If you ever have the opportunity to ask Klei founder Jamie Cheng to name off the new features, additions, and improvements in Shank 2, don’t expect your usual orderly gameplay demo rundown; he’s quite uninterested in giving you the standard verbal laundry list. That in itself makes Shank 2 all the more promising, as if this was a game that developed organically as opposed to being a project driven by a checklist of things the studio wanted to improve over the previous Shank.
Much of the beauty of Shank 2, and its predecessor, centers around marriage between the weapons-based gameplay and the art direction. I was particularly impressed with the little animation touches that were involved in using a shovel as a melee weapon. Throwing a shovel at an enemy to cause damage is no big deal. Shank 2 goes two extra miles by lodging the shovel in the enemy’s chest and then having the thug pull out the shovel himself. If you’re not the throwing type, Shank can go for the close quarters melee swing.
Shank finishes off the move by jamming the shovel in a stepping motion, not unlike how one would force a shovel deep into dirt. It’s such a fleshed out multipurpose item that the shovel is sure to be as memorable as the game’s characters themselves. If it manages to reappear often throughout the rest of the game, it might end up as iconic as Half-Life’s crowbar.
This is further indicative of the gameplay improvements that were made to address the boss fights. While the bosses still have their specific weaknesses in Shank 2, you feel a greater sense of freedom and options in ways to take down their health, while still having a challenging experience. Furthermore, as one who felt that the controls in the first game could have been a tad more responsive, I found that it was not an issue in the 30 cumulative minutes I played Shank 2.
The simple visual pleasures of a rolling somersault after a high jump or juggling a thug in midair with knives do a great deal in setting Shank 2 apart from other side-scrolling shooters. Creative director, Jeffery Agala and his art team continue to stay on the path of making Shank indistinguishable from any animated show on Nickelodeon, just with a lot more blood and stabbing. Less fluid titles with similar aesthetics come off looking like Flash games; the first Shank transcended this, and it’s even more fluid in Shank 2. Sticklers for detail will notice that none of the animation from the first game has been reused.
There’s so much detail-specific eye candy that Shank 2 might be one of those rare games where it’s just as much fun to watch as it is to play. You can marvel at something as simple as the unfurling of a rope ladder where none of the rungs looks exactly parallel with each other. This might be too much personal information, but I’m personally fond of the dramatic half-second intentional slowdown when Shank is about to swing a pipe in a lethal downward blow.
The addition of a co-op survival mode feels very natural for Shank 2. This mode’s environments--a farm, a bombed-out church, and a boat--are completely original (not taken from the story mode) and are slightly larger than what can fit in a single screen. The character selection screen, with its 4-by-4 grid of selectable characters and guitar-driven music, resembles something out of a Capcom fighting game. The characters themselves run the gamut of action game archetypes; Defender looks like a S.W.A.T. member, Rex is the Mexican wrestler, Junior is the jungle explorer, while the Asian-looking Rin pulls off the Bruce Lee look very well.
It was of little surprise that the combat from the single-player translates well to this co-op mode. In fact, the intentionally limited space of this survival format helps keep up the tension, especially when there’s the risk of falling into a pair of rotating bone-crushing gears. These happen to be missions where surviving are the least of your worries. You’ll need to multitask since you’ll have additional objectives like protecting a stockpile of weapons and ammo. Beyond the series’ Tarantino/Rodriguez influence, it was an amusing John Woo touch that killing doves in the game yields some minor rewards.
Shank 2 will deliver its unique brand of viciously satisfying, blood-soaked madness February 8 on Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and PC.