There are few genres as overly-represented as the action genre. Through decades of constant iteration, it takes significant craft and vision to make one fun or especially memorable. After gracing us with Shank 2, Klei Entertainment has proven they have the chops to hang with the big boys. Their first effort was a great success, but Shank 2 has improved on its predecessor in nearly every way.
When the main character is named “Shank”, you don’t expect a cerebral…anything. At best, you’re looking for a decent thread to justify why you’re dismembering dozens of dudes. Unfortunately, the story is too light on the exposition. Shank 2 starts with a bus-hijacking and quickly takes you through a bizarre, almost disjointed series of levels and bosses. Amusing, but violent, cut-scenes are interspersed between levels, showing Shank either acting gruff or completely flipping out on everyone. Frankly, I can live with that. The first game had a much stronger story, focused on revenge and redemption with clear-cut motives. Yet, it wasn’t a better game for it. Levels often dragged, and the game wore out its welcome too soon. Shank 2 cuts down on the filler dramatically. Gone are the extended platforming sequences, copy/paste boss fights, and any reminders of the awful final level of the original game. Engagements are generally larger in scope and more exciting for it. I just wish the narrative kept up with the other improvements. The leaner story isn’t a good impetus to keep playing, but the combat sure as hell is.
If story is the frosting, than the combat is the moist, delicious cake. Shank 2 improves on the already-great mechanics of the original title. The first time you unleash your dual shanks into foes is an unparalleled feeling. Combat moves faster than before, while giving you increased fluidity between heavy and light attacks. Mix in gunplay and grabs, and you have a formidable swath of moves at your disposal. Grabs can lead to throws or an impromptu human shield. Pop-ups can to air combos, ending with a pin, while you gun down incoming enemies. Flexibility is a huge aspect, and discovering options within options really shows you how deep combat gets. New to this game is the ability to counter attacks. If an enemy is hurt enough, an exclamation point will appear above him as he attacks. Hit RT/R2 at that time, and you’ll perform a gruesomely rewarding execution. Dodging has been moved to the right stick, freeing the shoulder button for the dramatic (and satisfying) pounce attack. Going back to the original feels like punishment; the combat improvements in Shanks 2 are immediately noticeable.
The original Shank was visually arresting, and it’s no different here. The 2D visuals are as crisp as ever, combined with silky-smooth animation. The frame-rate will occasionally stutter, but never as a detriment to the gameplay. Locales are much more interesting this time around, straying away from the “Desperado”-themed desert. Unfortunately, they’re still mostly forgettable. I was too busy causing utter mayhem to really notice much anyway.
Weapon count and overall customizability hasn’t changed dramatically, but the options are overall more significant. You will always start with your trusty shanks as your light attack, acting as a fast, offensive opener and combo extender. However, your heavy weapon and projectile choices greatly change your play style. The typical speed vs. power paradigm shows up here, but Klei went the extra mile to make the changes deeper. Some weapons receive damage bonuses depending on the enemy type, which means you’re never given a cakewalk. Unfortunately you can’t change weapons on the fly anymore, though dying allows you to change your load-out. It’s the same problem Bastion had; it’s a small nuisance, but a nuisance nonetheless. Costume unlocks are back as well, and again it’s deeper than before. Each “character” has special stats bonuses or penalties, which can dramatically change your play style. The game’s combat engine is flexible enough to support these sorts of tweaks without breaking the experience. Also, any game that references the seminal “Hobo with a Shotgun” is a win in my book.
You may weep to hear that the co-op campaign is M.I.A. here. But, they replaced it with something better. No, seriously. Hear me out – it’s way better. Klei heard the complaints from the first game about how dull the co-op campaign was, and gave us something far better with an online-enabled Survival Mode. Conceptually, it’s not staking new ground; just try to survive through the waves of enemies. Not only can you run out of lives, but you must also protect 3 points from being bombed. Along with earning cash to buy items between rounds, this sounds a lot like Counter-Strike. And it kind of is, with the addition of murdering handfuls of guys stylishly on your way to disarming bombs. Stages also have traps you can activate, whose effects you aren’t immune to. I witnessed this all too well, as my teammates couldn’t seem to understand the mechanics of a trap door, killing me in the process. Luckily, I wasn’t totally screwed as teammates can revive each other for free. The caveat is that you need to stand still over the body, leaving you wide open. If they manage to hold RB for a solid 5 seconds or so, you’ll spring back with half health. I was initially skeptical with this mode, but it won me over. Putting “Horde Mode” in the world of Shank made something in my brain smile widely.
I was expecting an excellent experience with Shank 2 and Klei delivered. The combat updates are very welcome, allowing incredibly smooth methods of dispatching resistance in the most violent way possible. Shank 2 offers more replayability than before, with dozens of costumes to unlock and in-game medals to earn. And although the co-op campaign is gone, Survival Mode is a worthy replacement by every stretch. I wish the campaign’s story was stronger (or even made sense), and the ability to switch weapons on-the-fly was still intact. Ultimately, they are small problems on an otherwise fantastic package.
- Revamped combat mechanics
- Online-enabled Survival Mode
- Lots of unlockables and in-game achievements
- Gorgeous visuals
- Disposable campaign narrative
- Removed ability to switch weapons at will
- Slight frame-rate hiccups