Retro: Kingpin: Life Of Crime


This article is a revised version of a retrospective written last year for PC Gamer UK.

There was nothing funny about Kingpin. It was a genuinely vicious game, with some of the most violent scenes from any shooter I can recall. Severed heads, gashed bodies, screamed obscenities: only the absolute dismemberment of Soldier of Fortune managed to outrank it in bloodiness. Presumably it was this surface gore that drew me in: the promised thrill of transgressive videogame violence. Then again, maybe it was PC Gamer’s (overzealous) review, or perhaps it was the fantasy-gangster chic, with its 1920s Bladerunner horrors. Then again, perhaps it was a hunger for something in the FPS world that did things differently. Whatever it was, something plugged me straight into its ugly wavelength. And whatever that thing was, it meant that I stayed a while.

Kingpin’s disappointing single player campaign had a swarthy charisma to it. The characters were all made of bulbous, gelatinous chunks of flesh, and the game portrayed their viscerality in the most repulsive fashion. In the aftermath of a fight your henchmen (who were some of the first NPCs to follow a player character around in a game while still being useful in combat) would be covered in great gaping red wounds. It was sickening stuff.

What was most compelling, however, was the overall construction of the world. It seemed to be set in a 1920s America, but it was filled with contemporary urban weirdness. There were visual references to classic Noir culture and gloomy Americana – such as a building that seemed to be based on an Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks – but it wasn’t the real world. There was rap music by Cypress Hill, modern graffiti, and an almost steampunk presentation. The ugly old Quake II engine wasn’t exactly delivering Bioshock, but it was nevertheless offbeat and esoteric – a fantasy that was neither real world nor science fiction. This was a game that satisfied my tastes for something just off the norm. It offended my parents and it didn’t quite fit in normal genre brackets: all good things.

Nor was it a straightforward FPS – each level was a hub that you undertook a number of missions it. Getting local thugs to work for you was essential, and storming rat-riddled tenements with some beefy badasses was thrillingly good stuff. If it had a genre, it was something that would be self-applied by a pretentious author: Weird Noir, or Retro Gangsterism.

Influences aside, Kingpin was a major catalyst on the younger Rossignol brain for quite another reason: I purchased it at the same time I acquired a 56k modem. This had profound consequences: Internet. Before I’d even finished the single player campaign I had loaded up Gamespy and found some UK Kingpin servers. Within a week I was in a clan. Within two months I was the clan’s top player. It was incredible, like someone lifting a curtain on a totally new way of experience games. I was living it: suddenly a reluctant philosophy student had been transmuted into an obsessive FPS player, glugging down narrowband access with a game that emitted terrifying profanities. A press of a key fired off a “FUCK YOU!” The cry of the chav was hot-keyed… something like that.

Kingpin wasn’t a bad way to learn the tricks and trade-offs of deathmatch. It had a solid grenade-launcher and an outrageously good flamethrower that, frankly, puts Team Fortress 2’s pyro to shame. The finest weapon, however, was the heavy machinegun. It fired three fat slugs in quick succession (“BOMBOMBOM!”) and two of these to the head of any assailant would put him down, permanent like. Tommyguns and rusty pipes were all well and good, but this thing was The Daddy Of All The Daddies. No gun since has quite satisfied the same urges that is one instilled in me. It was a jackhammer, an triple-fisted uppercut. Kingpin, it could be said, was my primary education in online FPS gaming. And I still got a lot of love the street, ‘yo. [Insert gansta’ poses…]

Ultimately I knew Kingpin was trashy. It collapsed pretty quickly under scrutiny: terrible generic bosses, crappy, gun-driven ending and a pointless final fight that made Doom finales look like the grandest opera. Nevertheless there was something there, a whiff of something stronger and more sophisticated, but whatever it was, the game hadn’t had enough of it. This wasn’t one of the classics.

Anyway, a few years later I was to meet the Kingpin design team as they put the finishing touches to the next game: Return To Castle Wolfenstein. They caught me looking at the design docs for Kingpin that were pinned up on one of the walls of the lead designer’s gloomy office. These screenshots of large gangs and even larger ghettos didn’t look much like the game I had played. Reading my thoughts, Drew Markham, the project lead, told me that things hadn’t worked out quite how he’d intended. Kingpin should have been a game of actual gang warfare, with you staking out territory, recruiting thugs and fighting rival gangs. There should have been more to it, more life, more world. Some of these ideas had made it into the final game – as evidenced by the various sidekicks and the bars you frequented – but not enough to transform this game into one of the greats of gaming. As it happened, the Kingpin project hadn’t been deemed worthy of more time and money by Markham’s publishing bosses, and had been demoted, reduced, and rushed to meet one of Interplay’s monetary deadlines. And so it became the game we finally played: the abortive, premature Kingpin that arrived in the shops – the game I picked up and chewed on so eagerly.

Later I wondered whether this secret history had been another reason why I’d wanted to like Kingpin so much. It wasn’t that it was such a great shooter, but that it contained elements of what might have been great, given time and money. Were there some traces of the game as it was meant to be in there? Could imaginative players tune into prospects that Markham and his team had seen in the game? Like a book alluded to but never written, it was a lost world of gaming that we can never now see, or belong to. That thought alone makes Kingpin valuable, as flawed and ugly as it is, as a kind of evidence. One day, maybe, we’ll get the game we deserved.

59 Comments

  1. Tellurian says:

    I kinda liked the singleplayer.
    Yes, it was mostly stupid, but this ultra-gritty urban environment in a world before Max Payne and GTA III was pretty novel, and had a certain charme to it.
    Never played it in multiplayer though. Plus, Kingpin was one of the games, multiple German mags REFUSED to review due to it being “too brutal” (they probably didn’t want to risk getting the issue banned, due to the German laws on blacklisted games which cannot be advertised, and the law can be used to see a review as advertising…). So OF COURSE you had to play it. Especially since it really DID get blacklisted…

  2. Chris Evans says:

    Kingpin…what a bloody (bloody well bloody) great game!

    Yes the graphics were out of date, especially when I played it again a few years ago. Yes it may have had some standard, very standard boss sections and such like.

    Yes it was great! Well maybe not great, but it was certainly a good game.

    I remember playing the demo, I guess around the time it was originally out and getting stuck for some reason, maybe a bug. But it was violent, tough and had a lot to give.

    If only someone would pick it up and remake it in the vision that the developers had for it.

    Oh and the flamer was great :D

  3. Pavel says:

    Kingpin WAS a great shooter.I liked its dark atmosphere (supported by great Cypress Hill, and I don’t even like hip hop..), great and fun shooting itself, the fact that you could rob the dead and take the money off them, possibility to hire help (more necessity than possibility, sometimes)..

    Anyway, great article, thanks for reminding..that game was great.And even today, it is smarter, than, say Halo series (imo).

  4. Lucky says:

    Did this game warn you about its level of violence multiple times during installation or do I remember incorrectly?

  5. James T says:

    Oh, they did RtCW, huh? Neat; I still think that game has yet to be beaten when it comes to combining HL-class gunfighting with multi-approach, stealth-friendly stages. There’s Deus Ex, of course, but I never liked the way the bad guys behaved in a gunfight, whereas in RtCW it was as enjoyable as any straight-ahead action FPS of its time. Damn shame it’ll probably be overlooked forevermore.

  6. Optimaximal says:

    Replaying it now, I get scared of that wobbly skin that all the characters have…

  7. Mr Wonderstuff says:

    Time for a sequel?

  8. Homunculus says:

    The lasting impression of the five whole minutes I gave the demo LAST CENTURY was that people were made of jelly that wobbled about as you looked at them. Dunno what that was all about.

  9. Matt says:

    Replaying it now, I get scared of that wobbly skin that all the characters have…

    Ah, yes, the Q2 engine’s vertex compression. Fine for a run-and-gun, but decidedly disturbing in cutscene closeups.

  10. Smee says:

    I actually quite liked the wobbly skin. It gave the characters a kind of pulsing, seething undercurrent of life that seemed much more organic than the static polygonal models of straight, unmoving angles of it’s contemporaries.

  11. CryingTheAnnualKingo says:

    The interaction with NPCs was and is still ahead of its time for a shooter. Too bad they didn’t really explore it to its potential. Still, a really fun game. The flamethower was pretty astonishing.

  12. born2expire says:

    I actually lanned this a few months ago, GREAT FPS. The triple shot gun owns all.

    Bagman mode was so much better then standard CTF, all and all a great but criminally forgotten shooter.

  13. Kadayi says:

    I only played a bit of it when it came out around a friends, but was pretty impressed with the fact that you could hire thugs to assist you and I do recall the guns being suitably kinetic. The look and feel of the game was great and I liked the wierdness of the skins as they continuously flexed away.

  14. Mustache says:

    I love Kingpin the single player was gritty and immersing. to me it was like the stalker of today in a way. naturally it was limited, but they did well with what they had to work with.

    And i was an addict for the multiplayer. before i finished the single i was master of the multi. Bagman was a sick mode too.

  15. jamuel scones says:

    This was a game that didn’t need a retrospective, because after the novelty of a GANGSTA FPS with a Cypress Hill soundtrack wore off, it was absolute bollocks. Find something better to write about, please.

    FACT: I get reminded of this shit game every day, because a colleague at work ordered a hard disk off ebay two years ago, and the seller shipped it surrounded by cotton wool in a Kingpin box. It’s still on his desk, and I tut at it as I walk past.

  16. capital L says:

    “It wasn’t that it was such a great shooter, but that it contained elements of what might have been great, given time and money.”

    This is exactly how I feel about Shogo.

  17. alphaxion says:

    there’s a name I haven’t seen in ages.. shogo, I knew some people who went totally nuts over that game.

    My first LAN party back in 1999 had this as one of the games we played (inc UT and half life).
    I still have some files kicking around my my hdd for that game… Ooo, I actually have some daft skins – dr evil, bill gates, monkey >.<

    I’ll put them onto my site for download if any of you guys n gals want them.

  18. treeoflife says:

    This article brought back a whole lot of memories. But Shogo… is still the most hectic deathmatch FPS game I’ve ever played.

    Man vs Man mode was ridiculously quick but Man vs Machine was just ludicrous in concept and execution. I don’t think any other game to date has ever attempted to have miniature-sized men team up against a single (or more) enormous machine. As the machine you could just walk into other players to kill them instantly… hilarious. Throw in a grapple hook (for both men AND machines), a small arena style map, and it was chaos.

    I recall friends at lans refusing to play it because they were literally unable to figure out what was going on. A shame I can’t find my copy anymore. :(

  19. sam says:

    you know, i’m sure i remember kingpin’s graphics being hailed as incredibly impressive at the time! what were its direct contemporaries?

  20. capital L says:

    Good lord it would indeed be fun to crank out some Shogo deathmatch for the first time in about 100 years. This should be coordinated. I have located my cd-rom…

  21. Kelpie says:

    Great game to do a retro on.

    This was the game that got me into playing online fps, my cruddy 56k modem coped remarkably well, but I remember my jealousy of the early adopters of broadband bragging about there amazing pings during deathmatch games.

    I particularly loved the games where you were all armed with a 1 shot 1 kill pistol.

    It’s news to me that the development team behind kingpin were the same guys who moved onto RTCW. But hardly surprising, as that was the game that finally cemented my love of the online fps genre, and finally prompted me to sign up for my very first competative clan. Heck I’m still with those guys.

    So thank you Kingpin.

    Hugs and kisses and a swift lead pipe to the face from Kelpie.

  22. Robin says:

    I remember downloading the demo (alpha test?) of this at launch via university fat pipe and CVG printing my comments from their forum in a news story. (I don’t think Dennis Publishing had broadband access at the time!) I think I said it compared favourably to Half-Life. Well, it had 32-bit textures!

    I also remember the installer message from Drew Markham. This was around the time of Columbine wasn’t it? This and Soldier of Fortune were probably the last gasp of the totally boundlessly gory PC shooters. It still seems weird that some modern shooters have no blood, let alone gibbing.

  23. andreas says:

    got a crowbar for a dollar!

  24. alphaxion says:

    it was the same year that UT was unleashed… I got back to playing that recently, I’m surprised at how bloodstained the first UT was… loads of body parts!

    1999, was the year of the battle between the quake 2/3 engine games and the unreal engine.

  25. Ohle says:

    I really enjoyed Kingpin. Maybe it was because I was an underage gamer (OH NO! Alert the authorities!)… but it really kicked off the “holy shit, run!” genre of shooter. I sucked at it, though — I remember dying a lot in the first few levels.

  26. Irish Al says:

    First game I ever upgraded a PC just to play, I still have the CD. Far, far too hard though.

  27. Fumarole says:

    Meh, my memories of Kingpin place it firmly in the Best Forgotten category. Am I the only one who thought the AI was absolute shit?

  28. moromete says:

    AI was shit and the game looked weird and I had totally forgotten I played it until I saw the screenshots. But somehow, even if I don’t remember much about it, the feeling of my memories is that it was “fun”. Weird…

  29. Helder Pinto says:

    kick ass game!!

    I’d kill for a sequel! :P

  30. Lukasz says:

    Never played Kingpin.

    but SHOGO…. I want it on Steam!!

    That was great game with most disappointing boss fight (both endings).

  31. Niall says:

    I’m so glad some people mentioned shogo, that was the first thing I thought’ve when I read this article.

  32. Gwog says:

    Funny that people still remember the vertex boiling.

    I thought this was a good example of a solid FPS, with a strongly realized setting and incredibly skymaps.

  33. Irish Al says:

    @Mr Wonderstuff

    We have a sequel already. It’s called GTA IV.

  34. marty says:

    Kingpin was way ahead of its time: violent, offensive, bloody, but fun. It was the only multiplayer game I didn’t suck horribly at, and I’ll always remember what fun I had playing it.

  35. Del Boy says:

    “We’re gonna cut live now to Ollie Wiliams with his thoughts on Kingpin. Ollie?”

    “EVERYBODYS WOBBLY!!”

    “Thanks Ollie.”

  36. Gaz says:

    This was the game i cut my fps teeth on as well. Great stuff, i too was jealous of the first takers up of broadband with there unbelievable pings of 30.

  37. Vita says:

    Kingpin is still alive. There are a few avid Kp fraggers out there that won’t let it die. Seems more people are coming
    back to play. Long Live Kingpin!!

  38. GoA says:

    Kingpin is still alive, new Bagman league commencing on the 18-5-08! Not only is it the finest example of online deathmatch gaming (the balance is perfect between stealth & speed) but the setting is truly unique with appropriate weapons/dialogue.

    The community is also one of the strongest I’ve seen in any FPS (it’s what kept it alive all these years after interplay went bye bye) – user made versions of punkbuster, excellent mods and a never say die attitude. What’s not to like about it?

    Oh, prepare for a massive overhaul coming your way soon with KingpinZ. Keep your eyes peeled….

    SexyThief.net – Share the love.

  39. {NeW}SNAKE says:

    Kingpin will never die. There are to many great people dedicated to keeping the multiplayer version alive. There was never anything like it before and nothing will ever be like it again. Unless of course there is a sequel

    link to new-crew.org
    link to kingpinforever.com

  40. Meph says:

    Also, there is Kingpin Q3 project which is led by the greatest kingpin mappers and coders. You can check it by following this link: link to kingpinq3.com.

  41. DeJaY says:

    Amazing game. The only game i can load up everyday after 10 years and still enjoy every single minute of it. No other game plays like it – NONE. Such a shame certain gaming communities deserted us and left us with no servers BUT so good is the community we just rent our own LOL!!!

    Kingpin 4 Life!!!

    =)

  42. Meph says:

    If someone want enjoy Kingpin life – you can donwload it here: link to sexythief.net

  43. {NeW}Fnlou says:

    Indeed! To all FPS and KP lovers, KP then, KP now, KP4EVER.

    And to my Crew Mates, well done and congratuations to you all for keeping the faith and making the truth known – Kingpin IS the coolest friggin FPS EVER MADE. Flaws and all, it is the “crack” of the online FPS world :)

  44. LoungeWizard says:

    This article really gave me a backflash. When I played Kingpin back then, I always had a strange feeling, a feeling of something or someone being present. I never articulated or reflected this feeling, but it seemed clear that the developers had a kind of sophistication, which reflected in the game.
    While I now think about it, I had quite the same experience while playing System Shock 2 (which I have to regret, have never finished).

  45. Swany says:

    Holy crap, the nostalgia surrounding this review makes me wanna cry. So called ‘classics’ like counterstrike dont hold a motherf**king candle to mods like Bagman, now there was an online game with REAL teamplay and REAL tactics. God bless this game, also for me my first venture into online fps and my first venture into hatred off thos with faster pings than myself, theres me pingin at 180+ with a 56k modem and everyone else on-70. Still hate those guys to this day. :D :D

  46. Mario says:

    One of the greatest games for the PC ever!!!
    Will have to replay it again as a golden oldie.
    Would pay $300 for a fresh copy. By that I mean an exact remake – no more no less, using say the current Unreal engine.

    I still have my saved games from 1999 and it still amazes me that they are a whopping 270MB – but only because when zipped, they become 7MB.

    ——————————
    http://www.taxi583.com

  47. Phil says:

    Kingpin was excellent. Interesting to hear that it was supposed to be so different.

    Whoever says the A.I. wasn’t up to scratch is forgetting that the game had the best friendly A.I. of any FPS of the day. Those guys actually had your back, and kicked ass, without letting you off the hook. The developers balanced that really nicely. In short, the A.I. was pretty damned sweet.

    The single player wasn’t disappointing at all to me. The levels were very nicely made, the graphics were excellent (despite the wobbles), and by and large the gameplay was great.

    In all honesty, I could have done without that level of swearing, and I really don’t know what the devs were thinking when they had your character murder a completely innocent guy for the sake of something like $10. Never has a game made me so utterly loathe my own character.

    It did suffer from a few generic shooter flaws as well, but on the whole it was a great game.

  48. jaz says:

    Umm who ever wrote this is missing out on something bigtime……BAGMAN!!!!!!!!!

    I have played many team based online games and honestly I can’t remember any game that had me laughing out loud as much as bagman did. It was just a very unique concept of grabbing money and returning it to your safe or raiding you opposing teams safe and bringing back a larger bag of loot. The thing that made it work was the outrageously powerful spam weapons like a nade launcher or flamethrower made for some truly hilarious moments. Ya the single player was meh but very playable, it had a killer soundtrack from cypress hill and BAGMAN!! to this day my favorite online team based game.

  49. [CGF]*AcID* says:

    Kingpin is by far the best online FPS ever. It’s just unique and its an absolute one of a kind. Bagman is the best game mode in any game that I have ever played.

    KP was also the beginning for me in the world of online gaming. Played it for so many years online. Shame the game was just abandoned…..

    LONG LIVE KINGPIN!!!!!!

    AcIDBURN/FiReStOrM

    CGF

  50. Dr.Love says:

    By far the best and the worst thing that ever happend to me at the same time…im happy i dont play it anymore..but damm…i miss it so much =)

    —- KPDM5 —-