Sept 4, 2007
Here’s cool: slow motion diving through the air, pistol in each hand, taking out all 15 baddies in the room. There’s no denying this. Now do it sliding down a banister, riding belly-first on a trolley, or gliding along the back of a museum dinosaur.
No one can call into question the inherent coolness of John Woo’s gun-toting action style - although perhaps they might want to ponder on the overall quality of his later films (cough-Broken Arrow-cough). Stranglehold is a sequel of sorts to his 1992 Hong Kong film, Hard Boiled, with Woo there to direct the cutscenes to match his familiar policy of action before story, and to ensure the game has a suitable body count.
So things stay true to Woo’s early “Heroic Bloodshed” genre of filmmaking. Insane amounts of bullet-based slaughter are combined with a dumb sentimental story, in which the ex-wife and daughter of Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) are kidnapped by crime lords intent on taking over Hong Kong. Pesky crime lords. With this excuse in place, Tequila is ready to disobey orders and kill absolutely every human being he encounters, from Hong Kong to Chicago, ideally in slow-motion. Or indeed, in “Tequila Time,” as it is so imaginatively called. And if you’re thinking about the oh-so-shooty Max Payne right now, you’re on the right wavelength.
Pretty much all jumpy movement is mapped to a single button, whether it’s diving forward over obstacles, leaping backward onto your ass, jumping onto a railing, or sliding down a banister. The bullet time kicks in if there’s anyone in your gunsight to shoot at, everything turning a sepia-brown, bullet traces gliding past your head.
At first this seems like it might become a tad annoying, but it reveals itself as a reasonably neat idea. If you string together such moments you receive rewards in the form of “Style” points on your Tequila Bomb Gauge, which enable you to access your next wave of special abilities. As such, it encourages “stylish” play where you could probably get away with more mundane real-time shooting. It pushes you into being cool, choosing to ride on a trolley like a child pretending to be Superman, rather than walking down a corridor. Such lavish behavior fills the Tequila Bomb Gauge, letting you choose between Health Boost (healing yourself a bit), Precision Aim (a splendid slo-mo snipe mode that lets you target specific body parts), Frenzy (a short period of invulnerability with infinite ammo), and the Tequila Bomb, where you spin around in circles killing everyone nearby... while somehow producing doves. Like a 1970s magician on the day his mind snapped. Mostly you’ll be getting wounded, and so to make sure you’ve got an emergency supply of life force, it’s always worth playing for the pretties.
The auto bullet time gets a bit more frustrating in moments that require more finesse. While Tequila is nowhere near as manically clumsy as his brother-in-slo-mo Max, the auto-controls cause trouble when, say, negotiating tight corridors of laser-triggered bombs. Once an animation has been initiated, he’s going to see it through, no matter how grisly the impending death might be. “Stop SLIDING!” we shouted, but the stubborn cop refused to comply. But beyond this, it’s always lots of fun to be in Tequila Time (there’s an option to enter it at will, with a strict time limit). Another niggle - why does the world go sepia-toned in this mode? It makes things more difficult to see, which surely is the opposite of the point. Not a huge issue, but odd.
About halfway through their game the developers seem to lose spirit, and it devolves. The whoops and cheers fade. Most of those inventive moments of manipulating the environment to destructive ends disappear. Shooting out a rooftop blockade to drop exploding barrels into a drug den, then exploding the whole lot in one massive paroxysm of fire, is just a memory. Instead you’re often stuck in large rooms, fighting off wave after wave after wave of enemies, with no checkpoints to stagger the battle should you die. When outdoors, it’s simply a case of shoot everything, move on, shoot everything.
The comparisons with Max Payne are impossible to ignore. In fairness, that’s in large part due to Payne’s developers Remedy having based their game on the films of Woo in the first place. Where that game had joyfully over-blown noir, Stranglehold goes for action movie grunting. Every line in every cutscene is such a cliché you wonder if it’s meant to be a parody. The straight po-faces portrayed throughout deny this, however.
When it shines, it shines brightly. During intensive fire fights it can look stunning, with blood spurting, fire raging, and bullet tracers carving up the view. And importantly, Stranglehold brings back some classics of action gaming that deserve a fresh showing. Since the game is easily finished in eight hours, it’s not as if you’re struggling with the boring bits for long. It’s just that the excellent rampages that preceded them cast a long shadow. The trick is, don’t sit down to play this in one session. After a decent break, picking it up at any point is entertaining. The Precision Aim is never boring, but the bullet time antics can start to feel mundane. Do a chapter a day - then it will last you a week.
If the imaginative approach of the Hong Kong levels could have reached Chicago, we’d be hoarse from cheering. As it is, we’re smiling with nostalgia for those days of four hours ago.