Kingpin: Life of Crime

Developer Xatrix did okay with Redneck Rampage. It’s the worst of the major Build 3D games, but only because Blood and Duke set the bar so high. For their next game, it seems like they were out to tap into 90’s rap culture. Instead, Kingpin ends up being a bizarro world of extreme urban decay, overly stocky thugs, steampunk, and casual brutality. However, there’s also a real attempt to inject some deeper mechanics into the gameplay, making this one of the few games where there’s more lurking beneath its violent surface.

You'll almost always find your next quest in the hub's bar.
You’ll almost always find your next quest in the hub’s bar.

You play as a nameless thug (the console literally refers to you as “Thug”) inside a fictional East Coast city with boroughs like “Poisonville” and “Skid Row.” The game begins with you getting the everloving shit kicked out of you by a couple of street toughs, apparently at the behest of a man named Nicky. You struggle to your feet, grab a meager lead pipe, and set out to introduce it to Nicholas’ face. Nicky, however, is a lieutenant for a shameful Marcellus Wallace clone (he even has a modified version of Pulp Fiction‘s famous “scour the Earth” line). This burly gentleman runs crime out of his tower in Radio City – yes, you might call him a kingpin – and your quest for revenge soon runs you afoul of his goon army.

First off, this isn’t a game with traditional levels. In general, everything is based around roughly six different hubs in various parts of the city. The effect is intentionally similar to Deus Ex. Holster your weapon and you can freely talk to the locals. Chatting them up is the way to get proper quests, hints, or even be able to hire some to fight with you. Quests automatically update a personal notebook accessed with the bracket keys, and will send you to the outskirts of the hub (likely loading a separate map entirely) to kill a lot of bad guys and recover something of value. Return item of value to the person who asked for it, and they’ll do something to unlock the next hub.

Already we’re doing more than blowing away gangbangers, so that’s both great and surprising. Defeated goons drop ammo, but can also be searched (crouch and hit “use”) for cash money. “Pawn-o-Matic” shops exist in every hub that sell new weapons, ammo, health kits, and armor. You can find these items in the world, but the shop is your most reliable source, while saving up your money can get you early access to the game’s more serious hardware. They also sell exclusive weapon upgrades that turn your rather puny arsenal into something much more respectable. This seems unfinished, however – the pistol is the only gun with multiple mods, and the heavy machine gun is the only other weapon with a mod at all. I particularly would love to have seen something that made the shotgun more useful.

"Hey, ah, tanks for shoppin at Pawn-o-Matic, come back anytime."
“Hey, uh, tanks for shoppin at Pawn-o-Matic, come back anytime.”

There’s eight weapons in all. A crowbar and tommy gun round out your standard gear, and a flamethrower, rocket launcher, and grenade launcher make up your end-game toys. The heavy machine gun is a beast at any range, but fires in three round bursts with a second or two delay in between – that’ll get you killed. The flamethrower causes meager damage and its flames can actually burn out (leaving an enemy mostly none the worse for wear). However, it stuns anyone, even bosses, with its lingering flames – torch ’em, then switch to a better gun to finish them off.

Yet even at the medium difficulties, combat is surprisingly tough. Your unarmored body can’t take many hits, and most goons can absorb at least one shotgun blast at close range. Headshots don’t appear to add extra damage, and some mini-boss characters (like the machine gun dudes) dish out punishing damage while being able to eat bullets without breaking stride nor shot. I’ve had guys take rockets with a smile, and no particular excuse as to why. The game’s ubiquitous rats even nip away 2 health per bite if you let them get close, which is honestly a bit ridiculous. It did give something to spend my shotgun ammo on, though.

I thought the difficulty was just unbalanced until I figured out that the game wants you to use its AI helpers. You’ll find them around the hub areas, and appropriate interaction (“Y” key for yes/hello, “X” key for no) will hire them if you have the cash. They’ll follow you around wherever you go, including through level transitions. If you need to clear a path ahead, they can be ordered to stand guard (X key again) and resume following as needed.

These guys come with their own weapon, infinite ammo, and slowly regenerating health. They’re decent shots, surprisingly aware, and demonstrate at least Daikatana levels of pathfinding (successfully navigating complicated, scripted areas like broken stairways and tricky rooftop jumps). However, you have to wait for them to notice an enemy before they react – they will not charge ahead to investigate gunshots, nor can they be ordered to pass through a door first. Yet if you can get them to break their invisible leash, they’ll tank up enemy attacks quite nicely. I scored my first shotgun by letting a grumpy old bastard with a lead pipe give up his life distracting its owner. That was $10 well spent.

Once they actually spot an enemy, your AI hires are pretty ruthless.
Once they actually spot an enemy, your AI hires are pretty ruthless.

Some AI hires also come with the ability to pick locks. Point at the guy and hit Q, point at the target and hit “Use.” Your safe is now cracked. Any frustration comes when you’re not notified when these guys could come in handy. I had no idea I needed to leave and go back to the hub to pick up a safecracker in an early mission, and spent more time than I cared to fumbling around for hidden switch I thought I must be missing.

Environments are filthy, which fits the tone. You’ll fight through steel plants, warehouses, neglected streets, and many a sewer tunnel. Brown, gray, and rust are the colors here, without a single break for a shiny office or a nature park. I wasn’t put off by it, though. Most of the levels do a good job of throwing in some texture or decoration, including trash cans you can knock over, piles of bottles and paper laying around, and the occasional crack in the sidewalk or crumbling wall. I also loved how the company logos identified which crates you could break and which you could push to jump to higher spots. There’s some great use of color and lightmaps to create fake shadows, occasional shiny textures, and explosions are surprisingly vibrant. The only downside is that Kingpin’s textures seem to “ripple” over their models. This is apparently an intentional technique to simulate animation without any extra work.

Kingpin got plenty of ire over its gore, which was some of the most severe for its time. This was the first chance you had to blow off parts of an enemy model, and well-placed shots will seamlessly remove arms, legs, and heads. They simply disappear after the initial gib explosion, however, and there’s nothing like what’s on display in Soldier of Fortune. Quake II’s famous pain skins are also used, though seemingly with little reaction to where on the model you shoot. These skins are pretty brutal, and while they don’t look entirely like gunshots, there’s no question that defeated foes have been messed up.

Cypress Hill also provides the music, and acts as a major selling point. In practice, it’s not what I expected, for both good and bad. Only three of their tracks are licensed, all off of the IV album: “Checkmate,” “16 Men,” and “Lightning Strikes.” You’ll notice that’s not a lot. Smartly, the core beat of a song is looped to create background music for the early areas of the game, and this works reasonably well. Later levels see the full song and vocals introduced. It’s the best way they could make use of limited assets, and they again fit the theme – “16 Men”s thumping loop made me feel like swaggering down the ruined streets, and “Lighting Strikes” fast-paced, almost techno theme is exclusively used to amp you up in boss levels.

AI will successfully make the same crazy jumps you're asked to. I didn't even mean to bring these guys up here!
AI will successfully make the same crazy jumps you’re asked to. I didn’t even mean to bring these guys up here!

The ultimate question, of course, is if it’s any fun. Overall, yes. It’s not as clever as it thinks it is, but it’s certainly more clever than you expect it to be. There’s plenty of situations to surprise you along the way, including a working train, some hairy jumps, and even pinball tables and mailboxes to interact with. The pace is set so that you know when you’re getting into enemy territory and have time to prepare, with the sole (and understandable) exception of the open gang war in the final levels. Your AI pals are smart enough not to need constant attention, but not enough to ever rely on. Fortunately, every single one of them is expendable, and you’re never short on cash after the initial levels.

Unfortunately, the difficulty makes playing sometimes a chore. You can’t take much damage at all without armor, making it required to seek out and/or buy past the mid levels. You have a variety of weapons, but only one or two really good ones (the machine guns). I’m getting real tired of bosses and heavies that shrug off multiple rockets as a “challenge,” and this game has that in spades. I was hoping the “Real” difficulty might make both you and enemies weaker, but it just makes enemies hardier.

Also, there’s also nothing in the way of story or motivation. Mr. Thug is a shit, blasting a guy who gave you a ride cause he asked for the $20 you promised. You’ll kill a stranger for no better reason than because a guy in a bathroom asked you to. Later, Thug brings back the severed head of a girlfriend he was supposed to save, just to throw it at the feet of her lover to get him to join you. Also, I killed Nicky without ever realizing I’d done it – Thug was well on to world domination by that point.

I was reluctant to dive into Kingpin, because somewhere along the way, I got the impression that it was a buggy, brainless shooter that liked to say “fuck” a lot. At least all patched up, only the last part turned out to be true. Kingpin’s AI buddies work well, without entrusting the gameplay to them. Its hub areas and quest-based gameplay help the city feel believable and keep you from simply trashing bad guy after bad guy, level after level. Even its inclusion of Cypress Hill tracks is more a benefit than a gimmick. Its shooting and damage models could use a good tweak, which means anyone who doesn’t love a good FPS will probably want to skip, but those who do will find a better game than they likely expected.


The Good

Leans closer to Deus Ex than a typical FPS fragfest. Pretty great art design for a Quake II game about run-down ghettos. Friendly AI trips up from time to time, but never critically.


The Bad

Shooting could feel better, both in terms of weapons and the damage they (don’t) do. Essentially no plot. Friendly AI isn’t great at positioning in combat, or reacting to a gun fight underway. Fuck the rats. Seriously, guys.


Son of a bitch got away! I don’t fuckin’ believe it! What’s it gonna take to kill that slippery motherfucker?” — The Tao of Thug


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2 thoughts on “Kingpin: Life of Crime

  1. First of all: I disagree about the Redneck Rampage comment. TekWar and Witchaven 2 are the two worst “major” Build engine games by far. By a landslide even. RR is at least fun to play and there’s a reason so many people over at steam want the people who made Duke Nukem 3D Megaton to create a RR-Remake.

    Kingpin is a fun game with a surprisingly good AI that actually seeks cover or even flees. The difficulty is good, game of today could learn a lot from it. The setting was also pretty good.
    The only annoying things to me are the loading times (back then they were horrible) and the crappy ‘music’ but then again i absolutely despise rap

    1. The “major” games I meant were Duke, Blood, and Shadow Warrior. I should have clarified, and Tekwar absolutely doesn’t count :P. Compared to those three, RR is the weakest. Still a great FPS, but the weakest of that group. I explain my reasons in the RR review.

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