: Kingpin: Life of Crime
Entertainment (now known as Gray Matter Studios
: PC CD-ROM
Kingpin was the final game released by Xatrix Entertainment, before the core members of the company jumped ship to Activision and set up Gray Matter Studios. Prior to Kingpin's development, the team had made a name for themselves with the crude and humourous Redneck Rampage series of shooters, before being hired by Id Software to create the first expansion pack for Quake 2 (The Reckoning, a solid but unremarkable effort that arguably influenced parts of Half-Life). Xatrix combined their intimate knowledge of the Quake 2 engine and their love of gratuitous violence and profanity to create Kingpin, a gangster-themed first-person shooter which was developed in eight (presumably very hectic) months.
Kingpin was one of the last FPS games to place a major emphasis on gore and 'adult content', before the genre began to get toned down (as graphical techniques were becoming a bit too realistic...) to appeal to a wider audience. Blood, gibs, decapitations and messy exit wounds (not to mention people running around on fire) are all on the menu. To doubly ensure that the game was plastered with age restrictions and dire warning signs (and certainly not to make it seem cooler to kids), the dialogue in the game is peppered to a frankly absurd degree with four-letter words. Imagine Joe Pesci, blind drunk, accidentally hitting his thumb with a hammer and you have some idea of the sheer volume of expletives uttered in Kingpin. Before the game can be played for the first time, the player is presented with a statement from Xatrix's creative director Drew Markham, defending the developers' right to freedom of expression. This can be put into historical perspective when we consider that the game was released a few months after the Columbine shootings, and attitudes towards violent games were growing increasingly negative.
The game is set in a fictional urban wasteland inhabited by rival street gangs. The visual style of the game combines modern elements of urban decay with Art Deco flourishes reminiscent of the 1930s and 40s, and has been compared to the movies Batman and Brazil. The protagonist is a nameless small-time crook who has had the misfortune of crossing one of the local crime bosses. The game opens with our hero being beaten up and dumped in a back alley with no money and no weapons. The objective is to fight your way up from the gutter (in a very literal sense) to the position of Kingpin. The city is made up of six hub-based areas (in the style of Quake 2 and Hexen II) which have to be completed in a set order. Areas include the ghetto where you start out (Skid Row), an industrial district (the chemical works), dockyards, the glitzy 'Radio City', and finally the Kingpin's luxury apartments.
In each area, the player has to complete some simple 'fetch quests', locating certain objects (for instance by stealing them or trading for them) which can either be given to other characters in return for a favour or used to access a new area (disguised keys- for instance finding a battery for a motorcycle). These objectives can usually be tackled in any order and occasionally the game offers more than one route or solution.
As with a number of first-person shooters before and since, Kingpin tries to set itself apart from the crowd by including some simplistic role-playing and adventure elements. The main character has some hidden stats that increase with practice, the most obvious being that his aim will improve with each firefight. There is a rudimentary economy in the game. Cash can be looted from fallen enemies (not to mention safes, should you gain access to one) and used to purchase weapons, ammo and upgrades from Pawn-o-matic shops located around the city. It is also possible to hire computer-controlled henchmen (including a safecracker, natch) who will follow the player reasonably intelligently and help out in combat situations. Instead of the (at the time) standard weapon hierarchy, where small arms would be rapidly obsolesced by more powerful weapons, in Kingpin it is possible to upgrade the standard pistol several times, adding a silencer and increasing its reload rate, ensuring that it remains a formidable weapon well into the game.
Another reasonably successful new element to the tried-and-tested first-person shooter formula is the character interaction system. Not all of the folk that the player encounters will be hostile. It is often a good idea to approach new characters with your weapon holstered and attempt to strike up conversation (although you only have two conversation options, friendly and antagonistic). Peaceful characters will often give you useful information or offer to make a deal. Doggedly sociopathic players will be relieved to hear that there are no characters that absolutely have to be buttered up to allow the game to progress, and when someone outlives their usefulness you can feel free to whack them over the head and steal their wallet. While this 'kill or cooperate?' gimmick is well-used at first, by the end of each area, the gameplay descends into an old-fashioned bloodbath as dozens of unquestionably hostile goons will arrive to try to stop the player from escaping to the next area.
Graphically, the game is a step up from Quake 2, with higher resolution textures, a liberal scattering of scenery objects, more subtle use of coloured lighting and some nice particle effects (including sparks and the trademark Gray Matter flamethrower which would be seen again in Return to Castle Wolfenstein). Stylistically, Kingpin has the edge over Half-Life which was released a few months earlier, with textures and colour schemes that look slightly more naturalistic than Half-Life's flat, airbrushed look. The game has rather obviously been targeted at the 3dfx Voodoo 2 and NVIDIA Riva TNT 3D accelerator cards that were the standard at the time. (It is the first 3D game I can remember that made decent use of 32-bit colour.) The character models have aged particularly badly, the erratic animation and lighting techniques making them wobble around like some kind of amorphous jelly-people.
Sonically the game is fairly typical of the genre at the time, with the exception of the aforementioned cursing. The soundtrack licenses three tracks from Cypress Hill's IV album, as well as some looped instrumental samples. (Interestingly, considering the choice of subject matter and music, there are no drug references in the game.)
Kingpin inevitably loses out to comparisons with Half-Life, but that doesn't mean that it's a bad game. (After all, some critics would have us believe that Half-Life still hasn't been bettered five years after its release.) There is an over-reliance on gimmicks and a feeling that the game is underdeveloped, which results in the single player campaign degenerating into a repetitive exercise: kill everyone, search the sprawling and featureless levels for a hidden object, and then do it again in a slightly different setting; repeat until bored. The multiplayer game, building as it does on Quake 2's already excellent foundations, redeems it to an extent, with an enjoyable team-based mode ('Bagman', where teams must crack their opponents' safe and try to amass the most money) adding a nice twist to the standard Capture the Flag.
The game has been available as a budget release for some time now, and shouldn't set you back more than a few dollars/pounds/euro. First-person shooter fans (particularly those with access to a LAN of older PCs) looking for an interesting diversion could do far worse than give it a go.
Cliché spotters should be aware that this game includes many crates, warehouses, sewers and burning barrels.