SHANK / Electronic Arts / PC
A philosophical question: if a game is published by Electronic Arts and has some team of television animators working on it, and is written by the lady who wrote the God Of War games, can it still really be called "indie"?

Shank is like the Robert Rodriguez movie of games ... actually, more like the Crisp Crunch version of Kill Bill, but with the gore dialed up to 11. You play as the appropriately titled Shank, some sort of a hitman who dual-wields two knives, but also acquires a shotgun and chainsaw prior to the start of the game, and will acquire even more weapons as the adventure wears on. Anyway, Shank's wife was murdered by some of his former hitman buddies and he was left for dead, so he's off on a rip-roaring revenge rampage to take down the whole crime syndicate by himself.

I'm still not sure about the game's graphics. At first blush, it looks really impressive, but it's also got that "generic Flash" thing going on with the animation that oftentimes also looks awkward and cheap. The whole thing is somewhere between Samurai Jack and those old Fear Effect games for the Playstation. I'll say this much, the use of color, fine details and level backdrops are all really well done, and it's the atmosphere generated through this that is the game's strongest point.

Unfortunately, the attractive, fluid graphics seem to be there to cover for what's really a repetitive beat-em-up engine, and often a frustrating and not-so-well-thought-out one. The gameplay is somewhere between 2D arcade brawlers of yore, and the Devil May Cry games. Shank deals out no end of punishing attacks, but even the most common enemies can take a hell of a beating and still keep coming at you unfazed. The game emphasizes racking up big combos by switching weapons mid-attack. Well, that, and just surviving the continual onslaught.

Standard combat with the game's highly durable mooks gets predictable fast despite the range of attacks available to Shank. You'll overwhelm them unless a guy with a gun takes potshots at you from the opposite side of the screen while you're tied up doing combos on the other Durable Mooks, or you get jumped by one of those dogs that seemingly has grapple priority over anything at all you're trying to do at the moment.

For the most part the controls are actually pretty smooth and steady, and there's few major complaints there. One issue is that all the controls are only explained to you in-game at the very beginning, with "reminders" in the form of little icons that pop up at key moments. Unfortunately, on the PC, even if you are using the Xbox 360 pad, you don't get the actual button as a reminder, but simply a smushy indistinct image of Shank doing something like pouncing or bending an enemy over. If you can't remember the button for that command, the little pictograph it displays really doesn't help you at all (every button on the controller ends up getting used for something). Apparently on the actual 360, you get the proper button displayed, but they couldn't be stuffed to program the PC port to recognize different controller types and display the proper button.

There's also some clumsy jumpy/platformer bits hammered in here and there that don't work well, but all complaints about level design are mitigated by the liberal scattering of checkpoints about the levels. Where the game can slam you into a wall is at the boss encounters. These are by and large sloppily designed and just way the hell too difficult.

There's also a nice co-op mode that gives you a whole new separate story that takes place prior to the single-player game ... but you can't play it without at least one other player, and it's local only, not online.
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