What would happen if Chow Yun Fat and Chuck Norris walked into the same room? Most likely, the room would explode, because no building could harness that much awesome. Perhaps a video game detailing such encounter will one day be made, a co-operative multiplayer brawl with Chuck handling melee attacks and Chow holding the enemies (Communists? Nazis? Mobsters?) at bay with his dual handguns. I know that a game like this would win Game of the Year from every publication known to man, and maybe even Jack Thompson would give it a whirl, just for kicks, because it was so awesome. Someday…
“Zzz… huh? What? Where am I? I was having the most wonderful dream…”
Have thoughts like these ever run through your head? Do you often find yourself yearning for the carefree days of arcade yore, where the fire button reigned supreme and high scores were the international language of champions? Is your crappy bootleg VHS copy of Hard Boiled suffering from wear and tear due to being watched every Saturday night? If so, Stranglehold is the second coming for you. A collaboration between Midway and legendary pulp-action director John Woo, this game is here to kick ass and take names, complete with slow motion shootouts, ridiculous stunts, and of course, a body count in the thousands. If you thought Max Payne was the ultimate in badassery, or tolerated Path of Neo’s rushed presentation, then do yourself a favor: Stranglehold is the new king of stylish action games.
John Woo is arguably the most famous name in Hong Kong cinema, in particular for his over the top violent ballets, Hard Boiled and The Killer. Stranglehold is a pseudo-sequel to the former, and it’s the perfect format for John Woo’s brand of ridiculous action. What kind of cop kills around fifty mobsters a day, shooting first and asking questions never? Inspector Tequila, that’s who. Don’t piss him off; he brought friends. I played through the game once not knowing what the hell was going on, and the second time it dawned on me, I guess. Tequila good. Mobs bad. New mob wants Hong Kong. Tequila’s girlfriend and daughter kidnapped. Shooting ensues. It doesn’t really matter, and much like Hard Boiled, the plot is just a platform for some amazing firefights.
Using simple trigger controls, you can leap, slide, swing, and shoot in a variety of ways. Using the L trigger, Tequila can slide down banisters, leap through the air, and roll around on trolleys, and of course, the R trigger shoots. There aren’t too many guns, but all of the staples are there and each gun is appropriately overpowered, loud, and of course, they don’t ever need to be reloaded. The RB button puts the world around you into a slow motion daze, giving Tequila a little breathing room to aim a bit better amidst all of the chaos. Kills made while in this mode will earn you more Style Points, a sort of currency that unlocks bonus characters and other supplemental material. During gameplay, they can also be used as fuel for four special powers: a heal, a precise aiming mode, a period of invincibility, or a room-clearing spin attack, all activated with the D-pad. Moving at a frenetic speed, Stranglehold propels you through 8 reasonably long stages filled with baddies, and at the end of each is a challenging boss fight. While the first few levels are a breeze, the difficulty actually hits extreme heights later on, even on the easier difficulty. It can actually be quite cheap, as sometimes scores of foes are all shooting- accurately- towards you and it’s impossible to keep up. Stranglehold also features a nice little multiplayer mode, which pits six players against each other in claustrophobic, intense firefights. It won’t draw anyone away from Rainbow Six, but it’s still a cute addition. Things get especially fun when everyone enters bullet time, because the speed of your aim could mean the difference between victory and a cold, hard defeat.
What does Stranglehold do differently from previous third-person shooters? Not much, to be honest. There is an interesting Standoff mode, where the game shifts into an over-the-shoulder view and forces the player to aim and dodge bullets from all directions. It’s easy at first, but later fights with multiple foes can require some nimble thumbs to come out of alive. There is one colossal, brilliant feature: completely destructible environments. No, not just boxes and crates and barrels that bump around a bit! Everything except the very canvas of the levels can go boom, which makes every encounter an absolute visual joy. Chunks of drywall, wood, plaster, concrete, and whatever else happens to get in your way will bounce around and ricochet realistically thanks to the Unreal 3 engine. To be frank, it’s better than Source. Gears of War and Bioshock may have utilized Unreal 3 for graphics, but Stranglehold proves just how deep a physics engine the platform has. There are no cop-outs, either: every ragdoll-affected body and piece of debris will still be there after the fight is over. The engine doesn’t delete objects to keep the framerate up, but somehow the game stays buttery smooth 99% of the time.
There is a bit of a tradeoff between overall polish and interactivity, but Stranglehold is not by any means ugly. Character models and environments are rendered in great detail, and especially impressive are the facial expressions. Hiding behind a piece of rubble, Chow Yun Fat’s digital face changes from grim determination to that of mild annoyance as a bullet grazes his thigh. Blast an enemy with the slowmo precision aim, and watch him gasp in horror as he twists ridiculously through the air. John Woo’s influence seeps from every corner of the game, from the beautiful fight choreography to the gritty setpieces they take place in. Blood is actually more reminiscent of movies like 300, with a cartoonlike quality that isn’t in the least bit gruesome. It’s all absurdly violent, but with such an obvious disconnection between reality and… well, anything John Woo, it’s hard to be offended.
Even though it isn’t a direct adaptation of a film, Stranglehold is probably the best example of a movie-based game to date. John Woo’s Hong Kong action films are perfect for video games, with plenty of gorgeous visuals to bedazzle the audience, as well as plenty of ridiculous violence that is perfectly captured in the arcadey madness of Stranglehold. Plenty of action flicks could do with a companion game, provided they’re done with this level of quality- Seriously, Quentin Tarantino, are you reading this?- while it’s by no means perfect, Stranglehold is excellent. It proves that simple, old school gameplay is still alive and kicking, and it’s the perfect antidote after the two recent (fantastic, of course) downer games: The heavy, brooding Bioshock, and the moody, depressing The Darkness. It’s a bit too short, and definitely not going to be nominated for any awards for writing, but that’s hardly a gripe; with Woo, it’s the action that counts, and it certainly delivers the Woo promise: Cheesy, over-the-top action with a side of angry Chinaman.