"We literally put our mortgages to it...It was a big deal. It needed to be good."
The future of Klei Entertainment rested on the success of Shank, last summer's side-scrolling beat-em-up. The indie developer had seen moderate success in the past with games like N+, but Shank was another beast entirely. It had the power to financially ruin Jamie Cheng, Klei's founder, and Jeff Agala, its creative director, both of whom put their houses on the line. Such was their confidence in the game.
That confidence extends to Shank 2, which is scheduled for release on PC, XBLA and PSN in early 2012. Sitting down with Cheng at the game's official unveiling this week, he acknowledged that, despite strong sales, fans had some qualms with the first game.
"When we were listening to feedback we were like, 'Ok, yes, these are the things we can do way better,' " he explained. "We can drastically improve the controls and we can also continue raising the bar on the visuals."
The controls were a definite sticking point in the first Shank, a game which demanded extreme precision but often faltered when it came to elements like platforming and time-based attacks. Cheng said the team started from scratch with the goal of making the combat much more responsive.
Klei also added the ability to pick up the weapons dropped by enemies, Double Dragon-style. Enemy weapons, like baseball bats and shovels, have entirely separate movesets, thus giving you a lot more variety in combat.
The last big addition was the ability to counter an incoming enemy attack by hitting the grab button when a red exclamation point appears over an attacking enemy's head. Countering an enemy's attack will prompt a unique animation depending on how the enemy was attacking. For example, a baseball bat might be shoved down the throat of an adversary for a particularly gruesome death.
As for the visuals, though, no one really had a problem with them. In fact, hand-drawn graphics of the first Shank were universally praised as some of the best 2D graphics in recent memory, with smooth animations and remarkable levels of detail. But Cheng and the team wasn't quite satisfied, so Shank 2 will double the resolution on the characters, while adding more detailed particle effects, like fire, to the formula.
Another big note from fans and critics of the first game was the lack of online co-op play. Shank 2 remedies that as well, but not in a way you'd expect. The game offers a two-player co-op mode called Survival where players battle waves of enemies while attempting to defend objectives from rogue bombers.
After playing about 10 waves, I sensed an odd blend of Counter-Strike (players can purchase weapons and equipment with money earned from kills) and Smash Bros. (small, platforming-heavy maps).
Cheng seemed surprised by my CS comparison but acknowledged the similarities with Nintendo's fighter. "Smash Bros. is definitely there. There was another game that we were making that had that Smash Bros. feel and we ended up not finishing that game. It's definitely there. But we wanted the cooperative thing to come in." To that end, Shank 2 allows players to revive each other and to watch each others' backs when disarming bombs or buying equipment.
Based of what I played, it's hard to imagine Cheng and his team at Klei will be forced into hock after Shank 2 releases. I wouldn't consider this a vastly different experience from the first game but it does feel a lot tighter, with more satisfying combat. The Survival mode is the sort of thing I could see myself booting up with another friend when the prospect of another 50 waves of Horde in Gears 3 is too daunting, and the sure to be ultra-violent campaign will definitely occupy a weekend or two. Shame it's still at least three months out. I suppose I'll have to satisfy my blood lust in other ways.
Russ Frushtick is a freelance journalist who has been writing about video games for over a decade. In a former life he was the editor-in-chief at MTV Multiplayer. You can follow his ramblings on Twitter.