As I recall, the demos for Stranglehold and BioShock came out fairly close to one another. I certainly played them both on the same day. It was weird. It was like videogames' past had decided to pick a fight with its possible future.
The interesting thing is that, just as Rapture found its perfect custodians with the gloomy geniuses at Irrational, John Woo and Inspector Tequila fit right in at Midway. Particularly with regard to the the schlocky smarts of the Psi-Ops team handing the heroic bloodshed.
Midway - the home of Total Carnage and Mortal Kombat - always seemed to be the last hold-out of the arcade industry's sticky-floored, smoke-ridden origins. Not the refined, Street Fighter II kind of arcade experience, mind, but the coin-guzzling, gunfire-spewing, flashing-lights-and-dismemberment kind. Midway offered up colourful ketchup 'n' mustard exploitation and tended to serve it hot.
I often imagine the company's headquarters looking a bit like the back room of a run-down independent video store from the eighties: the blinds are pulled shut even though it's sunny outside, exotic warfare blares from tinny speakers buried beneath piles of laundry, dust hangs in the air and the whole place smells of men who probably have other places they should be.
Is it fair to describe Stranglehold as representing the past of videogames? The back of the box would argue that it certainly isn't, offering transmedia cuteness (Stranglehold's the sequel to John Woo's Hard Boiled), next-gen gimmickry such as location-based body damage and destructible environments, and plenty of Havok physics to mark this out as a modern videogame.
In truth, though, I'm not so sure about all that. What I love about Stranglehold - and I certainly do love it - is that it uses new tricks to deliver age-old pleasures. It's like putting that picture of dogs playing poker in a fancy frame you just picked up at Habitat.
That's not to say Stranglehold doesn't take its lineage seriously. From Hard Boiled, Midway's game inherits elegant slow-motion gunplay, cut-scenes that turn out to be a touch more stylish than most and a narrative tendency to become both inanely soap operatic and utterly confusing.
It also nabs Inspector Tequila and Chow Yun Fat, one of the most likeable of cinema presences even when he's grimacing through wretched toss like the last Pirates film. Tequila's his landmark role, though. He's best cast as a good man in a bad world - a good man who will make the bad world better by riddling it with bullets.
Tequila is the heart of the game, and not just because his is the only character model which isn't a gawping plastic-haired horror. His animation has a quiet stylishness to it even when he's just walking or reloading his smoking guns. The game moves at his elegant pace, automatically shifting into slow-mo Tequila Time whenever he slides across the floor, springs into the air or glides over a table while targeting an enemy.
Most of this stuff was stolen from Max Payne, granted. But Max Payne almost certainly nabbed it from Woo in the first place, so who's counting? All that matters is that Tequila Time adds an addictive style-based combo system to proceedings which games like Bulletstorm are only now starting to rework.
This allows every gunfight to feel like an event. You aim not just for kills but truly cinematic kills, shooting enemies down before they've drawn a bead on you as you swing from a restaurant lantern, kicking a table over to take cover and deal out headshots or wiping out a whole gang by flattening them beneath an advertising hoarding.
Standoffs, meanwhile, put you into fixed-position bullet exchanges which often involve so many participants you'll wonder where everyone managed to find a parking space prior to the ambush. Even the menu screens deliver balletic Tequila at his best, freeze-framing pretty chunks of catastrophe in a manner that's perfectly judged and strangely classy.
Stranglehold's brilliant, then, not just because it's captured cinematic gunplay, but because it's captured cinematic gunplay in the same leaping, bellowing, splay-legged way kids re-enact it in the playground - taking breathy cover against the assembly hall wall, or ducking behind a bus stop before popping out to put an imaginary bullet in a nearby dinner lady.
On top of all that Stranglehold layers on power-ups, known as Tequila Bombs. These are earned with really fancy murder. The first simply allows you a health boost, while the second gives you an after-touch sniper shot the designers would really like you to use in order to steer bullets into enemies' nuts.
The third and fourth are a lot more fun. Barrage sees you overcharging your weapons to become a demented bullet-spewing freight train of well-coiffed justice. The Spin Attack represents John Woo's entire approach to character development, exposition, theme, emotion and montage all rolled into 15 seconds.
You turn on the spot, lead sings through the air, enemies fall over and doves take to the skies. Doves. Even when you're indoors. It's brilliant and effective and insane and hilarious.
Stranglehold also chucks you through a series of lovely environments, ripe for being transformed into kindling. All of them fit with the fiction - there are slums, temples and a "Mega Restaurant" where you must hold off waves of gun-toting loons and at least two speedboats which pop through the walls. There's even a museum where you can sprint smartly along the spine of a dinosaur as you fire off shots, earning an Achievement for your troubles.
Yes, many of the game's levels go slightly awry, prodding you into dull bottlenecks or piling on drab objectives and difficulty spikes. But just as many showcase excellent racing-line shooter design, highlighting railings, telegraph poles and bannisters you might want to chain together, while stringing groups of enemies out beneath teetering piles of heavy boxes you can bring down on their heads.
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The new chunk of downloadable content for the superbly over-the-top action blaster Stranglehold brings all that you would expect, including new skins and levels. Now with higher dove resolution!
I remember riding a tea-trolley through the Chicago level for what seemed like a decade, twisting and turning as enemies kept spewing out of doors and Ming vases whispered, Smash me, Christian! Bust me to tiny little pieces like that guy in the old Prudential advert did.
The vases are only the tip of this particularly chintzy iceberg, of course. Everything in Stranglehold comes apart under gunfire as the game threads you through places that are either endearingly rickety or hilariously dainty. Want to shoot up place settings, coffee urns, fish tanks, ice sculptures, marble statues, one-armed bandits and plate glass windows? Not a problem.
In the end, Stranglehold's best level is probably the first. It takes you on a deadly jaunt through a Hong Kong Marketplace, surrounded by flickering neon and Demo Fruit (a peculiar form of plant life that only flowers in the early days of a hardware generation, when developers are trying to show off how much havoc, and how much Havok, they can cram on screen at any one time).
Here's where the game really feels like a John Woo movie, where cash registers burst, trays fly off tables, and concrete barricades splinter under heavy fire. It's capped with an idiotic boss fight, sure, but not before it's restaged the tea room scene from Hard Boiled - leaving the same gritty taste of brick dust and plaster hanging in the air afterwards.
So yes, Bulletstorm and its ilk have embellished the template. But I still wish the economics of gaming would allow for more of this kind of thing.
If Cliff Bleszinski's GDC talk was right, and all the market will now support is top-tier triple-As or smart indie offerings, this is the sort of game we're going to miss out on: middling guilty pleasures that are never going to land at number one in the charts or win accolades from the IGF, but that remain perfect for putting on whenever you've had a hard day at the cracker factory and would really like to blow somebody's face off.
I want more of Inspector Tequila, more ducking and diving between fruit market stalls and propane tanks. More games which take delight in blending trashiness with precision. More sequels which could've chosen the direct-to-DVD route, but somehow decided to opt for the direct-to-game path instead.