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Shank review: Always Be Murdering

Justin McElroy

You've probably noticed that critics often employ flowery language when they're trying to describe hyper-violence, whether it's a "bullet ballet" or a "symphony of destruction." Never one to use my evolved human intellect to mask primal urges, I'm going to try to explain the appeal of Klei's side-scrolling kill-'em-up Shank in the most basic, honest terms possible. If the game's not employing the slightest bit of nuance, I don't see why I should have to.

Shank is a lot of fun because it lets you murder a lot of different people in a lot of different ways, and I think you should buy it.

Gallery: Shank | 22 Photos

You're Shank, a former gang member and all-around bad ass who's taking revenge on the crime family that offed his lady. He does this by killing, well, like a thousand dudes. In retrospect, it seems karmically imbalanced, but they killed the girlfriend of a guy who is (1) the lead character of a video game and (2) named after a prison knife, so I'm not sure what else they expected.

Shank talks a little, and other people talk at him before getting killed, but as for the parts under your control, you'll pretty much be murdering people the whole game. You'll murder people of different shapes, colors, skill and genders, but you will – to crib Alec Baldwin's immortal quote from Glengarry Glen Ross – Always Be Murdering.

Prepare for all your murder fantasies to come true.

You know, I take that back, there is some light jumping, but it's usually just taking you to the next thing to murder. In fact, there's a button called "Pounce," that actually combines murder and jumping, which is what we in the business refer to as an "innovation."

In addition to pouncing, there are plenty of other ways to murder people in Shank, which has you using a melee and long-range weapon (both selectable on the fly) in tandem. Ever wanted to murder dudes with a gun, grenade, sword or larger sword? Prepare for all your murder fantasies to come true.

"But Jus-tin," I hear you snivel from behind a dog-eared copy of Eat, Pray, Love, "what's so fun about killing people for four-and-a-half hours?" Well, for starters, it's got a great Americanime, Samurai Jack-esque style that makes the murder look cool but never so real that you wonder about the families of the people you're beating to death. Plus, animations are so smooth between attacks that you scarcely get to enjoy snuffing out one human life before you're on to stabbing the next soon-to-be-ghost. It's the very model of efficiency.

Plus, there are a crazy number of different ways to actually perform the murders. You can grab a guy and feed him grenades until he dies from it! You can pounce on an enemy, stab him, and then shoot another guy until he's dead! You can choke a fool out with a chain until he's deceased! Who could ever be bored when there are so many different ways to break the Sixth Commandment?

That's right, Shank. You know what daddy likes.

My only real complaint is that bosses are occasionally really cheap, requiring more pattern memorization than reflexes and smarts to conquer. It's a problem exacerbated by the mind-boggling decision to map the "pick up strategically-placed health" and "light attack" to the same button, which makes pacing consumption in boss fights almost impossible. You'll usually be able to topple the toughest foes after several tries, but taking 15 minutes for a single murder when there are so many weaklings around the corner is unnecessarily frustrating.

I've been playing video games for many years, so my desire for e-murder governs my actions with a nigh-despotic intensity. But by the end of Shank's single-player campaign my thirst for killing had been slaked so thoroughly that I was able to enjoy a full 15 minutes of non-murder related thought (and that's without even touching the couch-co-op prequel mission). What I'm saying to you is that Shank is so fun that it's actually a cure for murder, and if that's not worth 4.5 stars, what is?

This review is based on the PS3 pre-release version of Shank provided by EA. We also tested on the 360 and found similar performance. It will be available for $15 on PSN tonight and on Xbox Live Arcade tomorrow.

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