Shanked!


— 9:12 PM on November 25, 2010

This blog post was all laid out. I even spent some time yesterday gathering my thoughts on what was to be the subject: the Canon EOS Rebel T2i camera that has taken over as my weapon of choice in the Benchmarking Sweatshop's ghetto photo studio. The Rebel is awesome, as you might expect, but I haven't used it for much more than a handful of product shots, which I'm sure doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the camera's capabilities. My gushing will have to wait, at least on that subject.

Besides, I have something else on my mind: Shank.

The game hit Steam last month, and I've been itching to get a crack at it ever since. Yesterday, early Black Friday discounting knocked $5 off, bringing the price tag down to $10. With the Thanksgiving holiday looming and some time on my hands over the next few days, I couldn't resist. Soon, the surprisingly meaty 2GB download was streaming to the gaming system I have hooked up in the living room.

Originally, I had planned on spending the better part of last night wading through the latest single-player campaign in the Call of Duty franchise. Shank changed those plans, too. I tend to enjoy heavily scripted shooters most when I can immerse myself in the experience for a few hours at a time. However, by the time I collapsed onto the couch, it was nearly 10 PM, and I was exhausted. With doubts that I'd be awake enough to fully appreciate Black Ops, I opted for what I thought would be a quick session with Shank. The side-scrolling arcade brawler seemed like the sort of thing I could pick up and enjoy for a few minutes before turning in early.

Some three hours later, with the game nearly finished, I finally dragged myself to bed. I was actually wide awake at the time, high on what had been a non-stop orgy of carefully choreographed violence. Shank doesn't make you solve brain-bending puzzles or draw you into an especially deep narrative; it's all about killing wave after wave of baddies with as much style as you can muster.

The game feels like a cross between Contra and Double Dragon playing out on the pages of a graphic novel. You have long-range attacks thanks to a selection of firearms that never run out of ammunition and grenades that are doled out more sparingly. For close-range combat, a mix of quick and heavy attacks dispenses enemies in suitably bloody fashion. The former employ the game's namesake—one in each hand—while the latter rely on a series of weapons you pick up as the body count mounts. When the game started me off with a chainsaw, I had a feeling I was in for a good time.

To that arsenal, Shank adds grappling moves, the ability to pounce on enemies from a distance, the requisite number of explosive barrels that every game must have, and an all-important hit counter to track your devastating combos. Enemies are thrown at the player in bunches, providing plenty of fodder for unbroken strings of epic brutality. The action is often too intense to keep an eye on the combo counter, but I did see it roll into triple-digit territory after dispensing with a particularly tenacious swarm. That's over one hundred successful acts of violence in a streak that probably didn't last much longer than a minute. The bloodshed is impressive not only for its volume, but also its richness.

Keeping up with the onslaught calls for a lot of button mashing, and you'll need to mix and match attacks intelligently to deal with each of the three main types of enemies. The boss battles require some strategizing and finesse, too. Perhaps thanks to my years of playing action games with similar button layouts and overall mechanics, the combat flowed effortlessly and intuitively. Unlike some games, which cause me to lean forward on the couch and tense up a little, Shank left me fully reclined and with my feet up for all but a couple of difficult moments. The game's "normal" difficulty setting feels appropriately challenging, and the pacing is just about perfect, with only the occasional cut-scene or easily executed jump puzzle interrupting the otherwise wall-to-wall carnage.

This seemingly endless stream of gratuitous violence is rendered gorgeously in two dimensions. Cel-shaded graphics are nothing new in the gaming world, but Shank's artistic direction nevertheless feels fresh and unique. The stylized graphics are a good match for the action, which is perhaps too over the top to be depicted with more realism.

Action-arcade scrollers aren't exactly known for their music, making Shank's movie-like soundtrack a particularly pleasant surprise. The varied 13-track compilation is the perfect backdrop for what amounts to a revenge-driven rampage, and the developers are offering it up as a free download available even to folks who haven't purchased the game.

Although I'm happy to have picked up Shank at what amounts to a third off, I'd still highly recommend the game at its usual asking price of $15. That's at the high end of what you can expect to pay for what might be called a casual release, but Shank has a layer of polish that belies its indie roots. In addition to the single-player story, there's also a co-op campaign that serves as a sort of prequel to the main narrative. Why can't you just add a friend to the single-player storyline? Because Shank was designed as a cinematic brawler. According to the developer, "every camera is hand-crafted, ever scene and enemy is carefully placed." Tacking on a second player would have disrupted the delicate balance of the single-player experience, which is so well-realized I'm glad no one messed with the formula.

Shank's tight focus resonates with the part of my brain that enjoys coordinating assaults on pixelated opponents from the comfort of my couch. I'd call this a guilty pleasure if I felt any apprehension about delighting in Shank's brand of mindless violence. But I don't, perhaps because the brutality is executed with such beauty and precision. Folks with an appreciation for such things would do well to experience Shank, whose demo is free to download if you have a few moments to spare and, perhaps, an evening to lose.

   
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