What makes something like Shank appealing is a combo system that gives the player access to a great many fun and creative ways to generate cartoon blood.

Publisher: Electronic Arts
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
Game Title: Shank
Players: 1-2
ESRB Rating: Mature
Price: $15.00
Developer: Klei
Release Date: 2010-08-25

If Shank weren't a full gigabyte and a half, it would be the perfect downloadable game.

Here's the problem with the gig-and-a-half size of something like Shank: it negates one of the best parts of shopping for a downloadable game, the instant gratification of having it almost as soon as you push the "buy" button. You browse through a massive catalog of games, finally settle on one, click "buy", and there it is, ready to be played. You can't do that with Shank. Once you hit "buy", you have to go do something else for a little while as it downloads, killing your enthusiasm. By the time you're playing it, the thrill is already gone.

That said, Shank goes to great lengths to get that thrill back.

Shank is something like the story of Kill Bill told via the visual style of Viewtiful Joe (minus all of the faux-3D stuff) if The Bride were played by Marcus Fenix. The controls are a bit like Prince of Persia -- that's the original Prince of Persia, mind you -- and the emphasis on combos brings to mind a two-dimensional version of a recent Ninja Gaiden game. Toss all that in the blender, and voilà: Shank milkshake.

Right off the bat, it's flawed. The intro scenes -- you know, where the names of the developers and publishers get thrown onto the screen in great big comic book font -- are stuttery and skip all over the place on my Xbox. Apparently, this is a known problem, which probably happened because I have an old Xbox with less than a gig free on it, but it's still no way to start a gaming experience. From there, the player is introduced to the game via some quick tutorial screens, after which the incessant killing begins.

You start off with (and always wield) a knife, two pistols, and a chainsaw. Yes, developer Klei chose to give the player a chainsaw right off the bat -- a smart decision, given that it's actually one of the weaker weapons in the game but also one of the most satisfying. The knife is the "weak attack" weapon, the chainsaw is the "strong attack" weapon, and the dual pistols serve as the ranged weapon(s).

As is the case in pretty much any beat 'em up, two-dimensional or not, what you get out of the game is directly proportional to what you put into it. One of the criticisms of the genre is that most games allow you to run up to baddies, spam the "weak attack" button (since the "weak attack" also tends to be the fastest way to confront an enemy) until the baddies die, and then run up to the next set of baddies. This is largely a valid criticism of Shank, though occasional efforts are made to force the player to use a ranged weapon (knocking out baddies at higher elevations) or a strong weapon (knocking over some of the larger and more skilled baddies). Most sequences can be passed simply by pounding on the "X" button until you either beat the game or physically break the controller. A little variety is also introduced by the bosses, but unfortunately the bosses are largely relegated to the status of glorified quick-time events, forcing the player to wait for an opening that happens after a pattern of attacks and then pounding on the right trigger when prompted.

So, yes, you could spam "X", cut up a whole mess of thugs, and get through the game. What makes something like Shank appealing, however, is a combo system that gives the player access to a great many fun and creative ways to generate cartoon blood.

There are moments in the best beat 'em ups -- see the God of War and current-generation Ninja Gaiden franchises for examples -- where it becomes less about progression, and more about...well, "art" is too loaded a word but something like "art". The more that you play, the more that you get used to the controls and the strengths and weaknesses of the various weapons, and the more creative you are allowed to be. Grappling one enemy and taking a second from beating on that enemy to shoot another enemy, after which you can get back to business with the first guy. Well, that's a nicely-implemented option. Picking up the katana and figuring out how to pounce on an average enemy, slice at that enemy with the knife a few times, and finish with the katana, offering no possible opening in which to fight back, is a glorious moment. The game even gives you hints toward combos that you may not have even dreamed up -- you mean that I can feed an enemy a grenade while I'm on top of him? Neat! The only weak link here is in the guns, most of which are too specialized to compete with the trusty double pistol setup, but going from the chainsaw to the dual-machete to the chains to the katana and back again in the choice of power-weapon is a trip.

Obviously, Shank is a violent, unoriginal romp through comic book and video game clichés, but its unabashed approach to those clichés actually makes it somewhat appealing. The action is fast, the dialogue is so silly that it'll make you laugh every so often, and frankly, it's over before it has a chance to get tiresome. Sadists who play Ninja Gaiden on the highest difficulty level have an "Ultra" difficulty level to tinker with here, and people with actual friends can partake in a quickie cooperative campaign as well.

It's 15 bucks for a quick burst of mindless fun. We know that downloadable media is capable of more (see: World of Goo, Braid, Limbo), but it doesn't need to be "more" to be worth the money.


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Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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