I played through the main singleplayer mode of Shank in one sitting. That statement could be taken to mean a few different things: it could be a comment on the game's length; perhaps it's simply the result of playing with a review deadline in mind. I didn't time my run through the game, but by the end I was physically uncomfortable from sitting in one place for so long, my eyes hurt, and I had skipped a meal, so I believe we can eliminate the first hypothesis. As for the second, anyone who knows me can confirm that I am an absolute wizard when it comes to procrastination. If Shank hadn't hooked me, I would have found an abundance of excuses to take breaks from it. No, I finished Shank in one sitting because I didn't want to stop murdering people.
The majority of the games that I play involve some level of violence, and it's usually the fatal kind. In most cases, this piling of corpses is only interesting within a larger context, like that of an overarching set of strategic or tactical considerations. In many games, the carnage is simply a tedious ritual that must be endured in order to reach more engaging content; the killing is there in part to artificially lengthen the experience. (Look to Uncharted or any modern Prince of Persia for evidence of this regrettable tendency.) The action in Shank is periodically interrupted by short scenes of storytelling, but if anything, these parts are a disincentive thanks to how clumsy and flat they are. My impulse during these interludes was to skip ahead, but they provided well-placed respite from the button-mashing action.
Random button-mashing is a valid approach. Shank provides a wealth of options for inflicting harm by way of various weapons and maneuvers, but the choice of which to employ at a given moment is very nearly inconsequential. The choice is only compelling as a stylistic one. When dispatching a thug, you must ask yourself: does this particular man deserve to be thrown off a building, or does your muse demand a grenade shoved in his mouth? It is merely a question of aesthetics. I could accuse Shank of being shallow, but it doesn't exactly put forth a pretense of depth. It works, because regardless of how you spread death, it looks great. The art and animation in Shank is fantastic. If you haven't seen it in motion, browse our collection of videos here.
Slaughtering hordes of generic foes is not the only activity in Shank. There is a fair amount of climbing, sliding, swinging and jumping to be done. None of this is particularly challenging, but as with the combat, the parkour-inspired elements are justified well enough by how good they look. The other primary means of breaking up the action is a series of boss fights. These fights (mostly against very large men) involve a lot of evasion coupled with the exploitation of patterns. These encounters suffer from an unfortunate lack of balance. In some cases, once the gimmick has been discovered, it is a trivial matter to win the combat; at other times, the game places very high demands on execution, which can lead to quite a bit of frustration even after the pattern has been solved. There's a sweet spot somewhere between these two extremes that the game has trouble finding. This problem is exacerbated in multiplayer.
Shank includes a cooperative story mode for two players on the same console. It's a unique set of levels with a plot that fills in the events leading up to the main game. The added facts don’t make the story any more interesting, and the dialogue is just as painful to endure here as in the rest of the game. Generally speaking, the particular mechanics of Shank are better suited to a solo affair than a cooperative one, but the very nature of local multiplayer with a friend enhances the fun enough that it sort of cancels out in the end, making for a decent little extra. It’s a little frustrating and weird, but at least you can laugh at the shortcomings together. As I previously mentioned, the boss fights are especially bad in cooperative mode; they’re so infuriatingly hard at times that I doubt there was much in the way of playtesting in that area.
It’s clear that there are areas in which Shank could be improved, but for those with an appreciation for fluid, stylish murder, there is a significant amount of pleasure to be had here. I recommend downloading the trial version to see if you’re the type.