Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Midway Studios Chicago
Release Date: September 5, 2007
For a while now, fans of action games have often wondered what the end result would be if renowned action film director John Woo decided to dabble in the digital realm. While Woo's unique style of action cinema has been the inspiration in the Max Payne series and many other games, Stranglehold is the first title to officially involve the director himself. Stranglehold has some flaws, but they do little to tarnish an overall great game that is befitting of the big names behind it.
The story of Stranglehold is a continuation of the storyline of the 1992 movie "Hard-Boiled," which starred Chow Yun-Fat as the legendary Inspector Tequila. In Stranglehold, a cop has been found murdered with a bullet through his badge, and what starts off for Tequila as a simple investigation spirals into a multi-faceted conflict where the enemy has a powerful bargaining chip: his wife and daughter. Though familiarity of the movie will fill in a few small gaps in the story, the plot of Stranglehold is sufficiently detached and fleshed out enough that players who haven't seen the movie are quickly brought up to speed.
The quickest comparison one can make about the gameplay is to Max Payne, but while that title really only let the player dive around, Stranglehold is much more flexible. Throughout the game, players will pull off a variety of stylish and acrobatic moves to take down enemies, including dives, running up and sliding down banisters, swinging from chandeliers, springing off of walls and diving onto rolling carts. While diving can be done anywhere and wall springs can be done on nearly any vertical surface to initiate the other moves, the player simply presses the dive button when the object with which they want to interact is illuminated with a soft white glow.
The player also has control over putting the game into slow motion for a limited time, represented by a meter beneath the health bar. The slow-motion gameplay can be manually toggled by using the right bumper, or it's automatically engaged while performing an acrobatic move if the player has the reticle over an enemy. This system works really well in execution, as the player can essentially dive from cover, shoot at an enemy and return to cover, and the only time the slow-motion kicks in and depletes the meter is when the reticle is over a live enemy.
The fact that using acrobatic moves to kill enemies is cool isn't the only reason to use them. When an enemy is killed, the game rates the kill between one and five stars and adds it to a running star count on the left side of the screen. While simply gunning down someone may only net the player a single star, offing an enemy in a stylish manner, like diving sideways through the air and shooting him once in the head, will earn the player more stars for the kill. Players can chain together stylish kills to keep building the star count, and once the action breaks for a few seconds, the star count is drained into the meter in the bottom left of the screen, which controls the Tequila Bombs.
Tequila Bombs are used to either maintain your ability to fight or decimate everything around you. At the most basic level, the player can use a chunk or whatever is left of their power to restore health when a med kit just can't be found nearby. The next level of the Tequila Bomb meter is the Precision Aim move, in which the game world slows down and the player controls an aiming reticle. When the reticle is positioned over an enemy, the view zooms in to their position, and when the trigger is pulled, the camera follows the bullet in as it strikes the target.
The third Tequila Bomb power is the Barrage mode, in which Tequila reloads his weapon and lets loose with temporary invulnerability, infinite ammo and enhanced damage. The fourth and final Tequila Bomb power is the Spin Attack, which functions as Stranglehold's unique take on the room-clearing super bombs from games past. When the player initiates a Spin Attack, the camera alternates between shots of Tequila spinning and firing whichever weapon he has equipped in every direction (complete with Woo's trademark doves flying away) and shots of nearby enemies dying and their immediate surroundings getting sprayed with bullets.
To break up the action here and there, Stranglehold makes use of standoffs in levels that start off with Tequila getting suddenly surrounded with enemies. In this mode, the left stick makes Tequila lean and the right stick moves an on-screen reticle as the player dodges enemy bullets in slow-motion and dishes out his own hot lead. The camera moves from one enemy to another, and if the player hasn't killed all of the enemies by the end of the standoff, he must then deal with them using normal gameplay means.
At the end of every level, Tequila will have to face off with a boss encounter, which honestly seems a bit out of place in the gameplay. While the game rewards the player for stylishly fighting the hordes of mooks beforehand, it does not when fighting the bosses. Since every boss fight is a straightforward matter of shooting them with a metric ton of bullets, the title does little to encourage doing anything other than simply taking cover behind a wall or pillar and spraying them with lead until they drop. Some boss encounters are a lot of fun and mix things up through either generous utilization of the game's destructible environments or actually diving around like Tequila does, but the other half are a hair's breadth from being boring and anti-climactic despite their difficulty.
If there is one area in which Stranglehold excels, it's in the quality and presentation of the visuals. Chow Yun-Fat's likeness is perfectly recreated in the game, and the facial and bodily animation for all of the characters is surprisingly well done. The environments themselves are richly detailed and make great use of lighting, but the star of the graphics show is the level of destruction and carnage of which the game is capable. While the ground and some of the level geometry isn't destructible, nearly everything else is, from walls to archways, dinosaur skeletons and statues and, sometimes, entire buildings. When objects are broken, the event is almost accompanied with a slew of special effects, from particle effects of shattering stone and glass, to a ton of golden coins and sparks flying out of a recently blasted slot machine. Enemies enter a ragdoll state when killed, and if they happen to fall onto breakable objects like a table, they'll slam through it as they fall. Often at the end of combat, the player can look around and marvel at exactly how much carnage the immediate area has undergone after looking so comparatively tidy just moments prior.
The music in Stranglehold ranges from the heavy use of traditional Asian instruments to more traditional action movie fare. The voice-overs are well delivered, and Chow Yun-Fat himself voices all of Tequila's dialog, but at times, due to either the crazy amount of gunfire or the accents of the voice actors, the inability to turn on subtitles somewhat mars the experience. The sound effects, however, easily steal the aural cake; pairing distinct sound effects with some fairly top-notch mixing make the entire audio palette seem just as crisp as any blockbuster movie experience.
Stranglehold does have a multiplayer component that features the same use of slow-motion and Tequila Bombs of the single-player segment. Every time the player gets a kill, a small amount is added to the Tequila Bomb meter as well as the slow-motion bar (which is the only way to fill it, as it doesn't slowly replenish over time). The slow-motion can be toggled only when the player completely fills the bar, and the ability gives him a competitive edge over everyone else, since he can move normally while everyone else has slightly slower control over his movements, aiming and firing.
For all of the fun it can bring, though, the multiplayer mode does have its downsides. It can be very difficult to find a match or even enter one without receiving an error. Even once inside of a match, the gameplay is often laggy to the point that trying to hit your enemy results in both parties just spraying the area with a machine gun and hoping some shots land. A patch is rumored to be in the works, but in order to be recommendable as a point of purchase, the multiplayer is in nowhere near the shape it should be.
Stranglehold's campaign mode weighs in at about six to seven hours, but the flexible and energetic gameplay more than makes up for that. The action-centric gameplay is as intense, over the top and engaging as any Woo work should be, and combined with the visuals of the Unreal 3 engine, the title is essentially what a next-gen Max Payne needed to be. Despite that oft-used comparison, however, Stranglehold stands on its own as a top-billing action title worthy of the big names behind it and more than a passing glance from gamers yearning to dive onto a rolling cart in slow-motion glory and blast someone through a wooden table.
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