'I'm gonna bury those two ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥s.'
Kingpin opens with a cutscene in which the player character utters the above line after rising up from a beating with a swollen face. It tells a simple tale of revenge, or rather, -taking a cue from the Cypress Hill album that the game borrows tracks from- a tale of going from 'Rags to Riches'. You'll be going from town to town -taking down small-time mob bosses along the way- until you confront the current Kingpin to exact your revenge and usurp his throne. As for the journey, right from the first moment it becomes apparent that it will be a raw, brutal, harsh and above all else, very messy one (and unashamedly so).
Even though it is gritty, Xatrix's underdog may very well be the most aesthetically pleasing game to date utilizing the idTech2 engine. Where the other games that are based on the same technology are quick to betray their Quake II origins, Kingpin has a style and feel of its own thanks to the developers' meticulous work on the visual side of their creation. Beautifully textured and elegantly lighted, every single map therein has a life-like scale and quality to it. Though the meshes themselves are not more than a handful, the stylized characters also benefit from the top-notch 2D art, offering a great variety due to the three-way skinning that Xatrix coded in. The sound design is also of high standard; from the footstep sounds to the voiceovers of the NPCs, everything fits perfectly to the fictional world the developers try to portray. Simply put, the game oozes with atmosphere. The fact that this is the one and only shooter of the period that feels better without background music should alone be enough of a testament for the said quality.
But make no mistake, even within its era's boundries, Kingpin is a hard and unforgiving game. Rather than going Quake, it expects you to play in its own terms, that is, to traverse carefully and try to get the upper hand on your enemies. If you do not comply to that, don't expect your experience to be any different than a novice's in the midst of an old-school deathmatch wherein all the other players are seasoned enough to navigate the map perfectly and are capable of ripping you to shreds in a matter of seconds. Play it as intended though and you'll quickly discover that Kingpin is one of the most visceral and satisfying shooter experiences of the 90s.
Xatrix adds a few touches of their own to the engine to spice it up and expand its functionality. The most prominent are the ability of robbing the downed of their bucks which you use to buy weapons and stuff from specialized shops known as 'Pawn-o-matic's or hiring goons (two max) to back you up, alongside interacting with NPCs through the use of positive and negative conversation commands. But the most pleasing of it all is surely the impeccable pathfinding of the NPCs, especially the ones to be hired to fight alongside you: they run, jump and crouch their way through every single obstacle without a hitch to keep up with you. In fact, I spent two-thirds of my seven-hour trek with two on my side and there was only a single time where they needed extra care on my part. I was constantly surprised by the fact that they were able to traverse the map from one side to the other without an additional command to find me, as if they were not computer but human-controlled.
I believe Kingpin is one of the better shooters of the late 90s. It doesn't reinvent the genre like Half-Life did. Instead, just like its engine-brethren SiN, Daikatana and Soldier of Fortune, it aims for a more classical approach. Its strength lies not in its ingenuity, but in its solid design sensibilities. It has an overarching theme that is full of style and backed up by a ghetto tale told through cutscenes, offers a highly visceral yet never offending combat experience on top and builds up on an already solid engine without introducing any bugs or breaking it. I only wish that it had a longer campaign or an expansion pack of sorts. If it had been kept, the slightly non-linear feel of the first episode would have been welcome too.
Recommended for fans of old-school. Don't forget to answer the phone.
'What's the count?'
'Good... Real good.'