Stranglehold Review

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Publisher: Midway
Developer: Midway

Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

In 1992, a film directed by John Woo defined action films and crystallized Woo's trademark gunplay and stylized violence. Called Hard Boiled internationally, the film introduced Inspector Yuen of the Hong Kong Police, a man played by Chow Yun-Fat and nicknamed Tequila for his favored drink.

In collaboration with John Woo, Midway has brought Inspector Tequila from the big screen to the home console. He's no longer battling gun smugglers to avenge a dead partner. Now he must unravel the web of competition between rival crime syndicates that surrounds the heroine trade, in which his love – and his daughter – have become entangled.

Kyle Ackerman

Stranglehold starts with one of the best menus ever, perfectly capturing the spirit and wild, nail-biting style of Woo's films. Then, within moments of launching the game, I found myself as Inspector Tequila, effortlessly sliding down a railing, slamming onto a rolling cart, and shooting enemies in slow motion ("Tequila Time") all in a single breath. Stranglehold takes even the most uncoordinated gamer and transforms him into the star of a Hong Kong Blood Opera, leaping off walls and firing handguns in a beautiful ballet of bullets.

A Barrage of Beautiful Bullets

Stranglehold is filled with cut scenes that play off Woo's cinematographic style, with dramatic angles, stark lighting and carefully choreographed violence. The earliest scenes are some of the most impressive, with shotgun blasts scattering watermelon flesh throughout the crowd of a packed marketplace and neon signs everywhere shattering in flashes and sparks. Even in actual play, the environment is as powerful a weapon as the rocket launcher, as carefully placed shots can send scaffolding tumbling, fell signs on snipers, or let you swing stylishly from chandeliers while sending a flurry of bullets to topple a statue on a mob of minions.

Tequila can unleash even more impressive moves powered by his ability to make stylish kills. Precision Aim lets him instantaneously target distant enemies and gruesomely execute them. Tequila can shoot a sniper's open mouth, even in a distant tower, and the camera will slowly follow the bullet until the victim clenches his hands in a fruitless attempt to keep the blood from sloughing out of his gaping neck. The Barrage Attack gives Tequila a brief burst of unlimited, powerful ammunition, and you get to see the smoldering look on Chow Yun-Fat's face as he loads the shotgun for burst after burst. Finally, the Spin Attack has Tequila gunning down everyone nearby in a flurry of doves fluttering through the shots.

Barrel to Barrel to Barrel

Stranglehold is one of the most beautiful renditions of violence ever to grace a console. But it is violent – more so than most games, although no more so than a typical Woo film. The combination of a sensitive hit-location system and slow-motion (that has graced games from Max Payne to F.E.A.R) means that in a single dive you can kneecap one gunman and watch him hop while another crumples around a shot in the groin and a third falls over thanks to a gaping head wound. As with Woo films, sometimes the game borders on a pornography of violence, joyously celebrating the glory of a carefully choreographed sequence of empty shell casings.

Nowhere is that more true than in Stranglehold's stand-offs. Amazingly, Stranglehold manages to get Woo's trademark stand-offs spot on. Inspector Tequila regularly walks into an ambush, training his twin pistols on a group of circling gunmen. He then dodges and weaves, as he plants shots squarely into every enemy. Stranglehold pulls this off by having the player lean with one stick to dodge incoming bullets and use the other stick to aim, with mere moments to hit every assassin. It's incredibly dramatic, but doable, and really captures the feeling of those wild moments on film, right down to the camera angle and occasional exploding fire extinguisher.

Everyone with the remotest interest in action games should play through the first level of Stranglehold. The incredible pacing and wild dives as you eliminate a fraction of Hong Kong's population are amazing. Plentiful ammo promotes pacing, and Stranglehold is one of the few games that doesn't force you to slow down, instead rushing you through regions in an ongoing dance of destruction.

A Victim of Gaming's Formulae

When Stranglehold falters, it's because the game drops the stylized violence that is its strength, to become more gamey. Honestly, the amazing violence in an environment that is equal parts skate park and shrapnel-in-waiting is enough to keep the game engaging for hours. But the developers felt a need to provide more than a sandbox of death. Early on, players are forced into the formulaic destroy X items or deliver X packages. In the right sequence, the pace keeps rolling. Unfortunately, the targets and bombs fail to add to the game, while missing a single one entirely breaks the perfect pacing as Tequila backtracks through the level.

The one rail shooter sequence works really well, but boss fights are antithetical to what makes Stranglehold great. The glory of the game is in felling dozens of foes, not shooting the same one over and over after learning his patterns. It's even worse in one sequence when mines attached to laser tripwires force Tequila to move with care. What fun is fighting a boss when you can't leap and dive without certain death? Also, in an effort to step up the difficulty, enemies become increasingly harder to kill, requiring almost as many shots to down as Inspector Tequila on a good day in the bar. The environments (like the museum) also get more exciting, but not enough to offset the annoyance caused by men who can survive a point-blank blast from a shotgun.

Stranglehold also offers multiplayer modes, but these aren't nearly as entertaining as the single player game. Alone, I had a dynamo of an antihero, a tale of passion and revenge, and special abilities with which to fell thousands of enemies. In multiplayer, everyone has the same powers. And because the powers only work when powered by the Tequila Bomb Gauge, the first player to find an origami crane (that fills the gauge) will execute other players with his special attacks. It's like returning to the earliest days of deathmatch, with victory going to he with the best knowledge of the map.

If you haven't, you really must play the opening sequences of Stranglehold. As for the rest of the game, it would have been stronger as a five-hour game of unending, stylish action rather than an eight hour game prolonged by multiple attempts at boss battles and hunting for that last drug table to destroy. But there's still more than enough gorgeous destruction at your fingertips to make Stranglehold a worthwhile journey.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on September 19, 2007 10:46 PM.

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