It was the end of E3. My body ached and my mind had gone numb from three days of sensory overload. All I could think about was being home, sleeping in my own bed. All I had left was one final appointment and it would all be over. By this point, the last thing I wanted to see was another videogame. But that's the job.
I steeled myself and met with the fine folks at Klei Entertainment. I wasn't prepared. I'd heard the title, Shank, in passing and it was vaguely on my radar as being a downloadable beat-em-up. I had no idea that, in spite of my physical and mental state, I was about to have an experience that would completely change my perspective on the last week of my life.
I met with Klei CEO Jamie Cheng and Creative Director Jeff Agala and had a seat. I explained that I wasn't familiar with their game and a controller was thrust into my hand. "The easiest way to explain is to just play it," said Jamie. He went over the controls; Three attacks on the face buttons, two grapples on the right shoulder, block and grenades on the left. Easy.
A brief animated cutscene and I was suddenly playing. At least, that was my intent. First, I spent a good bit of time unable to do anything but make the character run and jump around the screen because I was so stunned by the animation quality. Shank looks good no matter what he's doing. Every action he takes flows seamlessly together and gives him a physicality that's very enticing.
The stage in which I had landed was a atop moving train and it wasn't long before I was beset by enemies intent on making sure I didn't make it to the lead car. I leapt into the air to close distance, firing pistols on the way down. As soon as Shank hit the ground I had him moving into a slash with his namesake weapons followed by a chainsaw thrust forward ending in a kick which sent my last victim flying.
Suddenly, there was nobody left. It had all transpired in seconds yet it was so perfectly clear what had happened that I could remember every frame of the action. I felt empowered, invincible even, and that's what's so compelling about Shank.
It's all down to the simplicity of the game's controls, which allow for even inexperienced players to easily chain together combos. One button each for shank, chainsaw and gun attacks, each with high, medium and low profile actions determined by your position on the left thumbstick. By experimenting with the combinations, there's a huge range of possible ways to decimate all in Shank's path, and all are satisfying.
Grapples are especially joyous. There are two ways Shank can reach out and hold someone, either by getting in close for a grab or lunging across the screen at a more distant enemy and pinning them to the ground. While grappling with a foe, Shank can perform attacks on his victim with any of his weapons (or, in the case of his guns, anyone around him as well). Much to my delight, this includes grenades which finds Shank shoving one of the incendiary delights into the mouth of the enemy before booting him across the screen to detonate.
About halfway through the level lay a Shotgun, which I gleefully picked up. As one would hope, the gun is devastating at close range. While it might not kill everyone in a group, it will push back a crowd of enemies to give Shank a little breathing room.
The level design in the demo was simple and straightforward, but it's also a little hard to imagine how creative you can really get when mapping out a moving train stage. There were a few very simple sections of swinging, which feels more automated than anything else as Shank pretty much just honed in on the next place he had to grab coming out of a jump.
I wouldn't mind seeing more complex levels but I'll be perfectly satisfied if the full game keeps to the same level of simplicity. Shank is very nimble and easy to move about, even going so far as to provide considerable control over him while airborne. Platforming sections won't be a problem with this game, but the combat gameplay is compelling enough that they don't seem necessary.
Eventually the demo jumped ahead in the level to a boss encounter. Now at the front of the train, Shank was faced with an enemy vehicle that seemed a combination tank and troop carrier. Foes began leaping off the vehicle and on to the train as a series of missiles fired into the air to rain death from the skies. And, to add insult to injury, there are still guys standing on the tank firing guns backwards.
Fueled by bloodlust, I sent Shank in to do what he does best: Make me feel good about myself. The fight with the tank was far from simple, as there was plenty to dodge all the time. And, since Shank can't get into close combat with the tank as it rides in front of the train, combat options for taking down the boss were reduced to pistols and grenades. It was a long battle but, at its conclusion, Shank stood victorious and I sat in awe.
It was over. I was literally struck dumb by what I had just played. After struggling to find words, Jamie and I spoke a bit about the game's development. He told me about how the first three months were spent on little except getting Shank's running animations to look just right. I also learned that the game is completed and has already been sent off for certification in anticipation of its late summer release, first on PS3 followed by Xbox 360 at a later date.
As we spoke, my eyes kept going back to the screen. I thought about how I had felt as I walked in the door, exhausted, fifteen minutes prior. It's easy to fall into the trap of becoming jaded towards an event like E3, where it can feel like a constant dick-measuring contest and everybody claims they have the next big thing you need. But part of the power of games is that it only takes one brilliant experience to wash all of that away and remind us of why we got into this in the first place.
For me, this year, that game was Shank. As I sat in that room, still processing what had just happened, I grasped in my mind for the perfect question to ask the developers. But there was only one question I had left to ask.
"Can I play it again?"