Saturday, February 18, 2012

REVIEW - Shank 2.

Children of the eighties (and nineties and et cetera) grew up in a time when cartoons were a huge part of their day-to-day entertainment.  Now that we're adults, we find we still have a taste for animation - and a bit of exploitive, M-for-mature violence as well.  Like the original, Shank 2 is perhaps best described as a "Brock Sampson simulator set in a Robert Rodrigues movie", and is an absolute visual feast, thanks to veteran animator Jeff Agala's art direction.
"Every single action, attack and animation in the title is built to look as striking as possible in its limited 2-D plane, with special attention paid to silhouettes. More than that, the slickly smooth animation is packed with half-second moments of near-stillness to highlight the characters' and enemies' (expressive!) expressions or a particularly cool-looking attack.
It's basically designed to throw a thousand insanely good-looking half-frames at you throughout the course of a level, and it's just delicious that it succeeds in this pursuit. The wonderful muted palette of the backdrops further reinforces the title's cartoon heritage and focuses one's attention on the spectacularly good-looking violence playing out in the foreground."
-from the Shank review-

Unlike the original, Shank 2 is remarkably accomplished as a representative of its genre.  In a significant leap in overall quality, the feel of playing Shank 2 is entirely different.  It is fast, savage and feels absolutely perfect in the hand.

I love this game.

Many of the title's new mechanics seem like window-dressing, at first.  The ability to pick up dropped weapons from foes, the ability to throw items, the ability to counter an enemy by ripping the baseball bat from his hands a tenth of a second before he brains you with it, shoving it in his mouth and kicking it so hard his head explodes in ludicrous gibs.  These initially come across as extras - extraneous little boxes to be checked, in keeping with classic tropes of the brawler genre.

Shank's dodge maneuver, now mapped to the right analog stick, feels particularly strange at first. It's not until a few hours into the game, when you find yourself in a particularly sticky situation, that you discover a profound appreciation for these additions and tweaks - and, crucially, how they are implemented.

Once Shank 2's combat system winds its way into your head, once your fingers begin responding instantly to unconscious intention, the game and its mechanics snap into focus and you experience what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity: it all works beautifully.

It had better.  Shank 2 can be just as brutally challenging as its predecessor - the difference is, when you die in Shank 2, it never feels unfair or cheap.  It's only ever because you brought the wrong tactics to the table, or your reflexes failed you.

Take the above tableau, for example.  Shank has put himself in precisely the correct position to deal with his situation.

He has grabbed one of the enemies and thrown them into the others, knocking all to the ground.  This grants a moment's respite to single out one target - in this case, the brute.  If Shank had, instead, pounced on one of the smaller grunts and attempted to execute a chainsaw grind (hold down triangle for a longer grind!), the brute's rising attack would knock him off his target before he had completed his attack.  By grinding the larger fellow, he'll be able to complete his assault just in time to evade the attacks of the smaller grunts - who don't have rising attacks, and must gather themselves to their feet before taking a swing - and re-position himself for the next series of moves.

You have to be constantly thinking about stuff like this.  You have to be aware that you can grab and attack this enemy while holding them by the throat, but that enemy won't allow you to execute any grab attacks and you're only able to fling them aside.  You have to know when you have time for three shank strikes before a brutal finisher from your machetes, when to switch out your shotgun for pistols, and when shoving a mine up an enemy's ass is wiser than jamming a grenade in their mouth.

It's all very tactical, and surprisingly fast-paced.

Like all the best ultra-fast-paced games, once you begin thinking as fast as the game is moving, you start to see how - in reality - the game is a series of staccato beats.  Each beat is the opportunity for you to execute a move - whipping out your shotgun to blast an airborne foe, for example - where the wrong choice, fueled by an inaccurate understanding of your situation, will smack an eighth of your life bar off.

If it sounds challenging, it is - but it's challenging in the good way.  The way where you're constantly learning about your abilities and the timing of its systems, constantly discovering new tactics and strategies.  It took until my second playthrough, for example, to discover that I could grab a standing enemy, shank him twice, transition into a ground hold, transition from that into a throw, go into a pounce and land on him in a ground hold, haul him to his feet and shank him into the air for a juggle combo.

It's the type of game where you can enter a situation and get your ass kicked six ways from Sunday over and over - but once you come to a clear understanding of its systems and your abilities, when you find yourself in that wonderful gamer Zen state of total immersion, you will enter the exact same fight and dance your way through it in a blinding, zig-zagging blur of throws, shanks, stabs, gunshots, dodges and counters - and walk away from it without a scratch.

In Shank 2, you feel sublimely lethal thanks to enemies and mechanics that twirl and pirouette along a razor's edge of beautiful, frame-specific risk and reward.

You gotta' know when to hold 'em, know when to throw them.

Any negative remarks I could level at Shank 2 could be argued aside as easily as countering a pistol thug's shot.

The cutscenes are compressed, but if I were Klei, I'd compress them too.  They're a small studio with a small budget - a budget that would get hammered by the fees Sony and Microsoft levee on a publisher any time their content is downloaded from PSN or XBL, respectively.  It makes perfect sense to have Shank 2 take up as little hard drive space as possible.

The narrative is anorexic, but we're not sitting down for a period piece or a political thriller, here.  If Shank's gameplay genre is brawler, its narrative genre is an action movie circa 1995.  All we need, in that context, is a flashy rogue's gallery and a series of ever-increasing challenges which establish that our hero is the most badass badass in all of badassery.  In terms of telling that story, Shank 2 is a sterling success.

It understands exactly what it is, and doesn't attempt to overreach or embellish itself with needless exposition, mechanics or features.  It's small, meticulously carpentered to provide the experience its creators had in mind, and - by being the product of such a focused vision, so prepared to address criticisms of the original - it achieves its goal with grace and precision.

I know what you're thinking - and you're right.
That shark is about to get fucked up.

Shank 2 is - as of February 11th, 2012 - the most fun I've ever had with a PSN or XBLA title.  It looks utterly gorgeous, thanks to Jeff Agala's striking, silhouette-conscious style.  Its animation remains slick and expressive without sacrificing the responsiveness its gameplay requires.  Its music is excellent, its pacing never lets up, its construction is deeply considered.

This game is precisely what it means and wants to be - even if that goal falls somewhat short of the triple-A standard.  It's also precisely what a sequel should be - a crazed, gleeful, foaming-at-the-mouth realization of the original's potential, and a definitive entry in its genre.

I've never said that about a PSN or XBLA title before - only ever suggesting that such games are merely acceptable representatives of their form - so rest assured, this is a very measured statement:

Shank 2 is the funnest, best-designed brawler I've played since Bayonetta.

  • fantastic character design, incredible animation
  • fun
  • the music is genre-perfect
  • fun
  • striking overall presentation - it's endlessly fun to just watch
  • a silly, minimal story that hits the right notes and never gets in the way
  • excellent in-game presentation
  • the boss fights - rather disappointing last time - are a ton of fun.  You actually fight these guys instead of just luring them into stunning themselves.
  • a ton of variety in locales, enemies and miniboss encounters
  • the game gives you good reason to switch weapons, on occasion
  • the platforming feels very smooth and intuitive
  • the combat system is absolutely excellent, and the enemy AI and levels have been constructed to maximize your use of every tactic and talent
  • lots of fun
  • lots of blood
  • hidden trinkets and unloackables to discover
  • co-op (basically horde mode) is a ton of fun, and demands real teamwork
  • co-op is local and online
  • hard mode is seriously hard, totally rewarding and never feels cheap
  • all killer, no filler

  • the cutscenes are compressed

Shank 2 is a definitive entry in its genre, and gorgeous to boot.  Buy it.

1 comment:

  1. Well. Sounds like a buy, then. I still want to finish the original first though.