Shank 2 Review
The legacy of side-scrolling beat-em-ups reaches back more than twenty-five years, but few games released today bring the genre forward at all. 2010's Shank gave us great action with fully 2D, hand drawn visuals, but I found it flawed because of often-frustrating combat and its cutscenes' casual attitude towards rape and women in general. Sure, I'm a guy who loves mashing buttons and killing dudes in video games, causing blood to spray and guts to explode everywhere - and a general misogyny is probably expected out of games like this - but for me, Shank just took it too far for me to comfortably play it, whether alone or around a non-gamer crowd. For some this gripe won't matter, but for me, at the time there were too many other great games out there I could have been playing that didn't have issues like this.
I was really hoping that Shank, if it did get a sequel, could leave behind these problems and bring us more polished action without being embarrassing to be seen playing, and for the most part, that's actually happened. Developers Klei Entertainment have given us a reforged titular character that focuses on slicing up dudes in the context of a more standard damsel-in-distress style, and is less of an anti-hero and more of, well, just a really violent hero.
The action is smoother and more fluid, too. I played mostly on PC, where the hand-drawn visuals look very sharp in 1080p resolution, and with a console gamepad connected, I managed to get the best of the controls that the console versions could offer, too. Shank no longer is capable of blocking in this sequel, but instead you can flick the right analog stick left or right to roll out of the way of danger. This makes the action more fluid than the old turtling feel of the block system, but it also ups the ante on keeping things moving. If you're not really paying attention to what you're doing when rolling, you might lose track of Shank on-screen (especially with the dozen-plus enemies you can be fighting in some situations) and get hit repeatedly while just trying to find him. Still, this revamped defense system adds depth and challenge to the game's combat that makes a real difference, and bestows a greater feeling of accomplishment when you do get through a tough fight.
In Shank 2, you can configure your choice of heavy weapon and grenade-type throwing weapons, although you can't swap the heavy weapons on the fly like before. Still, you can swap them out in a slightly-less-convenient pause menu, but you can also pick up secondary weapons that enemies now drop as well. These weapons all have different speeds and ranges, and many of them match up with the fast standard knife attack quite well. There are launch attacks, juggles, timed counterattacks, grabs and throws, and you'll be stringing them together in between dodges and jumping to evade ranged weapons, heavy guys that aren't fazed by flurries of weak attacks, and mobs of dudes trying to simply get in there and stab you to death. A good beat-em-up always gets you lost in the action, letting you stop thinking about the outside world and just having you focus on zen-like concentration on the basics: attack, defense, getting in, taking people out, and escaping - and Shank 2 accomplishes that nicely.
Unfortunately, the game seems to be happy to make things tougher in arbitrary ways, too, with infrequent checkpoints and a forced wait after every death before you can press a button to retry. Frankly, I think that a game like Shank 2 should be looking to much simpler games - I Wanna Be the Guy and Super Meat Boy come to mind - for getting you back into the action immediately if you die. What I've found personally is that after one of those super-anger-causing deaths, a game that allows me to reset to checkpoint as soon as you die allows me less of a reason (or opportunity) to start getting really angry. Any forced delay allows me to stew and get more frustrated than I need to. No, Shank 2 won't consistently destroy you like Super Meat Boy will, and it focuses much more on combat against multiple enemies than on platforming or perfect placement.
Shank 2 can be played with a keyboard, but I wouldn't really recommend it. The controls do map over to a keyboard alright, but there are just too many functions to be comfortable. For the same reason I don't recommend people play Street Fighter IV on a keyboard, I can't recommend Shank 2 be played with anything but some kind of gamepad. I tested this game with both an Xbox 360 controller and a PS3 controller connected via Bluetooth (along with Motioninjoy having it emulate a 360 controller), and both worked great; this is how I recommend you play, and if you're doing local play with two people, have your friend bring over some kind of controller to connect up, and you'll be fine.
The cooperative Survival mode in Shank 2 takes place on one of three single-screen, non-scrolling stages. It requires two players and is structured like Halo's Firefight mode or Gears of War's Horde mode, where waves of enemies pile on in increasingly difficult stages. You're not just trying to survive, though, as the enemies have their own goals to complete on these stages that you've got to thwart. Dying forces you to lay there, incapacitated, until the other player comes over and performs a slow, interruptible move to get you back on your feet - and during that time the enemies might complete their objective, ending the game. This mode was much more fun than I expected, because of the money you get for each kill, the crazy purchased items unique to this mode, the multiple characters you can play as, and the entertaining stage-based traps you can trigger on enemies. Steam integration works well here, with online pick-up games or inviting of your Steam friends all working just like you'd expect - and local play with two controllers works nicely as well. Plus, Shank's combo-oriented fighting is incredibly fun in cooperative play, and at the very least, those few moments of frustrating deaths are at least shared by more than one poor soul.
Sure, Shank 2 falls apart here and there, but it's minor compared to the excitement that this game brings, and the reasonable $10 price tag (on all platforms) makes this a good value, too. The annoying checkpoints might make you re-do one easier fight over and over just to get to the next fight that you're having trouble with, and you have to swallow back your anger while the game makes you sit there to wait through a rather useless "tip" for several seconds after every death. Still, it's worth it, because Shank 2 gives us some of the best fighting you'll see this side of Final Fight along with excellent hand-drawn visuals and an attitude and style that, this time around, won't be embarrassing if you play it around a general non-gamer audience. Shank 2 has its fair share of minor issues, but it's a blast to play and satisfying all the way to the end - and through its excellent survival mode.
This review is based primarily on a PC version of the game supplied by the publisher.