IGN Review of John Woo Presents Stranglehold
Stranglehold is John Woo's first foray into videogames. Whether Woo was intimately involved in guiding Stranglehold or more of a watchful father, his influence can be felt in every frame. Midway has managed to capture the essence of a Woo film -- in some ways more than Woo has over the past decade. You get everything a fan could ask for: excessive gunplay, heavily stylized cinematic moments, melodrama, slow-motion dives, dual-fisted pistols, and, of course, doves aplenty. Some have called Woo's films a beautiful ballet of violence. Stranglehold is less ballet and more a mosh pit of bullets. Either way, lots of people die and little in the environment is left standing once the smoke clears.
The spiritual successor to one of Woo's most popular films, Stranglehold puts you in the shoes of famed Inspector Tequila. Chow Yun Fat comes stateside to reprise his role (though this time in English), adding a level of authenticity. The story is convoluted -- something about a kidnapped girl, a dead cop, and drug money. The cut-scenes are sometimes dripping with melodrama. But that's a good thing. Melodrama is a John Woo signature move and, like so much in Stranglehold, it helps immerse gamers in the world of Hard Boiled.
As Tequila, your job is to shoot first and never ask questions. You'll be tasked with storming through seven chapters, each of which is a lengthy expedition of violence. You'll travel through Hong Kong, from the marketplace to an extravagant restaurant/casino and on to the main villain's palatial stronghold. From start to finish every level is overcrowded with enemies and your main objective in almost all of the missions is to kill everyone and proceed towards the exit. Don't worry, Inspector Tequila isn't traveling alone. He's brought friends.
Your buddies in Stranglehold are a reliable pair of Beretta pistols. Though you do have a limited amount of ammunition, you never have to reload. This is a brilliant concept because reloading only slows down the action. And Stranglehold is not the type of game that benefits from any pause in the action. This is a full throttle balls-to-the-wall shooter. In fact, if you had to take the time to hit a button to reload, you'd probably be dead before a fresh clip was in your gun. Even in the pussy-footin' first level, you find yourself surrounded by enemies, being shot from all directions. Good thing Tequila is tough enough to shrug off a few thousand bullets over the course of Stranglehold.
If you get tired of the Berettas, there are several other weapons to choose from as you progress through Stranglehold. Among these are an M4 Carbine assault rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, and an M249 light machine gun. You only get one weapon type per class (with the exception of the extremely powerful gold Berettas). It would have been nice to have a bit more variety in the weapons (and a flamethrower), but Midway touches on most of the essentials. Though modeled after real weapons, there's no realism in the execution. The shotty can kill from long range, for example. But Stranglehold isn't about realism -- it's about kicking a whole lot of ass.
To assist in this ass-kicking, Tequila gains access to four different powers while progressing through the seven chapters of Stranglehold. These "Tequila Bombs" are all potent powers essential for completing Woo's sequel to Hard Boiled. The Bombs are each assigned to a direction on the D-Pad. As you perform stylish kills, you'll begin filling your Tequila meter. As the meter fills, you can call in more powerful Tequila Bombs.
The first level of Tequila juice gets you a boost of health, which is like carrying around a medipack. Second up is Precision Aiming. When initiated, time slows and you zoom in on the nearest enemy. You then have several seconds to aim at any body part and fire a single bullet for massive damage. Each hit location has multiple animations. Shoot someone in the throat and they may clutch the wound and attempt (unsuccessfully) to utter a final word. Or be cruel and shoot a baddie in the good 'n' plenty. He'll grab at his missing member before falling over into a merciful blackness.
The third rung earns you Barrage, the most useful of the Bombs. Once selected, Tequila loads up the weapon of choice with bullets. You now have a good 20 seconds of enhanced firepower and invulnerability. With Barrage, you can tear through the environment (particularly with the shotgun) and lay waste to enemies. While many will drool over Stranglehold's slick slow-motion options and environmental interaction, for my money, Barrage is the most stunning element in the entire game. It's beautifully brutal -- especially with a rocket launcher in hand.
Lastly, you acquire the smart bomb. Hit up this final Tequila Bomb and the good Inspector spins in a circle, firing with stunning accuracy. As doves flutter about, Tequila kills every enemy on screen. It's a useful power, though it does take away the fundamental element of Stranglehold -- killing people yourself.
Each of the Bombs has its uses and initially you may find yourself ignoring them for the satisfaction of using normal gunplay to end the lives of each enemy. However, about halfway through Stranglehold, the difficulty gets a serious ratcheting up and it becomes almost impossible to complete the game without making use of the Bombs. Fortunately, you will be killing so many enemies in the final three levels that your Tequila meter fills quickly, allowing you to make use of the Bombs with great regularity.
Of course, no Woo movie would be complete without some slow-motion kills. These come in bunches. In fact, a good majority of Stranglehold is played at a slower speed. On the HUD, just below your health, is a Tequila Time meter. You can enter this manually with a tap of a button. The screen is washed in a sepia tone, bullets can be seen as they slowly approach, and Tequila can aim more easily. The meter runs out quickly, but fills almost as fast.
Tequila Time also engages any time you interact with the environment or dive. L1 is your greatest ally. Hold L1 to dive in any direction. Time slows and people die. If you're near an object (railing, chandelier, wall, roll cart, etc.) Tequila will interact with that object and (again) time will slow. This allows for some truly cool moments. You'll be sliding down banisters, running up the spines of fossilized dinosaurs, swinging from chandeliers, and sliding across the tops of counters, popping enemies as you go.
Quite a lot of things in the environment are interactive. And you'll know about each one, as Stranglehold has every item flashing. "Hey, over here, Tequila! It's me, your old friend the banister. Come run along me!" I would hope gamers aren't so stupid that they need their hand held through every single level. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that after the first "training" level, gamers will get the idea. It gets a little bit obnoxious after a while to see the environment flashing and actually takes away some of the fun of discovering new areas of interaction.
The real problem, however, is that the interactive elements are buggy. You'll be next to a railing, hit L1 and dive forward instead of hopping onto the rail. Or you will face a wall, expect to plant your feet and push off as you've done in the past, only to find Tequila standing motionless staring at the wall like an idiot. Now, 90% of the time, the interaction works perfectly. But that's still 10% of the time when you will meet frustration. And this is really the greatest flaw in Stranglehold, because the lack of a fluid interaction system hurts one of the title's strongest selling points.
Should you get frustrated at any of the failed interactions, you can always take it out on the environment. Just about everything in Stranglehold is destructible. Tables splinter, support columns shatter, and every spot of cover quickly erodes. Every bullet needs to go somewhere. In the chaos of the many arena battles, the game world is often left in a heaping mess. This affects gameplay, because in later stages you'll be forced to take cover. But almost every piece of cover will be destroyed given time, forcing you to move forward and never allowing the action to slow for too long.
The high level of destruction takes a toll on the visuals. While the environments look great, the characters come off as generic, with a very limited set of animations. Stranglehold has a lot of cinematic flair, but lacks the visual pop I'd expected. Considering that apples scatter when shot off a table and a dozen enemies are on screen at almost every moment, the weakened visual fidelity is forgivable. Even with today's technology, there are still limits to what can be done on screen.
None of this excuses Stranglehold's most pressing issue: the camera. It becomes a considerable problem when leaping off walls or otherwise shifting your body in another direction. You have to manually adjust the camera to follow your movements, which is a real challenge in such a fast-paced game. However, if you turn on the "camera spring" option, this issue largely goes away. Why this wasn't made the default is curious, because Stranglehold is a much better game without the nagging camera concerns.
Another staple of Woo films are standoffs, where Tequila finds himself staring down the barrel of several guns. These moments are recreated in about a half-dozen standoff mini-games during play. For standoffs, the controls change slightly. Tequila stands still, but you can lean left and right to dodge the incoming bullets from enemies. At the same time as you are dodging, you must also aim your shot and take down the other members of the standoff. You only have a couple of seconds to take an enemy out before Tequila spins and faces the next villain and the sequence repeats. This becomes quite challenging towards the latter part of Stranglehold. Though people will come for the fast-paced action, the standoffs were my favorite part of Stranglehold. They're tense and exciting.
The single-player game only lasts 6-8 hours. On the bright side, that's four times the length of Hard Boiled. But, then again, this is $60 we're talking about. Stranglehold features online multiplayer for up to six players. It's only deathmatch and team deathmatch, which take place in a variety of locales from the game. Each match is complete and utter chaos. Every player has access to the various Tequila Bombs and can (sometimes) enter slow motion. None of this really comes together though, as players need to be in slow motion at the same time, so that there's no real advantage to using Stranglehold's primary gameplay element. And the Precision Aiming power still has the same slow-mo reticule movements, but the other players are moving in real time, so it's pretty much impossible to use.
While the multiplayer doesn't come together as well as it should, it's still an interesting experiment. Anyone who picks up Stranglehold should give the multiplayer a shot at least once, just to experience the insanity. But this isn't something that will have people playing Stranglehold for the next year.
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