Action Ballet. These two words can easily summarize the famed work of Hong Kong movie director John Woo. His films are some of the most intense and visceral pieces of cinema ever created, not to mention perfectly designed for videogame translation. Stranglehold is the “love child” of this union and for the most part it retains the same sense of style you would expect from a project bearing Woo’s name. All of the staples make a cameo including slow-mo diving, overly dramatic face-offs, dual-pistol action, and of course the doves. While these aspects do a nice job of giving the game a fresh face among its peers underneath it is still an orgy of violence with seemingly endless rounds of ammunition and thoroughly destructible environments.
In Stranglehold you will slap on the badge of Inspector Tequila played by Chow Yun-Fat, complete with English voice overs from the man himself. The story itself seems almost convoluted at times and generally is just a catalyst for you to continue kicking ass and taking names. Granted it is a sequel to Woo’s acclaimed Hard Boiled, but then again I have yet to meet someone who watched that fabulous piece of cinema for its dialogue and in-depth storyline. The theme of the game is kill, rinse and repeat and for the most part it is executed nearly perfect.
The core game is broken down into seven lengthy chapters and range from simple city streets to hotel penthouses. Each level consists of some of the most destructible environments I have ever seen in a game. Tables splinter into toothpicks, fruit is scattered and smashed about, and you can even use these as weapons. Knock down an air conditioner above an enemy’s head and watch his skull collapse, drive a bullet through a propane tank and watch the bodies light up. These unique moments are what make playing through the game more than once less of a chore as there are seemingly endless ways to dispose of your foes.
This dynamic is also tied to what is called a style meter. Each time you take down an enemy you are awarded style points depending on how creative you are with your kills. You can also string these together and earn huge style points that are used to unlock bonus skins for multi-player, videos and artwork, and of course the proverbial Achievement points in the Xbox 360 version of the game. These points will also add juice to your Tequila Bombs, which become more fundamental the further you progress into the game.
There are four total special moves that you will obtain throughout the game. The first is of course heal, which as the name states will supply you with a small amount of health in a tight spot. The second is called precision aim, in this mode you can slow down time and carefully aim one shot at an enemy. The coolest part of this move is that the devs have actually added over twenty different hit zones that you get various results for. Aim for the throat and watch them gasp for air, aim for the daddy parts and hilarity ensues.
The last two are easily the most effective which is probably why they require the most juice to use. The first is barrage which gives you temporary invincibility and a rapid-firing weapon. This is best used when faced with a large group of enemies. The final power called the spin attack is basically a smart bomb that eliminates every enemy in the room complete with slow-motion spinning and of course doves surrounding you. The coolness of this move is further accented by the fact that every time you use it is unique. It actually uses the in-game engine to create a dramatic slow-motion shot of each enemy in the room, which is really a nice touch.
Of course all of these fancy skills are inane if the gunplay is second rate. Thankfully the folks at Tiger Hill have had experience in the action genre and with Stranglehold they borrowed from the best. From the minute you pick up the controller you will have flashbacks of Remedy’s excellent Max Payne title from a few years back. It is ironic that the game that inspired Stranglehold was actually inspired by John Woo’s original content and style. Regardless it works, and most of the time it works well.
Weapon selection is always a key component to an action game and Stranglehold delivers a simply average layout. Your main firearm will always be dual-wielding Berettas, but you will also come across an M4 carbine, a shotgun, dual wielding SMGs, a rocket launcher, and the power house M249 for the spray-and-pray players out there. The roster is slim, but does include all the essentials. It would have been nice to see some clever guns like a grenade launcher or even a flame thrower, but alas there are plenty of tools here. Another nice element is that Tequila never has to reload, which keeps the games frantic pace flowing smoothly. There are some instances in this title where stopping to reload even once would certainly result in death.
The problems with Stranglehold’s combat arise when repetition begins to set in. During the final stretch of the single-player I found myself at times wondering if these waves of enemies were ever going to end. It’s kind of like looking at your watch during a movie; it’s never a good sign. The face offs are also part of the problem. During the first few levels I found them entertaining and a nice break from the action. By the end of the game they had become so hard and tedious I always dreaded when one popped up. The main game can be completed in as little as seven hours which is probably a good thing as any longer and the repetition would have really begun to shine through. There is plenty to go back for in the form of Achievements, unlockable items and skins for multi-player, and of course discovering new ways to take out enemies, but for most players once will be more than enough.
Visually the game is a mixed bag. From one perspective the models and environments are very detailed and look great at first glance. The problem arises when you factor in the amount of destruction that can be created in each environment and you begin to realize that player animations and sometimes, not often, the frame rate will suffer. Most of the time none of this will matter though as the game moves so fast and has you doing so much at once it is hard to realize it. One standout is definitely the rain level as the water effects are simply amazing.
While the main game is only a half-dozen hours there is a multi-player component that will likely entertain most gamers willing to give it a shot. There are only two modes, deathmatch and team deathmatch and it becomes hectic when players all have access to Tequila Bomb powers, but it does offer a nice diversion from the single-player experience. Granted this online mode won’t set the world on fire or re-invent the wheel of online shooter, it is worth checking out simply because it is a new twist on the genre.
In a seemingly overcrowded genre it is nice to finally play something that feels great and delivers simple satisfaction from the outset. Stranglehold is a mindless shooter with a forgettable story, camera problems, and length issues, but it is still more fun than 90% of the other games out there. What it lacks in substance it makes up for with pure style making it one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in a long time. If you are a fan of action games or movies then there is no reason to miss this extraordinary experience; for everyone else you more than likely won’t understand what all the fuss is about.