Shank 2 review: Refined brutality

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Shank 2 review: Refined brutality
Evidence would suggest that the developers at Klei got together in a board room and said, "Shank was really good. We should do another game exactly like it, only a little bit better." And wouldn't you know it, that's exactly what they did. Shank 2 could be mistaken for its predecessor at first glance, with similar 2D visuals and fast-paced violence. But look a little deeper and you'll find a little more meat, a little more nuance and, somehow, even more brutality.
Shank is back, more or less for the sole purpose of killing a whole lot of dudes (and sometimes ladies -- and animals). There's a story, and the animated cutscenes that try to tell it are as easy on the eyes as they were in the first game, but the plot is barely even a backdrop. In fact, after slaughtering dozens of opponents in the first level alone, Shank is asked if he's part of the ongoing rebellion, to which he replies, "What rebellion?" The guy doesn't even know why he's mowing down militiamen, other than animalistic survival.

But then, Shank doesn't ever seem to need much motivation for what he does. This is a guy who will jump into the air, cut a helicopter in half with a chainsaw, then a minute later rip the jaws out of a shark just because the shark looked at him funny. Does that make him shallow? Sure. But does it make for some awesome action? You bet.

There's a sort of beauty to the violence in Shank 2 and its cartoony style. The crisp 2D animation is a big part of this, of course, but there's also a lot of fluidity in your movement that just feels great to control. Chaining together combos with quick attacks, larger weapons like a chainsaw and some shotgun bursts thrown in for good measure feels even better than before. The block ability from the first game is gone, replaced with a roll maneuver that makes it easy to dodge enemies with a flick of the right stick. This change helps keep the action moving at all times. Gunplay has also been improved with more control over where you're aiming, making long-range combat a bit more worthwhile, though the focus is still on getting up close and personal.

Another big and great addition is the ability to counter. When attacking, enemies will often have a red exclamation mark over their heads prompting you to grapple them. Timed successfully, you will stop an enemy in their tracks and turn their own weapon against them. Aside from the obvious usefulness, you get different animations for countering different weapon types, all of which are deliciously brutal. Seeing them can bring about the same sort of glee as a Mortal Kombat fatality. I often found myself countering attacks not because it was convenient in the heat of battle, but rather because I just wanted to stuff a soldier's baseball bat into his mouth and kick it into his throat. Over and over again. Were this a more realistic game I might be disgusted by the action, but in Shank's art style I typically grinned instead.

That's not to say that things don't get stressful amidst the insanity. Shank 2 can get tough in places, even on the normal difficulty setting. And when things are hectic there are times when you might tap the wrong button or roll the wrong way, possibly eliciting a few choice curse words. One boss fight in particular takes place on an elevated platform and, if you're not careful, you may jump to your death purely by accident. Checkpoints are forgiving and dying is a brief setback, but when you die you lose all of your accumulated score (and even more points are deducted during the final tally), so instant deaths can become very frustrating if you care about leaderboards.

Aside from the main story, which lasts a few action-packed hours, there's Survival Mode. Here, you get to take on waves of enemies on one of three levels. It's a fun 2D take on the popular horde mode game type, and you can play it with a friend locally or online. It's a fun distraction with a nice roster of playable men and women, all of whom have different stats (the ladies also sport different weapon choices), but it's also something you'll probably be done with after a few tries, especially if you don't have a co-op partner.

Shank 2 doesn't do much that's new or original. It's a refinement of what came before it, from the original Shank to manic classics like Metal Slug. But there's a lot of quality fun packed into this inexpensive download, making it a perfect choice for simple, fast-paced action.

This review is based on the final PlayStation 3 version of Shank 2, provided by Electronic Arts.

Britton Peele is a freelance writer from some boondocks outside Dallas, Texas. When not writing game reviews and features for publications like GameSpot, GamesRadar and The Dallas Morning News he spends time looking for a doorway to Narnia and the remains of Oceanic Flight 815. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrittonPeele.

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