Soon after the hysteria surrounding the Columbine High School Massacre had reached its peak Kingpin: Life of Crime hit stores in 1999, and found itself in the midst of controversy and heated debate. The reason was two-fold; video game violence was one of the alleged desensitising factors which allowed the high school killers to do what they did, and the game itself was, at that time, the most violent and profane video game the PC market had ever seen. On the one hand the controversy helped give the game plenty of attention, but on the other hand the controversy was so severe that many outlets refused to even stock the game at all. United States congressmen called for the game to be cancelled and/or withdrawn, as did various family-orientated media censorship advocate groups. Forced to make a statement in light of the Columbine tragedy and how the game was being viewed at that time, the developers basically stated the obvious - this game is not intended for children, and its age restriction is clearly marked on the box. If kids play this game, their parents/guardians are the ones at fault, just as they'd be the ones at fault if their kids were watching porn or Martin Scorsese movies at age 9.
The game is a landmark in gaming history, and one which paved the way for subsequent successes in the first and third person shooter styles. It was certainly the first game to receive such overt opposition from politicians and advocacy groups, pre-dating Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and the hysteria it endured. My first experience of the game was just prior to its release, when the playable demo was made available to download. Back then 56Kbps modems were generally the limit, so downloading the 100MB demo took me several hours. I loved it immediately, taking giddy pleasure in the opening cut-scene's violence and swearing, and was counting the days until the final game would be released. Over 10 years later I rediscovered the game when it was released on GOG.com, patched to work on modern systems, and costing a measly 4 quid. And 10 years later it's still a strong and enjoyable game.
~ [ Storyline ] ~
The game is set in what seems to be an alternative reality 1930s America. The style of the graphics is reminiscent of the period, but there's a certain cyber-punk after-taste which gives it an otherworldly aura.
The game begins with your character laying bloodied and battered, with two thugs standing over him. The thugs assure your character that the only reason you're not dead is because Nikki, the crime boss who ordered the attack, wants you to remember the beating you just endured. They leave, your character stands up and finds himself an iron bar, and then the player assumes control. Your mission is to kill the crime boss and everyone who stands between you and him, and your travels will take you to various locations around the run-down industrialised city as you make your way to his hideout. There's not much else to the story, and I'm not sure that the plot is what the developers were most concerned about.
~ [ Gameplay ] ~
There is a fair amount of interaction between you and the NPCs in the game world (excluding the NPCs who simply attack you on sight). If you have the cash, you can hire "muscle" who will accompany you and will attack anyone who attacks you. You can issue simple commands to them, such as "stay here" and "follow me". If you accidentally shoot your crew they'll turn on you, however. Other NPCs will give you information or objects which help you progress, and this usually involves reciprocation.
The game is a first person shooter, and as such there are plenty of weapons for you to make use of, including iron bars, pistols, machine guns, flame-throwers, shotguns and so on. Weapons can be bought and upgraded at the Pawn-o-Matic stores which are located in each level. You can also buy medikits, armour and objects you might need to progress from these stores, if you have the cash. Cash can be found at various points in each part of the game, and it can be earned by carrying out side missions or obtaining sought-after objects.
The violence in the game is pretty tame by today's standards, but for its time it was quite brutal. The dialogue you'll hear throughout the game is equally brutal, with every character swearing at every available opportunity. Talking to NPCs is done with a simple positive and negative system; if you want to befriend or agree with someone, you press the positive button, and if you want to tell them to f**k off (literally) you can do that too. Because of the lack of conversation the dialogue of your character tends to be kept vague so that it will seem relevant in any given scenario.
The game tends to become quite tedious after a while when you can't figure out where you're supposed to go or what you're supposed to do; there are very few hints or directions offered and you will find yourself walking around aimlessly in the hopes of finding a door or an object which will be of use. I highly recommend using a walkthrough in these instances.
Overall the gameplay is enjoyable, even 11 years later. The violence is still convincing enough and the "feel" of the game is still somewhat fresh and different; I'm not aware of any other game which could be considered comparable to Kingpin.
~ [ Graphics/Performance ] ~
The game is built upon a modified version of the Quake II engine, and despite the fact that this engine was now 13-years-old it still looks and plays pretty well. As mentioned, the game has a sort of cyber-punk re-imagining of 1930s America style, and the "industrial depression" is convincing and effective.
The violence in the game is augmented by something called "pain skins", which are essentially visual feedback of the damage that has been done to an enemy. You'll see bloodied gashes on the points at which contact was made, and eventually your enemies will be left looking like corned beef pizza. If you blow someone up with a grenade, or if you continually shoot their corpse, eventually they'll start to break apart until there's little left but lumps of meat, or "giblets" as they're affectionately known in the gaming community.
The minimum system requirements are as follows:
[CPU]: 233MHz or better
[Graphics Card]: OpenGL compatible
You can probably run this game on your watch!
~ [ Installation/Compatibility ] ~
Because the game is 11-years-old modern systems have trouble running it "out of the box". You will need to use some third-party software to breathe life back into its elderly bones. I highly recommend that you buy the game from GOG.com, and then follow the instructions offered on the GOG.com forums for what you need to do to get the game working properly. The setting up of the game isn't too complex and once it's done it's done, and it will work on all Windows systems, including Windows 7 x64.
The game is still available to buy on disc, but doing so will require you to involve yourself more in the technical aspects of getting the game to work, whereas buying the pre-patched digital version from places like GOG.com will help you bypass much of the headaches involved in the process.
~ [ Conclusion ] ~
Kingpin: Life of Crime is great fun and marks a turning point in game development, and it still holds up well despite its age. If you can overcome the technical aspects of running the game on modern systems, and if you're old enough to play it, you should definitely check it out. It's currently going for around £4 on GOG.com - you can't go wrong.