John Woo’s action classic Hard Boiled gets a digital sequel.
Who made it?: Midway Chicago/Tiger Hill Entertainment (Developers), Midway Games (Publisher).
Genre: Third-Person Shooter/Action.
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC.
Format: Blu-ray disc, DVD.
Games can be the most entertaining form of media available if interesting ideas are put into the right hands. 2001’s Max Payne and its sequels managed to take the magic captured in Honk Kong action cinema and translate it perfectly into the gaming universe. A well-written, intelligent plot and superb voice-acting complimented a game that was, otherwise, an amalgamation of highly stylised Matrix-esque action sequences and Film Noir visuals. Enter Midway and Tiger Hill’s John Woo Presents Stranglehold. Funny how Max Payne, a game that openly borrowed from Woo’s films (namely his 1992 classic Hard Boiled) is generally seen as the precursor to the “slow-mo” movement in interactive media. It’s interesting to note that without Woo’s style-over-substance directorial prowess and long, drawn-out gun battles that take place in most of his films (especially Hard Boiled), there would be no Max Payne. So where does that leave Stranglehold? Some call it an inferior retread of a classier, more accomplished title. Others hail it as the defining moment in games when the world of movies were perfectly recreated for the player’s own amusement. I’m in the latter category. Thanks to endless gameplay innovations and the power of next-gen hardware, Stranglehold is able to be what Max Payne only hinted at a decade ago: total immersion.
The Woo trademarks were certainly there in Max Payne‘s case; diving through the air in slow-motion, dual pistols, sliding across surfaces with the aforementioned guns drawn, big explosions etc. And Max Payne 2 certainly upped the ante graphically and plot-wise. But that is probably my biggest complaint with Stranglehold. Its incredibly basic story is just one big excuse in which to cause wanton destruction. There is nothing satisfactory about the game’s story, and you will not be better off for having endured its cutscenes. It screams senseless melodrama, but that is also a Woo trademark.
Gameplay is where Stranglehold really shines. Max Payne was, by and large, an innovator all those years ago. No-one had ever played a title where you could alternate between real-time and “Bullet Time” in an action game. Stranglehold succeeds in that it directly mirrors Woo’s Hard Boiled and functions as an actual sequel, following Chow Yun-fat’s Inspector “Tequila” Yuen. The legendary star lends his likeness and vocals to the game, making it more than the average tie-in. Like the ’92 film, you can do everything from engaging in standoffs (either shooting your foe or killing him with the environment), to sliding down banisters, jumping off walls, diving through the air, swinging from chandeliers, and using “roll carts” to careen towards your enemies. All of this whilst shooting non-stop like an imbecile. There is no reload button, which really gives you, the player, a sense of being in a genuine Woo flick.
There is also the Massive D(estructability) engine created specifically for Stranglehold that plays a large part in its success. Had the game played like any other third-person shooter, only with the gimmick of Bullet Time (now called “Tequila Time”), it would have likely fared much worse with fans and critics. Massive D allows for nearly every single object in the game to be destroyed. Objects aren’t just destructible at certain locations, rather, they are FULLY destructible, and you can use this to your advantage greatly. Shooting a sign above an enemy will cause it to fall down and kill him in a satisfying way. The same can be done with statues that may be looming over them. Lights, air conditioners, and nearly every other object in the game can be shot to have the same effect. But this can also be a detriment to you, as well. Your cover can literally be destroyed. Kick up a table by pressing LB next to it and, within seconds, it will be nothing but shredded splinters. Take cover onto posts and watch as pieces of brick and plaster fly apart to reveal portions of your body. It really is amazing to watch this engine work. Nothing is predetermined, as I’ve mentioned. The damage made to objects is 100% random.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the “Tequila Bombs.” As you progress throughout the singleplayer portion of the game, you unlock one Tequila Bomb at a time, at separate times. They are controlled by the D-Pad. Pressing left slightly refills your health meter, pressing up allows you to use Precision Aim, right is Barrage, and down is the Spin Attack. “Precision Aim” finds Tequila focusing on one target, firing one round, and will result – based on where your foe is hit – in a plethora of predetermined death animations. Something of an in-game cutscene. “Barrage” allows you to fire off incredibly rapid shots whilst sustaining no damage, whereas the “Spin Attack” lets Tequila spin 360 degrees and, whether there are four enemies on-screen or fourteen, he will shoot them all. You can collect paper cranes (a nod to Hard Boiled) scattered throughout stages of each chapter to refill your Tequila Bomb gauge every so often.
Unsurprisingly, Stranglehold is powered by the Unreal 3 Engine, though I can’t say it’s one of the better-looking games using this recent technology. For a better representation of what this engine can do, take a look at Gears of War, Turok or the excellent Army of Two. Although Stranglehold‘s textures look great within more abundantly lit areas, in darker locales they tend to look rather murky and indistinguishable. I will give the developers credit for discarding the industrial look of the engine and creating environs that are much more open and grandiose, however. The character models, as per usual with the engine, look the best. Environments are lit well and feature some nice post-processing, but each section looks far too similar and suffers from some mildly low-res texturing.
Perhaps the one thing Stranglehold has over any other action game of this ilk, including Max Payne, is its sound design. Weapon sounds are fantastic, music is loud and bombastic, and voice-acting is supplied by a host of talents, led commendably by Yun-fat. His presence alone adds an air of credibility to the game that would have been sorely missed otherwise.
With the Collector’s Edition of Stranglehold, Midway saw fit to include a fantastic bonus disc, as well as cover art that, I personally think, is miles ahead of the standard. The bonus disc contains a wealth of features, such as a great making-of documentary, extended cinematics (with comparisons to early storyboards), a trailer for the Dragon Dynasty DVD of Hard Boiled, a sound design featurette, and more. If you can still find this edition, it’s well worth the money. Fans of the game will definitely appreciate the behind-the-scenes info these documentaries dish out.
In a nutshell, Stranglehold is NOT for everybody and I say that very loudly. Personally, I’m a big John Woo fan. From Hard Boiled to Face/Off to Windtalkers, I love the man’s work through and through, and odds are that if you admire his films as much as I do, Stranglehold is a game for you. It has style, class, an amazing physics engine, and more action than you could ever want. Sure, some people are going to complain about its length (between six to eight hours), its lackluster AI, and repetitive gameplay, but that is what makes Stranglehold such a unique experience. Well, not so much the length, but certainly the continuity in action that some folks mistake for repetition. It really is both a sequel and something of a tribute to Hard Boiled. Woo fans will love it to pieces. Everyone else might not understand why its so fantastic.
- The first time John Woo and Chow Yun-fat had collaborated since Hard Boiled. They also made The Killer together.
- At one point, an new film sequel was going to be made based on the game, before the producers considered making a prequel with a much younger Tequila instead. Presumably, the project fell apart after Midway’s bankruptcy.