The Shank series owes much of its identity to revenge flicks of the 70s and 80s. Its hero communicates primarily through stab wounds as he makes his way through the paper-thin plot and a long line of themed goons to be ironically hoisted by their own petards. Much like those films, the flash and style of Shank 2 make for some satisfying moments of violent comeuppance, but it ends quickly and doesn't leave much substance behind.
The game follows the titular Shank as he murders his way through countless thugs and several stage bosses on the way to save his loved ones. As a character, Shank is a blank slate, smoldering with rage and otherwise dispassionate regarding the plight of impersonal hostages he rescues like so many collectibles strewn about the level. He’s a blunt object aimed at the bad guys, and the cut-scenes that showcase his creative methods of evisceration are always entertaining.
Besides his standard knives, Shank packs a configurable load-out for short-range, long-range, and explosive weapon with three options for each. I wound up favoring a combo of chainsaw, shotgun, and grenades for most of the game. A new dodge-roll makes for a much more elegant way to extract oneself from an enemy mob than the usually-useless block maneuver of the first game. When the combat was hitting on all cylinders, it made me feel like a well-oiled murder machine.
Sometimes, though--particularly in boss fights--the game ratchets up the difficulty with arbitrary buffs, which it counterbalances by granting some fatal weakness to exploit. At that point, the battle is less about fluid motion, precision, or skill. It becomes centered on scoring a cheap win on a character that is nearly impossible to beat in a fair fight using the game's usual structure. This approach undermines one of the game's key strengths.
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The main campaign is a scant eight stages, with Normal and Hard modes. It seems short if measured in hours, but it feels like the right length, and a longer campaign would have run the risk of overstaying its welcome. Besides, the standout feature is the new co-op Survival mode. It pits you and one friend, on the couch or online, against waves of increasingly brutal enemies. You can buy equipment like turrets or an angry boar with currency earned from kills, while the ultimate goal is to prevent bombers from destroying ammunition stockpiles. The mode only comes with three maps, but replaying for special objectives unlocks more skins.
Skins range from in-game characters, nods to the first game, and some fun homages to films like Kill Bill. Male and female characters carry different equipment sets, and each character carries his or her own stat bonuses. The variations are too slight to create a serious imbalance with any characters, but the subtly of some bonuses helped complement my play style.
It may be a crutch to rely on co-op, but playing alongside another human does compensate for the weaknesses in boss encounters, and improves the overall package. The Survival mode is so much more fun than the single-player campaign; in fact, it's a wonder that Klei didn’t include a co-op option for the campaign itself--especially since the first game had such a feature.
Shank 2 lives on its style. In the best of times it becomes a precisely-tuned, bloody action spectacle, despite losing itself a bit in the boss encounters. The game is constantly pushing towards its next adrenaline-soaked insanity, and those are fun to watch. But once it ends, and testosterone levels return to normal, all of its style and bombast don't leave much of an impression. Enjoyable while it lasts, Shank 2 is too soon forgotten once it's over.
[This Shanks review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, provided by publisher Electronic Arts.]