Remember Shenmue II’s Kowloon Walled City act on the final disc? Pervasive grime, oppressive tower blocks and a downtrodden citizenry played off of the sharp suited gangsters, oft blue skies and beauty of the surrounding countryside and relative grandeur of other nearby urban areas. It was a filthy hive of despair and degradation populated by society’s lost and forgotten. AM2 did a startling job of conveying the human cost of poverty and non-existent sanitation, with many unwittingly caught up in gangland brutality as they tried to live as normally as possible.
The now destroyed slum is also featured in Stranglehold, the video game sequel to John Woo’s classic action flick Hard Boiled. Somehow, the version portrayed here – as the title’s penultimate level in fact – is inhabited exclusively by hundreds of insane Triads wearing a variety of garish suits, all fixated on annihilating our protagonist, Inspector Tequila. With none of the subtlety evident in Shenmue, it’s just another place to blast dozens of goons in the face with a shotgun.
Arguably it’s an unfair comparison; after all, Stranglehold is not a subdued game and doesn’t aim to be. But with its instantly recognisable tenements and interiors near identical to Sega’s masterpiece, the casual destruction by the player character of an area so deprived as the Walled City leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Tequila is meant to be the good guy in all of this – the overlong and confusing cut scenes going to some pains to stress that point – but with a murder rate exceeding even the most proficient serial killer and a utter lack of empathy, it’s tough to relate to him.
We’re not here for story, of course, but if my popping of caps in ass after ass without compunction feels at odds with the character’s heroic portrayal, unease is only natural. To some, this is insignificant. Many, in fact, will skip those drawn out plot sequences altogether, and they’re hardly to blame. If the product makes an attempt at storytelling, however, its direness should at least be highlighted. Those of us here for some mindless blasting – that’ll be everyone, then – will be happy to know that it’s not entirely worthless, and the four hours it lasts are at least entertaining ones.
Gameplay-wise it’s very Max Payne with the benefit of having played Gears of War to death. He may be a heartless bastard, but to his credit, Tequila has balls the size of gala melons and a taste for blood matched only by the humble great white shark. In other words, there’s a lot of murdering to be done, much of it in slow motion whilst leaping dramatically through the air. Stranglehold cranks the style metre to the max and doesn’t waste time in keeping weapons and abilities from the player for too long, with a sizeable “Tequila time” bar available from the off and access to automatic shotguns, high-powered golden pistols and a zoomed “precision” ability granted within the first five minutes.
This flurry of blasting and ragdoll death animations doesn’t let up, and sees the player merrily slaughtering foes through seven different locations including the streets of Hong Kong (capped by an awesome sequence in a bar), a penthouse flat and the Chicago History Museum of all places. Scenery is impressively destructible, and you don’t know how much flying chunks of kitchen tiling add to the experience until you’ve seen it for yourself. A half-baked cover system is available, but other than that there’s little frippery and the core mechanics are as bare bones as you’ll find. There’s a shoot button, an action button… actually, that’s about it. Though there are obvious benefits to be found in such simplicity, the big drawback is that it gets stale quickly. The smooth contextual moves are all well and good, but they’re rarely practical in any sense. It’s unambiguously rad the first couple of times, but after that one begins to question what tangible tactical advantage can come from slowly rolling around on a wheeled cart or sliding awkwardly down a banister. Add wave after wave of enemies entering a single room and preposterously heavy gating into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for dull.
Thankfully, the frequent aesthetic changes provide sufficient respite to hold interest until it limps its way to a contrived and laughably bad conclusion. For what it’s worth, it was “fun” for a while. Awful boss encounters and wonky camera notwithstanding, the streamlined combat trundles along well enough, the absence of reloads and proliferation of explodey-things punctuating a functional if workmanlike system of point and shoot. The visuals, sound effects and music are designed to blend in – not particularly of note, but complementing the atmosphere where necessary.
So there you have it, a nice, “solid” shooter.
“Play by your own rules if you want, but the law-bringer façade fades in inverse proportion to the body count.”No. Solid is not enough. The stunted length is arguably its most valuable trait, because by the seventh and final stage breaking point was dangerously near to hand. Stranglehold’s main issue is that we’ve seen it billions of times before, so much so that that very statement in itself is trite nonsense. It’s an uninspired trudge that, for all the flashy jumping about and realistically deforming cardboard boxes, can’t hide its simplistic centre and unchanging gameplay. A couple of abilities are introduced later on – a “nutter mode” and “kill everyone in sight as doves fly out your arse” trick respectively – but it’s essentially a dormant beast on auto-pilot, one that ironically has to artificially lengthen itself with scores of respawning enemies, scattergun checkpointing, cheap difficulty spikes and inexplicably protracted story scenes that portray the vicious central character as a mere loose cannon cop. Play by your own rules if you want, but the law-bringer façade fades in inverse proportion to the body count.
As a proponent of style as substance’s equal, it should be easy for me to recommend Stranglehold. Looking for some instantly gratifying, brain-dead clicky-bang-bang on the cheap? By all means go for it. In the pantheon of gaming’s great actioners, though, it struggles to stand on its own two feet. Fitting, then, given the amount of time Tequila spends soaring through the air.