Ever since his movies exploded onto our screens in the early '90s John Woo has inadvertently had a massive influence on videogames. Without the balletic cinematic vision of slo-mo ultra violence in flicks like Hard Boiled, games such as Max Payne would have been very different indeed. But it's almost three years since the second Payne title was released, and with developer Remedy having moved on to work on the Twin Peaks-inspired Alan Wake (and Take-Two strangely silent on what became of Max Payne 3), the baton has been handed to other developers to pick up where they left off.
But rather than merely rehash the formula (ok, the Matrix games had a pretty good excuse but still didn't quite get it) Midway has gone straight to Mr Woo himself to work on what they're calling a videogame sequel to Hard Boiled. It's all a bit like when LucasArts realised it had to make a Tomb Raider-style Indiana Jones game, but the results so far suggest something far more interesting if you're into crazed gunplay, stylish set-pieces and spectacular cinematics.
Fans of Woo will be pleased to note that Midway has secured the talents of Chow Yun-Fat, who will not only reprise the Inspector Tequila role that made his name back in 1992's Hard Boiled, but also lends the project a further layer of credibility by offering his voice talents. Inevitable name-dropping aside, though, Stranglehold isn't some lazy cash-in to suck in fans of Woo's movies. With Midway's Chicago studio (Psi-Ops) at the development helm, the fact that there's some solid development talent behind the project should interest the hardcore crowd into the bargain.
Away from the crazed death-by-noise of the E3 show floor, Midway offered us the respite of a quick 10 minute hands-on with a playable version of the game which instantly marked the title out as one of the major surprises at the show. Comparisons to Max Payne are inevitable and utterly unavoidable, but unless you had some pathological aversion to Remedy's classics, that's not a bad thing by any means. It's easy to dismiss Stranglehold as being a shamelessly derivative re-hash of a tried and trusted sub-genre, but within a few minutes of actually playing the game we soon came around to the view of it being more of a justifiable interactive reworking of one man's cinematic vision. Handing the concept back to the originator and allowing a talented team to build on it has been a far better fit than expected.
Stranglehold does things a little differently, mind you, by attempting to make the whole process of balletic gunplay and choreographed action as seamless and unobtrusive to the player as possible. By taking away some of the trickier combos away from the player, anyone can immediately pick up the pad and pull off an array of exceptionally cool manoeuvres that wouldn't look out of place in any of Woo's movies. Extrapolate that over an interactive environment where almost every piece of scenery has some cool kill move potential and it's evident that the whole game's been designed from the ground up to be a hyperkinetic firearm playground.
Set in Hong Kong and Chicago, we get to play around in the confines of a restaurant, with baddies spawning every so often to give us something to take down. Set on two levels, just about everything you see has some kind of unexpected relevance; for example, rather than just running up the stairs like any normal human being, you have the hilarious ability to run up banisters effortlessly, swing across chandeliers, or slide across catering trollies. It's all a bit daft, but it means that any time the game detects a bit of scenery that you could make use of, it does so seamlessly and automatically in such a way that makes it fun just to dive around chaotically.
The controls instantly feel familiar and consistent to most other third person action games, with the left stick for movement and the right for manual camera controls. Beyond that, right trigger acts as the fire button, while left does the job of jumping and interacting with any scenery items. So, rather than expecting the player to jump across to a chandelier and grab with another button and then move forward and back to build up a swinging momentum, Stranglehold takes care of this by automatically understanding the context of whatever highlighted item you've jumped into. So, by merely jumping over to the chandelier, the game makes sure you've already grabbed it at the correct velocity and allows you to swing across in one clean motion. Although this probably sounds like a fudge designed to make things easier for the less skilled, mass market gamer, it shifts the emphasis to allow you to get on with the business of killing lots of enemies in slow motion.
The same principle applies elsewhere - if you jump onto any highlighted item (with a yellow outline) such as a table, you'll slide stylishly across it. If you mount a trolley he'll dive onto it face down and you'll roll across the floor to allow you to still target your assailants. If you move towards a door, the context of the situation knows that you want to open it. As such, a lot of the fiddlier elements attached to action games becomes less of an issue and you can get on with deciding how best to kill.
And rather than relying on the slightly dubious notion of a 'bullet time' meter, the game assumes that whenever you've got your enemy in your sights that you'll want to slow the action down. With that in mind, you can hide out behind a concrete pillar, dive out and rely on the game going into slow motion as soon as your enemies are in your crosshair. Even static items like walls and pillars play a key part, with a context sensitive system that allows you to jump into them and spring off in the opposite direction and tackle your enemies in an array of stylised ways
By building up more stylish kills, you'll gradually build up a meter at the foot of the screen, and once it's full you can unleash what amounts to a room-clearing smart bomb signature move. At this point, the game enters full-on Woo-mode, where the cinematics take over and swoop around the room in slo-mo to show Tequila taking down one enemy after the other in an immensely stylish sequence of dynamic death. Every slow-motion kill is depicted in true Woo style, and the associated level of destruction going on all around is quite staggering. Evidently you'll want to be strategic with how and when you use this move, but as a means of getting yourself out of near-death situations or when you're just plain outnumbered, it's a great way of dealing death.
At the end of all this death and destruction, all that's left is a huge pile of smashed up furniture, damaged fixtures, bullet-strewn walls and twisted bodies. It's worth mentioning that the degree of damage you can create is something special, with literally everything you see capable of being smashed to bits in minute ways. Stuffing bursts out of seat cushions, individual tiles crack and shatter, wooden rails splinter, bullet hole remain wherever they appear. But although all damage will be persistent throughout, it's not been decided yet whether all the downed enemies won't simply fade away - Midway told us it's working hard to make sure they don't (like the demo does now), but also conceded that the CPU overheads make such things a tricky business.
Multiplayer modes will be a factor in Stranglehold, but beyond that Midway wasn't prepared to share any further details. Stay tuned, as us unimaginative, deadline pushed writers tend to suggest. Or worse, 'keep it locked'. Dear god...
Much like Criterion's Black was sold on the principle of "being able to have fun in an empty room", John Woo's Stranglehold takes the concept of incessant, gratuitous destruction to another level with an impressive engine and intuitive control system that promises to crank up an already stylish concept to a new level. Whether these ideas bear scrutiny across an entire 12 hour game remains to be seen, but with some heavyweight names lending their names to the project there's hope that it will count for more than grabbing consumer attention. Beside, with the game due for release in time for Christmas, we won't have too long to find out.
John Woo's Stranglehold is due for release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 later this year from Midway. November, we'd expect...