Posted – 12.18.2007
Gaming’s history with Hollywood collaboration hasn’t always been a rosy one, but Midway’s latest action packed effort proves what can happen when filmmakers are just as excited to explore the new storytelling medium as much as the developers are to work with them. John Woo’s Tiger Hill Entertainment was founded to do just that, and their first cooperative effort in producing a sequel to his iconic action yarn, Hard Boiled, as a game stands as proof positive of the best of what can happen.
As an uncommon treat, the manual is filled with plenty of background info on everyone in the game to get you ready to immerse yourself in the action. Stranglehold is the sequel to Hard Boiled, taking place some time after the film as Chow Yun Fat reprises his role as the often unconventional Inspector “Tequila”, although you don’t have to have seen the film in order to enjoy the game. A cop has just been killed and Tequila isn’t going to simply sit on the sidelines, heading out into the Hong Kong underworld to find the cop killers and turn a trap into an opportunity to discover the truth. As he’ll find out, it’s only the tip of a quickly melting iceberg as the underworld heats up for the war that is about to explode in the streets. And guess who has to shoot himself out of this mess?
John Woo’s signature doves, cinematic flair, and storytelling expertise has been faithfully reproduced throughout the white knuckled gameplay as it weaves itself into the Hong Kong blood opera of explosive action and dramatic melodrama. The solid narrative is filled with nefarious villains, surprising twists, and heroic moments, much of it thanks to the remarkable acting behind each of the characters alongside the fantastic work that Midway’s animators and artists have done with the newest Unreal Engine in capturing every wrinkled eyebrow, sneer, and wrinkled, pockmarked face. Chow Yun Fat’s reprisal of his role as Inspector Tequila is a welcome treat, and John Woo makes his signature cameo. The theater quality soundtrack completes the package with a strong mix of tunes that provide plenty of the right kind of ambiance whether you’re in a desperate shootout in the alleys of Hong Kong to a showdown at the top of a Chicago high rise, or even when you’re in the menu fiddling with the options. It simply manages to hit all of the bases making it one of the better tracks to be heard in any game this year.
The world of Stranglehold looks good, especially in HD, although there are parts of it that can come off as a mix of stretched, bland textures and highly detailed special effects. Shadows, in particular, tend to flicker, and the cinematics can often look a little too compressed. However, Midway brings the chaos of John Woo’s action into the game thanks to the physics system behind the concrete confetti filling the air with the dust and debris of bullet riddled walls and wall tiles. Almost everything in the game can be destroyed, from tables and chairs to fossil dinosaurs in a swanky museum, creating engaging set pieces that make every battle a slice of over-the-top celluloid. Huge explosions thanks to a slew of conveniently placed barrels, traps that can send giant rocks down on top of enemies, and whizzing bullet trails tracing their way through the air add in the rest of the ambiance, leaving the only thing missing being the smell of gunpowder from when you first crack open the game case.
The third person action of the game provides plenty of opportunities for the player to show off their moves as Inspector Tequila. They can run up banisters, jump off walls, dive across tables, and speed through a gun battle while riding a rolling cart. The easy to use controls make it simple to engage in plenty of gun ballet, and each area is filled with opportunities to feel like an action hero whether it’s shooting a sign down on top of someone’s head or diving backwards in slow motion while sending a lead telegram at your enemies.
Tequila Time slows the action down, much like what you may have seen in John Woo’s films which had also acted as part of the inspiration for another action title, Max Payne. When Tequila dives across a table in a gunfight, jumps towards an enemy, or does any other special move that gets him out of harm’s way, time slows down allowing him to plug his foes before they even know what hit them as his senses focus on his targets. You can even trigger it on your own thanks to a regenerating gauge that tracks how long you can keep Tequila’s reflexes honed, and he also has a few other tricks up his sleeve to even the odds.
Tequila Bombs are special abilities that he can use and as the game continues, he’ll earn up to four specialized tricks that allow him to pull off the kind of cinematic flavor that you’d usually see up on the silver screen. As you cap enemies and rack up style points, or discover hidden origami cranes scattered everywhere in the game, the gauge that enables Tequila to use these abilities will fill up. Once he has enough to trigger on, a simple push on the direction pad begins the bloodletting. He can use some of the gauge to heal some of his wounds if a health pack isn’t handy, use precision aim to instantly kill an enemy as you follow the bullet to where you might have aimed it, unleash a temporarily unstoppable barrage with unlimited ammo, or launch a spin attack that can kill every peon around you. Each of these moves is a signature in itself, allowing the player to really feel as if they were directing the action themselves not to mention that they’re also what might save your life especially in the later stages of the game.
You’ll also get to participate in standoffs where Tequila is surrounded in an ambush. You’ll face off against each one in a kind of mini-game where you can dodge bullets by leaning from side to side while Tequila gets in a shot to take them out of the equation. These are pretty exciting twists to the gameplay and thanks to a well designed checkpoint system, you won’t have to fight your way back to these if you fail or back through them if you manage to pull it off. Much of the game is very forgiving to players in terms of where they have to play back from, and the higher difficulty settings can add to the challenge in case the default is a little too easy.
Your enemies are the kind of cannon fodder that supervillains use as they’ll often rush at you blindly, take cover as they deliver potshots in your direction, but act mostly as moving targets that get in your way. Their strength is in their numbers making them often feel like a clone army has come to take you out, but many of the battles coupled with the fantastic set pieces that they take place in make it an almost arcade-type of experience that never lets up. Stranglehold’s no-holds-barred property damage is shared by the brutal ways that your enemies will meet their ends as bodies fly back from heavy machine gun rounds, crumple to the ground, or grab their crotch and grimace their face thanks to a clever shot. Stranglehold’s makes no apologies for Tequila’s brand of action and it’s hard to not feel that you’re watching an action movie that you’ve never seen before.
But The game also has a tendency to keep feeding an area with soldiers until you move ahead, giving an almost clown car type feel to some of the areas, but not too often so as to make it feel a little too arcade-like. Taking out the enemy using Tequila Time, diving back away from them or off to the side, and incorporating Tequila’s arsenal of moves into your own style will also help earn style points and a star rating for your kills and with how many of these guys that the game throws at you, there’s a lot of opportunity for improving your score.
If anything can remind you that it’s still more of a game than a movie making experience, that belongs to the superhuman bosses that you can fill with lead and rockets. Although most of those that you’ll fight are merely there to slow you down, the bosses are able to take a level of punishment that’s more at home with villains in a game like Mega Man. It’s a little unusual to see these in-game Terminators take as much punishment as they can, but the fights do manage to maintain the showdown flavor of a fight filled with flying bullets and they’re not so overly cheap as to kill you with only one shot from their magic weapon. Still, most of these can come off as a little silly when you can pump rounds into someone’s face and they just grin back at you.
As exciting as the game can be, it’s a short journey into the world of John Woo that gives you about six or seven hours of bullet frenzied action. The multiplayer in the game should have helped with most every dive, table slide, and fancy Tequila move available to players that want to duke it out in deathmatch or team deathmatch modes, but there weren’t any servers out there at the time I had actually played this leaving the lobby a ghost town. There’s not much of an online presence to this game so if you’re the kind that lives for multi, this isn’t the game for you unless your friends happen to own a copy.
There are a few collectibles in the game that try to extend the short life of the title and you can play your favorite chapters over if you want to try and find more of the origami cranes that are hidden everywhere. The style points that you can earn for taking out the opposition are also tallied up at the end allowing you to buy special unlockables such as art, videos, or even new character models for the multiplayer portion of the game. You can also unlock additional difficulty modes as you play through each one, but as it is, there’s not much else to really get into once you’ve experienced the story.
Stranglehold is a surprisingly solid action title given sometimes rocky relationship Hollywood has with gaming. John Woo and Midway have delivered a great piece of lead tipped fanservice for players hoping for a game that can deliver the feel of a bullet riddled Hong Kong crime drama. It’s short length, somewhat inhuman boss fights, and a nearly nonexistent multiplayer community can make others think twice about adding this to their personal collection, but Stranglehold’s visceral ballet of brass casings and property destruction stands out as one of the best examples of how Hollywood and gaming can come together to tell the stories that they want.
– World 1-1