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Mini-Review: Shank 2

ShankBack in 2010, Brad Hilderbrand, Joey Davidson, and I spent a segment of the Power Button podcast discussing Shank from Klei Entertainment and Electronic Arts.  The consensus at the time was that while Shank was a solid and fun action game, the asking price was a bit too much considering how quickly one could blast through what the game had to offer.  We liked Shank, but felt a little buyer's remorse when all was said and done.  If only the game had been a little longer and cost a little less, it would have been a shoe-in to become an unquestionably solid hit.  Now Klei and EA have returned to the table with the downloadable Shank 2 for the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and PC and, in the process, addressed our concerns and improved upon the aspects that we already enjoyed.  Shank is back and this time he's exactly where he needs to be.

The core Shank experience remains unchanged.  Players take on the role of human killing machine Robert "Shank" Torres in order to traverse eight stages of beautifully animated 2D side-scrolling platforming action.  Armed with a variety of stabbing, shooting, shredding, and blasting weapons, Shank (and, for some segments, new heroine Corina) must obliterate the private army of Magnus and his cadre of twisted supporters.  To be honest, the story wasn't the smoothest narrative I've seen.  The framing story exists just to give Shank a fresh set of targets, and I can't say that I'm entirely certain of just what was going on at all times.  Shank's adventures take him from a rural settlement into the jungle where a tribe of deadly scantily-clad women in jungle garb await him, for instance.  I don't really understand why a voodoo priestess was in the story beyond the rule of cool.  That turned out to be enough in the end, but as I made my way through the game, I did have lingering questions about just who these enemies were and why I was attacking them.  In a way, the experience reminded me of Capcom's Final Fight in that while I knew the overall goal (in Final Fight, for instance, it's to rescue the mayor's daughter from the Mad Gear gang), I couldn't tell you how all of the pieces fit exactly into the story without doing some additional research outside of the game.  A free tie-in comic explains some of Shank 2's backstory for those who want to know more, and a series of informative collectibles scattered throughout the game unlock secret dossiers that provide additional (if cryptic) exposition.

While it was very easy in the original Shank to fall into a comfortable routine of killing enemies with the same few attack patterns, Shank 2 encourages experimentation and variety.  Each weapon in Shank's arsenal serves a specific purpose (close-range pistols, long-range shotgun, etc.), while limited-use collectible weapons such as baseball bats mix things up and give the player a reason to try new tactics.  I don't see how it's possible to play Shank 2's main campaign just once and try absolutely every option available to slay the opposition.  As it turns out, the team over at Klei added a little something extra to encourage players to try new methods: time.  There's now a minor delay before Shank respawns after a defeat.  I'll let the team at the official Shank 2 blog explain:

One very simple, but non-intuitive change completely altered player behavior: we lengthened the time between death and respawn.  I’m a big fan of Super Meat Boy, and their implementation of respawning instantaneously was genius — it allowed me to gain muscle memory of their level, and get right back into the action. However, we realized Shank has a very different problem — we noticed some players, after dying, would jam the controls until they restarted, and then proceed to do exactly what they did last time, and fail almost exactly the same way.  Our problem wasn’t that players needed to practice, at least not exactly. Our problem was that these players didn’t know, or had forgotten, what options they had to succeed.

By adding a slight delay of few seconds, two very important things happened. First, players slowed down; the forced pause made players noticeably change posture to a more relaxed state, and stopped button mashing as much. This is very important, because the game very much rewards finesse and reacting to the enemies, rather than just pure offense. Second, they were able to see the hints that we give upon death, whereas previously they skipped right past it. This not only served the purpose of seeing the hint, it also prompts players to think more about their actions, and wonder about what else they could do.

While I didn't appreciate that imposed delay while I was playing the game, having read the reason why it's present does change how I look back on its inclusion.  It works, too.  I found myself experimenting with different weapons and attack combinations far more in Shank 2 than I ever did in its predecessor.

Shank 2Rounding out the experience is the Survival Mode which tasks up to two players (either local or online co-op) with defending bombs and slaying wave after wave of enemies.  A horde mode such as this is nothing new in the world of gaming, but it does add value to the package and really picks up in later levels.  Unlockable characters can be put to good use here, as each one brings his or her own unique statistics to the table.  I didn't spend as much time with this mode as I did with the campaign (horde modes aren't traditionally my thing), but there's definitely something worthwhile here for fans of this type of experience.

Despite my own moments of personal confusion, it's hard not to like Shank 2.  This sequel improves on the original's shortcomings and provides plenty of new ways to inflict pain.  There's a lot to enjoy here for fans of the genre, and this isn't a game that can be knocked out in an hour or two.  Later levels required thirty or more minutes each to complete, and even with all of that time spent exploring, I still managed to miss a few collectibles along the way.  The challenge level increases steadily throughout the game, preparing players for what comes next with a gradual difficulty curve.  I hit my limit when fighting the final boss, sadly; his bladed gloves and wall-mounted tracking turrets were too much for me, and after an hour of trying and failing to take him down, I had to walk away.  Shank 2 was a great ride up until then though.  If you enjoy 2D action slashers (and your skills are just a little better than mine), then it's definitely recommended.

Thanks to Klei Entertainment for providing a copy of Shank 2 to review.