It has, with all due respect, been a crap decade for John Woo. We have no doubt that the legendary director probably still commands a healthy sheaf of greenbacks for turning up behind the clapperboard - but seriously, Paycheck? Windtalkers? Mission Impossible II? Hardly the kind of cinematic output that commands reverence.
There's an "ah, but...". There has been an "ah, but..." in every conversation about John Woo since he swapped Hong Kong for the lure of Hollywood in the early nineties. The "ah, but..." is Hard Boiled.
Hard Boiled, the eminently silly and stunningly stylish story of a tough renegade cop determined to bring down a criminal gang and its clearly insane boss, is the absolute epitome of Hong Kong cinema cool. Its action sequences, framed in slow motion and filled with two handed gunplay, influenced a whole generation of action directors and choreographers - few of whom ever quite managed to capture Woo's perfect blend of visceral, gritty imagery with effortless style.
And its iconic image; Chow Yun Fat's protagonist, Tequila, dressed in a riot police uniform, bruised and bloodied, with a shotgun in one hand and a baby held in the other arm... In one eye-popping still-frame lies the reason people still care about John Woo even after he traded in Chow Yun Fat and Tony Leung for Jean Claude van Damme and Ben Affleck.
So. Stranglehold. Or rather, John Woo Presents Stranglehold - and having played through three of the game's huge, sprawling stages, we've got good news. It's John "Hard Boiled" Woo, not John "Paycheck" Woo.
On the most obvious level, the connection with Hard Boiled is clear - this is, in theory, a sequel to that movie. Chow Yun Fat, digitally scanned and rejuvenated to his 1992 appearance, once again takes the lead role as Inspector Tequila, once again facing off against a ruthless criminal gang - and taking the brute force approach, much to the chagrin of his bosses in the force.
The story, as you'd expect, is completely ludicrous - while still maintaining some essential level of grit at the same time. The first scene in the game sees a badly beaten policeman being executed, and Tequila is quickly led into an ambush when he tries to rescue said copper, only to find pictures of the man's corpse in an envelope instead. With pretty much zero exposition aside from vague threats of taking his badge from his permanently grimacing superior, this kicks off a gigantic orgy of gunplay violence as Tequila goes on a rampage to discover and destroy the policeman's killers.
Later levels we've seen gave us a glimpse of a few more characters who join the fray, including a kidnapped girl we think may be Tequila's daughter - but let's face it, you're not here for the character development or the sharp, intelligent dialogue. Much like Hard Boiled, Stranglehold treats its plot with contempt; it's a thin tracery of flawed logic that holds together the main event. The main event, of course, being Chow Yun Fat sliding over tables, jumping around in slow motion, and blowing things up.
On that front, Stranglehold doesn't disappoint. No siree. Hong Kong in this game is a city where police officers routinely have to get involved in dramatic firefights just to get through "rough areas". It's a city where everyone carries a gun, a city where drug smuggling cartels can erect vast, heavily guarded offshore complexes, a city where every street, market or bar is just another potential venue for an ultra-violent battle.
Conveniently, it's also a city where every criminal makes a point of standing next to an explosive barrel or underneath a large heavy sign. Doubly conveniently, it's a city where a renegade cop can shoot about 500 people in a day's work and never have to fill out any paperwork. It's our kind of town.
A high body-count, ultra-violent protagonist and unlikely storyline aren't really enough to set Stranglehold apart from any number of other third-person action games on the market, however. What makes this game interesting is its relentless focus on aesthetic; its constant focus on making everything look cool, effortless and exciting, even (arguably) at the expense of other aspects of the experience. Stranglehold's aim is to make it look like your input on the joypad is being translated into a John Woo action scene; simple as that.
Taking a Dive
The control scheme echoes that aesthetic perfectly. Despite the fact that Tequila always dual-wields his pistols, you only ever have one fire button (the right trigger); the other trigger makes you leap in the direction you're holding the stick, while still firing, or jump onto a context sensitive item to slide along it. A bar next to your health bar at the top of the screen indicates how much "Tequila Time" (that'd be slow motion, as opposed to some kind of happy hour promotion) you have at your disposal, and fills up constantly and rapidly as you play.
You can drop directly into slow-mo if you like, by pressing the right bumper, but it's mostly better to let the game do that for you. Any time you have your crosshairs near an enemy while jumping, leaping, tumbling, sliding along a rail or running up a bannister, the game automatically slows down to let you pull off groups of tricky shots. It's reality in reverse, basically; whereas in real life aiming a gun is rather a lot easier when you're standing still with your legs slightly apart and arms outstretched, in the world of Stranglehold the easiest way to aim a gun is by diving sideways out a window holding one pistol in each hand.
Performing the trademark John Woo "sliding over a table / across a bar / down the side of any straight edge in the bloody room" move is even easier. Walk up to a table, and rather than stopping dead in front of the object, you slide over it. The same logic applies to bars and so on, and conveniently, this will also drop you into slow motion.
Fleshing out Tequila's repertoire of moves are specials known as "Tequila Bombs", which are special moves you'll learn as the game progresses. You start out with just one - a health restoring move - but in the first level, you'll learn a special move that slows down time and zooms in your pistol, allowing you to take out snipers or distant enemies. In the second, we found a ludicrously over-the-top move called Barrage, which lets you fire continuously for a set period of time - which is gloriously ridiculous when using the shotgun, as it allows you to decimate an entire room or building in record time.
As you might expect, any game which offers so many ways to kill your foes also has plenty of ways for them to die. Locational damage is taken to a whole new level in Stranglehold, with enemies even reacting differently depending on what part of the face or head they're shot in (which can result in some astonishingly gory animations when taking zoomed-in potshots). We were having so much fun finding new ways to shoot men in the face in slow motion that we entirely forgot to try shooting them in the crotch until our helpful Midway rep suggested it. We can now report that it results in an eye-watering and incredibly long animation of a howling man staggering around clutching the bloody mess that used to be his crown jewels. If that's your sort of thing, I guess...
One criticism which we can definitely see Stranglehold facing in reviews is that the structure of the levels sees you repeating similar tasks multiple times. On one level, we travelled between half a dozen clusters of similar-looking rough shacks, destroying various drug-making equipment in each one. We do understand what the team has tried to accomplish with this approach; each level is, in essence, a set of arenas which are designed for Tequila to wreak havoc in, and as you clear each arena you progress to the next one.
However, a little more variety wouldn't go amiss in this regard, especially in arenas which won't let you progress until you've killed a somewhat arbitrary number of enemies. We're not sure how this will pan out over the course of the full game, but certainly in the levels we played, repetition felt like it could become a major problem without some fairly significant tweaks to the formula later on.
That said, the formula itself is extremely solid. Action gamers are often inspired by action films; we don't want to be a jerkily animated character who gets stuck on scenery. We want to be Neo kicking an enemy out of the air with balletic grace or Tequila sliding down a bannister and taking out his foes without batting an eyelid. Stranglehold promises to deliver exactly that, a game where the biggest reward of getting good is that you'll look cooler, but where even mediocre players can pull off stunts that look great.
Whether the developers, the internal Midway team who were responsible for the well-received Psi-Ops, can achieve what they've set out to do here will depend largely on how well they can tweak the still somewhat clunky character motion controls and the flow of the level design. This is exactly the sort of last minute tweaking developers always do with their games, though, which makes us rather optimistic that later this year, we'll all be cackling with glee as Tequila shoots another miscreant through the eye socket while diving backwards through a pile of watermelons.
On a scale of Hard Boiled to Paycheck, then, signs point to Hard Boiled.