Review: Shank 2

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Sequels are supposed to be steps forward. They’re supposed to advance the original formula, build on existing foundations, and correct mistakes in the previous entry. They can branch out in their own ways and change things up, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that they’re expected to be improvements. Shank 2 is a tricky proposition, then, because it has very clear improvements in some areas and even clearer failings elsewhere. The two almost balance each other out, but unfortunately the result is less than the sum of its parts, suffering from very real stylistic and mechanical flaws that cannot be overlooked.

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When we last left our violent vigilante friend Shank, he had just killed his way through a cartel of assholes who ruined his life. Now he’s on his way back to where his life began, weighed down by the pounds of flesh he’s taken and gallons of booze he’s chugged. An oppressive military regime has claimed the country Shank hails from, though, and if you think he’s going to wait patiently while they stamp his papers you haven’t been paying attention. The only recourse is eight stages of brutal murder, carving through militia members, cultists, cannibals, and inhospitable wildlife to put an end to the forces keeping Shank from his home.

If that sounds like a weird assortment of threats, it’s even stranger in practice. The original Shank was a straight-forward revenge joint, sectioned off into chapters of bikers or gangsters or luchadores working for the big bads on Shank’s hit list. In stark contrast, Shank 2 has a single foe to dispatch, the despotic general leading the occupation, but drags you all over God’s forsaken Earth to get him. There are levels where you chase a voodoo queen through a temple of sexy, seductive cult babes, and levels where you spelunk through caves of barely-human cannibals. Even the opening level starts with Shank killing a bunch of military guys for stopping his bus, and ends in a junkyard murdering some huge tire-hucking dude who could have just been practicing his discus throw.

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The narrative direction of the first game just isn’t present at all in the second, and that extends to the cutscenes in a depressing way. I loved the hardcore grindhouse scenes of the original, where Shank would trade gravelly quips with his nemesis before chasing them down and garroting them. None of that cinematic flair makes an appearance here, with cutscenes barely managing to scrounge up entertaining action setpieces. Shank is wooden and dispassionate, surrounded by one-dimensional characters who serve only to direct him to the next aspiring corpse in his way. It shouldn’t matter so much for a brawler but Shank had such a powerful style underpinning the action that it’s absence is extremely noticeable in the sequel.

Perhaps all the effort lost on the narrative elements went into the art and combat, because there are definite improvements here. Both characters and backgrounds are more detailed than before, and the animation is greatly improved with silky-smooth punches and throws. There’s a better balance of enemies in encounters and a new counter move, which prevents those ugly old fights with burly foes that could lock you into fatal combos. I found myself enjoying fights much more in this installment, though it’s still not without its weaknesses. Dodging has been moved to the right stick which causes delays from shifting your grip and leads to far more missed evasions. A few of the enemies also have some unduly aggravating patterns, like the small cannibals who seem to override any move you throw at them to gnaw on your face.

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There are enough steps forward and back that I felt pretty comfortable with calling Shank 2 a side-grade from the first. What it lacks in narrative structure it makes up in polish and combat, along with a few details I didn’t mention like hidden collectibles and additional playable characters. However, all that came to a halt in the sixth mission which kept crashing for me at different points. It’s a particularly chaotic outing with a big turret sequence and dense melees, so perhaps all the action is breaking something in my version of the game. Nevertheless, a severe technical issue like that is more than enough to tip the scale against this title. Too many opportunities for improvements are missed here, leaving us with a sequel that feels less developed and less consequential than the game that spawned it.

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