I could go out and be a criminal, but it's probably not a good idea. Be a thug for a day and you wind up in jail or the morgue. Games like this offer a chance to indulge your fantasies." Especially the more violent ones. Kingpin's brutal nature is already just too much for some.
"We get a lot of critics claiming we're extolling the virtues of crime and violence and so on... and that's garbage," Drew spits. "If you can't distinguish between your fantasy life and reality, you've got problems that we're not going to solve by not making these programs. It's a game."
Kizm Eye Foggin Prig Yeffok
Of course, right now, there's only one standard by which all first-person shooters must be judged: how well (or how poorly) they stand against the freshly-crowned King of All Games, Half-Life. Drew is quick to acknowledge Valve's mighty accomplishment (eagerly praising, for example, Half-Life's 'real world' scenario), and when asked how Kingpin measures up he's canny enough to avoid either criticism or a direct comparison.
"We love Half-Life," he begins cautiously, "but I read the perfect description of it somewhere on the Internet the other day. Someone had called it the ultimate Pirates Of The Caribbean game." Huh? Buh? Wuh?
"You haven't heard of that? Pirates Of The Caribbean is a ride at Disneyland. And it's fabulous. You go through and there's always something happening - a guy jumping out over here, someone else racing around over there. And as a linear, choreographed narrative goes, it's superb. The best thing I've ever seen." Hmmmm. Yesssss... but?
"But we're trying something different. We're not really scripting lots and lots of stuff. In Half-Life, you know that when you walk by a certain window you're gonna see a scientist get grabbed by a monster and yanked through an air-conditioning duct. We don't have a lot of that kind of stuff." And in its place?
"In Kingpin it's more like you walk by and suddenly somebody shouts: 'Hey, f**k you', and you turn around and there's a gunfight going on. And you think, Woah, I didn't know that was going to happen. And we didn't know it was going to happen either."
And why? Because, darling snookums, the Xatrix team are trying to let the in-game characters provide the shocks themselves. "I wanted to create an empiric behaviour model. That's a real fancy way of saying I didn't want things to be scripted to a great degree. We wanted something where the characters have individual behaviours based upon certain parameters we can endow them with. We're trying to get enough of those variables in there to make spontaneous behaviour occur. It's not an easy thing to do, I'll tell ya. But it's getting to the point where it really is extremely convincing and immersive. The characters will look for cover, they'll hide behind things...
"One of the things that startled me the most when all this behaviour stuff started working, was this: I was playing the Skid Row level, and there's this bit where there's a lady with a gun. I'd had many battles with her before and I usually killed her quite quickly. But that was before the AI changes.
"This time, I went out there and started shooting, and I got her a coupla times and she got me a coupla times... then she ran off. And I was like, what the hell? She's, like, gone. I thought there was a problem, so I walked around the corner. And there she was, crouched down, waiting for me. She unloaded an entire clip.
Killed me. I thought, woah, you devious little, er, you know what." Cow? Bitch? Jizzjar? We don't know. He didn't say.
So, besides unspeakable violence, AI and camaraderie, what else does Kingpin have to offer?
Drew pauses. "Well, there's a little resource management, but not much. We didn't want to make Virtual Accountant here, you know. You have to manage money, but that's a pretty simple thing to do: whack somebody, strip 'em, and get the money off'em. Collect it, just like ammunition."
Collecting money implies that you've got things to buy. And we already know you can converse with characters and form 'parties'... This is all starting to sound rather like an RPG, isn't it? "Yeah. There are some pretty heavy adventure game overtones. There's also a strong narrative element, in that ultimately you're trying to whack the crime boss and, as you gain notoriety, people who previously ignored you suddenly want to blow your head off.
"You start the game unconscious and dumped in an alley. You find the lead pipe, but there's no gun right off the bat. Your objective is to find one, or life's gonna be a lot harder. So you get employed by this guy who runs a pawn shop, and if you do something for him he'll give you a pistol.
"The number two weapon is typically a piece of crap," drawls Drew. "Usually you're thinking along the lines of: 'I can't wait to get rid of this piece of shit the moment I get something better.' But you know what? I'm tired of that. I want people to still think of this pistol as a viable weapon, even at the end of the game. We created modifications for it which you can find or buy as you play. At the start of the game it's kinda wimpy, but by the end it's a pretty ass-kickin' gun." Unusually for an action game, your aim improves as you play, not simply through sheer practice, but thanks to an RPG-style 'experience points' system which actually affects the accuracy of the gun.
"As for the way it all unfolds... Well, I've really tried to keep it so that a lot of the game happens in your head." Drew claims, mysteriously. "Someone smarter than me once said that videogames don't take place on the screen, they take place in your mind. I agree with that."
And waddafog duz dis foggin guy mean by dat, den, huh? Well, you'll have to wait for the full review to find out. Tell you what, mister reader - we'll rendezvous back here then, yes? Good.
The Gang S All Here
Being intelligent, the characters in Kingpin don't just wander around all on their lonesome. No. They form little clubs. Not Tupperware clubs, or paedophile rings, you understand, but good old-fashioned, inner city crimewave gangs. And as you progress through the game, you get to run one of your very own. "You really need to utilise your own gang if you want to win," Drew cautions.
"You can look on them as another weapon, although it kind of hurts more when you lose them. After a while they become like members of the family. Having said that, if you've got to storm a building with a ton of guys inside, you want these cats going in in front of you." Hmmm... Other characters helping you out? That sounds a bit... Half-Life-ish?
"Half-Life has the 'barneys' - the guards. They're useful sometimes, but they often don't follow you very far. As for our guys, these idiots will follow you anywhere. They're like the redshirts on Star Trek - you know, the security guys who are always beaming down with Kirk and getting killed. They're a lot of fun."
2018-12-05 Kingpin: Life of Crime game added.