I really wanted to like Shank 2. When the first installment in the series released a few years ago, I was drawn to its somewhat Penny Arcade-esque art, and because I am a fan of sidescrolling beat-’em-ups, I eventually got around to grabbing the first installment as part of one of the Humble Indie Bundles. The combat was good, the animation was fluid, and while the whole thing does look as if it belongs on Newgrounds, that gave it a little bit of low-fi charm. The story was appropriately pulpy and honestly, was just an excuse to beat the hell out of your enemies.
I have no idea how Shank’s story ends because I, like so many of the gaming community, do not tend to finish a game unless it is very, very good (and even then it is still something of a crapshoot as to whether or not I will remain enamored enough with a game to play it through to completion). I don’t think that the story is very important though, beyond the usual revenge trip trappings and vaguely grindhouse aesthetic. This sounds like I’m writing off the game, and I don’t mean to sound that way — I really do enjoy firing up Shank every once in a while and, well, shanking some people. It’s a light and airy little game that rewards the sort of dedication that I’m not entirely willing to give it with achievements and a high score (and I guess if you are for whatever reason super-invested in Shank’s revenge trip, there’s that too).
So obviously when I saw that they made a sequel to Shank, I knew I would have to at the very least check it out, and lo and behold, a review copy appeared in front of me and I took it, expecting quite simply that I would be presented with a slightly smoother presentation and maybe a couple of tweaks to the gameplay. Instead, I got what is essentially a clone of the first game but with a few extra bits that I wound up not caring about.
Shank 2 feels mailed in, as if the developers decided that they would ramp up the difficulty, make weapons dependent on an unlocking system, and call it a day. The controls (full disclosure: I play with a keyboard. I’m aware that this is not the way that many people will play Shank 2, but I don’t happen to have an adapter for my 360 controller). If this somehow negates all my complaints about the controls, then feel free to skip on to my other complaints) feel loose. Shank seems to always want to attack to his right when I play — even if there is someone swinging a baseball bat to his left — and I cannot seem to get him to think otherwise. I guess he just really wants to move forward, which is fine and all but doesn’t really work when there’s one of the Fat Guy enemies getting ready to charge behind him. I’m not sure if Shank is (possibly) programmed to swing at the closest thing to him or not, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be that way. He never seems to deal with the immediate threat and instead will swing his chainsaw (or shanks or whatever) half-heartedly in the direction of whatever is farthest away, ignoring more immediate threats. If Shank faces to the left, and I push the attack button, I should like it if he could actually, you know, attack left instead of swinging around to his right, especially when there’s a clear threat to his left that could use a couple of knives or bullets in it. I understand the idea is to be constantly aiming Shank manually, but a little help would have been appreciated. For whatever reason, I never seemed to have this sort of problem when playing the first Shank. Once you get past that (and again, this may really only be something that folks on keyboards have an issue with), the controls aren’t actually that bad. Ranged weapons are occasionally a little frustrating to deal with and having to rely on them for some fights (a fight against a crane on the docks in particular) can be an exercise in frustration, but there’s nothing new here. They’re more or less exactly the same as they were in Shank.
You can perform counters now, which is the only cool thing added to the combat.
Enemies will often shoot or execute special attacks off screen, and any warning that you get that this is happening is suddenly being clobbered from behind. This is par for the course for most sidescrollers, of course, and not exactly a huge complaint in the grand scheme of things, but I got sick of being cold-cocked and had to walk away from the game for a while. Combine that with the problems that I already had with the controls and it just doesn’t seem like a game worth spending a lot of time with.
There’s a multiplayer element to the new installment, which is the side-scroller equivalent of Horde mode, in which you take on waves of enemies with a partner and see how long you can last. The combat while enjoyable (and for all my complaints about controls, there does come a point where everything clicks and the game is as fun as its predecessor to play) doesn’t seem to be enough to hang a multiplayer mode on. I would have liked to see a more robust co-op mode. After all, the story of Shank 2 introduces allies that you can eventually play as (or to be more specific that you can change Shank’s appearance so as to look like), so I don’t see why the whole affair couldn’t have had a more story-driven co-op mode.
The only other complaint I have is with the game’s difficulty. Shank 2 comes in two flavors: normal and hard. Normal (which is what I was playing on) is still pretty frustratingly hard, and the lack of a way to save your progress across a level is a massive pain in the ass. I don’t want to sit down to play a game and then have to sacrifice progress because I need to go to bed/make dinner/play something else for a while. This is why I never beat a lot of platformers as a kid. I simply didn’t have the time or inclination to sit down and play one game and nothing but one game for the length of time required to actually get to the end. The ability to save is not going to make your game less “hardcore”, guys! Cut it out!
Few things are more hardcore than shimmying across pipes, right? Right.
Shank 2 is more or less a retread of Shank in terms of its gameplay, and while the boss and miniboss fights are mostly satisfying (the bloody crane on the docks is maybe one of the most excruciatingly boring and frustrating fights I’ve ever had the displeasure of grinding through, for example, but the two rebel fights before it are a lot of fun) it is a game that may not be worth your time. We’ve been down this road before, and it was a pleasant enough road. However, slapping a few extra bits on and calling it a day shouldn’t cut it. That said, Shank has its charm, and the sequel retains that at least, along with a few extra bits that, in my opinion, don’t add anything of value. There are better co-operative experiences out there and being able to change Shank’s appearance is frankly not something I care about in the slightest. I like my sequels to offer a little bit more than the original experience.