Also on: PSN, XBLA
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Medium: Digital Download
Online: Co-op, Leaderboards
ESRB: M – Mature
So Shank 2 is out. It's called Shank 2, and is exactly what you'd expect from a game called Shank 2: more Shank in the form of a sequel. Shank is still a badass; he blows stuff up, rescues ladies, and he still… audible sigh… he still shanks people.
While a sequel infers the continuation of a franchise, there's a clear difference between a carbon copy of the previous title and one that improves on the successes of the original. Unfortunately for Shank 2, Klei is happy with drawing a line and continuing to live back in 2010. Two years ago when we reviewed the PS3 release of Shank, when its visuals carried the gameplay past a few inherent flaws to forgivable territory, it was a nice breath of fresh air.
So what's new? Well Shank isn't dead, and the final boss from the last game is. I can't tell if that's a spoiler yet– are we past a grace period? There are eight new messed up boss figures in the world now, with at least ten thousand goons to dispatch. I feel like there was a story at some point, but what I remember is something nonexistant. The original Shank played with picture-in-picture inserts, with a sort of animated comic book panel popping up during gameplay to deliver story at points. This technique appears maybe once in Shank 2, which is a pity as it worked well for supporting some mindless beatemup gameplay without boring players through the paper-thin cutscenes that may as well not even be fit around the levels in Shank 2.
The gameplay is notably tighter, however. Shank's actions all feel a bit quicker, which is a relief from the cumbersome flourish in the first title. Unfortunately, it's still easy to become quickly overwhelmed when enemies are setting an area on fire, shooting at you from all angles, and still being tossed about by a handful of standard bad dudes. Maybe that's the genius of Shank that I've been missing all along– that it's either a cakewalk or completely overwhelming. It's the perfect imbalance, after all. Always keep players on their toes about the next encounter; never let them feel comfortable with the EKG of a difficulty slope the game serves in any given 10 minutes. There's even a more convoluted control scheme available that involves the keyboard and not a gamepad like I played, which assigns controls superfluously and to an unnecessary degree (two keys for dashing left/right is asinine), if you really hate understanding a game's mechanics.
Shank had its shot at leaving a mark on gaming when it first came out, and the GOTY follow-through in its sequel is to be completely wrung dry of ideas. That's fantastic news for the audience who established itself as a diehard fanbase for what Shank delivers, but what does that mean for the uninitiated? It's difficult to tell who else Shank 2 could be made for, unless adding a digit to the end of a pretty indie beatemup is enough to convince people they're missing out on some phenomena.
Confusingly, the game even backtracks on its most inspired notes. In-game comic-scenes aside, the boss battles have been whittled down to an even more basic formula than in Shank, where environmental or otherwise-activated QTE's were necessary to effectively tackle a boss fight. In Shank 2, the approach is no more than lowering the boss HP meter until about halfway, where they enter a stun animation and must be grabbed to activate a 5-second cutscene which takes off about 30% of their HP and enters them into a quicker attack pattern. And then you hit them some more until they die.
In a way this is a very classic model for boss fights from beatemups in the 90's, where the goal was to hit on a hulking target for about 5 or so minutes until his HP ran out. In another way, it's shying away from what now seems like an inspired injection of quicktime events into classic gameplay sensibilities. At least they kept in the part where your light attacks are essentially useless and the only way to manage a crowd is with ranged weapons and chaining enemies with infinite pounces and one-hit kills.
If we live to see a Shank 3, I hope the game is taken back to the drawing board. But not literally– that would be too ironic of a joke, and because the art style does suit really suits the game well. The inclusions of things such as a survival co-op mode isn't what Shank needs, but rather an overhaul of its combat system, less story, and more imaginative fighting scenarios. Shank 2 even manages not to be exciting during the few chase setpieces that it treats players to, and that's saying something for anything. Or, uh.. whatever. It also features one of the easiest final bosses ever, contrary to its usual fare throughout the game.
What score am I going to give this game?
Good question, reader. Shank 2 isn't worth its weight as a full sequel. It should have been DLC, since that's what it is. Without building in any way on the original, even, do we receive a game which merits itself as a full-fledged sequel, and lasts no longer than a few hours. There's even an omission of a secondary co-op campaign as the first had. Even with different modes of play to extend its life, badges to earn for unlockable characters, and the thought that it's possible to be the best at any level on the global leaderboards, there's nothing inspiring me to ever go back to Shank 2 past its campaign.