Shank is a good old fashioned beat-em-up with a good old fashioned premise. Revenge. Put simply, the titular protagonist has to butcher his way through waves of unpleasant foes to track down his worst enemy. The gritty Mexican vistas have been beautifully realised with some simple yet devastatingly attractive cartoon visuals- and some cutscenes deliver a stereotypically hammy bit of context for the upcoming murder. Apart from some poor audio mixing quality and patchy voice acting, the presentation is unique and thoroughly impressive.
Anyway, that's enough about the presentation. Let's get to grips with the juicy violence. The first few minutes of the opening level teach you how to use your main weaponry and combat skills. Shank's shanks deal furiously quick area damage that can make opponents flinch, leaving them open to massively powerful finishing strikes from his massive chainsaw. Pistols, a powerful shotgun or a uzi provide a variety of ranged options, and all three weapons can be mixed into combos in order to cope with any given situation. If this wasn't enough, Shank can also pounce onto distant foes with a single button press, pinning them to the ground whilst able to brutalise them or even shoot distant enemies. Grapples and grenades round out the package- and frankly, Shank is one of the most lethal beat-em-up protagonists ever coded; with the ability to organically switch between weapons and techniques to suit any combat role.
Oh, and you can also block if you really want to. A good offence and some tactical pouncing onto key enemies tends to be far more effective than putting up a stonewall- but you might need it in the harder difficulty setting.
Combat is a responsive and ultraviolent delight- but Shank genuinely needs every single trick up his sleeve. Even most standard opponents can mix ranged combat with devastating melee attacks, meaning that players will have to stay mobile and extremely aggressive to avoid humiliating beatdowns. Much more threatening, however, are the “big” enemies that stand well over 10 feet tall. These gargantuan combatants are immune to pounces and are immensely durable, capable of dishing out punishing punches and unblockable charge attacks. These bruisers turn up very frequently and are often accompanied by squads of regular thugs, dogs or even a few more equally massive friends. Mixing techniques to stun, flinch, dodge and tactically put down unwary threats is the order of the day- and relying on a single move or weapon will soon result in copious embarrassing deaths.
A couple of the bigger battles occasionally feel a little 'cheap'; but on the overwhelming whole, Shank hits the sweet spot between rewarding and difficult without ever feeling unfair. However, a couple of the bosses become a little repetitive in terms of attack patterns and abilities... and when viewed objectively, the game is just a long walk that occasionally grinds to a halt as a wave of enemies leap into frame. This isn't a criticism– after all, it's a beat-em-up- but if this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you'd be better of sticking with something a little more varied.
The singleplayer campaign is fairly meaty, with plenty of long stages to slaughter through and a few unlockable costumes to obtain. However, a dedicated two-player cooperative mode fills some backstory, providing some seriously impressive local thrills and some extra value (as well as an achievement). It's a shame that we can't team up online to enjoy this added feature... but hell, beat-em-ups are best enjoyed next to a buddy rather than a remote anonymous stranger.
Note: The Xbox 360 version suffers from a few nasty little glitches that you ought to be aware of. Some of the cutscenes stutter and chug along due to the console's “slower hard disc transfer rate,” and there's occasionally some slowdown in the bigger battles. What's more, the achievements can glitch if the full version is unlocked during the trial- so quit out and download the full version on the dashboard you don't want to lose your precious gamerscore. A fix is already in the works, don't worry.
- Responsive, flexible and fluid combat. Focused on one fluid in particular.
- Stylish art design
- Dedicated cooperative campaign adds extra value
- It's repetitive. Because it's a beat-em-up. Deal with it.
- Inconsistent voice acting and audio mixing quality
- Potentially glitched achievements and chugging cutscenes in Xbox 360 version
The Short Version: Shank is one of the best modern 2D beat-em-ups out there, and breathes a new lease of life into the genre with its impeccable art design and fluid combat. Sure, it's repetitive, cheesy and divisive... but that's the nature of the beast. Fans of violent pulp yarns and flagrant copious chainsaw mercage should sign up immediately, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a beautiful and brutal romp that isn't afraid to kick your ass every once in a while.