Well-intentioned middle-class moderates like me are supposed to loathe games such as "Kingpin: Life of Crime." It is, to use the vernacular, a chilling commentary on the sorry state of modern society, a distraction that revolves around the treacherous thuggery of gang life.
Yet Interplay's first-person PC shooter is also a lot of fun--in the same uncomfortable way that Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" was a lot of fun. Impossible to rationalize, justify or even defend, "Kingpin" serves up gore and profanity in equal helpings but leaves players perversely hungry for more.
Yes, it's violent. Yes, it's profane. Yes, players are rewarded for looting the still-warm corpses of rival hoodlums. And social workers ought to be knocking on the door of any parents who allow their tender tots within a mile of "Kingpin."
But this is a game designed for and marketed to a specific segment of adults: hard-core gamers who enjoy the engrossing thrill of first-person shooters and demand ever-greater levels of detail and realism. The system requirements alone preclude most PC owners from even getting the game to run.
Those who do should know what they're getting.
"Kingpin's" premise is simple: revenge. Players assume the role of a shady thug who gets pummeled by even shadier thugs and is told to stay out of Poisonville, the moody burg where "Kingpin" takes place. But this is the video game world. What sort of fun would it be if players meekly scampered to safety? Sounds familiar, I know. But the game strives for freshness by melding first-person shooting action with the plot and story of a role-playing adventure.
The device works in nicely rendered cut sequences that attempt to tie together otherwise disjointed missions with a semblance of story and plenty of foul language. Within the first minute, I think I heard the f-word used as every part of speech except a conjunction.
The blend of action and adventure works even better in a game feature that allows players to interact with other characters in different ways. Players can be friendly or threatening. Other characters can offer helpful information, throw insults or just start shooting.
Because the game commences right after a serious beating, players begin low on health and without weapons. That changes quickly, beginning with a lead pipe picked from a pile of trash. Players can buy new weapons at the Pawn-o-Matic or find them stashed in secret spots. Early on, it's possible to buy a crowbar from a bum for a buck and then turn around, beat up the bum and take the dollar back.
Sickening? Yes. And some may argue--and people close to me have--that it is irresponsible to praise a game with such a revolting premise, particularly in light of high-profile violence blamed on video games.
Rant mode on.
But "Kingpin" is marketed to adults. Its "Mature" rating from the Entertainment Software Ratings Board means something. The box shots depicting scenes of gun-toting hoods and spurting blood are taken directly from the game.
Don't like it? Don't play it. Got a rage problem? Play "Mario" instead. Got kids? Don't let them near it. Two words: personal responsibility. It's that simple.
"Kingpin" is, after all, a video game. In a country where millions of children go hungry every day, teenagers are feared for the color of their skin and parents fret that their local school will end up on the evening news, video games like "Kingpin" make an easy target. They become the boogeyman.
Banning them or imposing content standards beyond the current rating system won't magically erase all the bad things we deal with every day. If it were that simple, I'd be the first to support dumping the nation's video games somewhere in the desert. Really, though, video games ought to be the least of our collective worries.
Rant mode off.
For those who want to experience "Kingpin" without all the controversial aspects, players can opt for a low-violence, low-profanity version. But what that amounts to is a stream of bleeps and scenes of comically bloodless combat. Once the decision is made, the only way to step up to the R-rated version or down to the PG-13 version is to un-install and start from scratch.
Launching the R-rated version takes some patience. Three warning and age-verification screens alert players to the graphic nature of the game. It's almost as difficult to launch "Kingpin" as it is to buy a gun in some states.
So why bother? Underneath all the violence and the cursing is a clever, technically delightful game. Using the Quake 2 engine, designers at Xatrix Entertainment--the same folks responsible for "Redneck Rampage"--build levels dripping with ambience. Poisonville's cityscapes are almost cinematic. Players scramble through rat-infested tenements and fog-shrouded waterfronts as they try to avoid uncannily cunning opponents.