Have you ever considered the plight of the humble fruit-seller? No, of course you bloody haven't. It's below your radar, isn't it? You walk right past these brave guys and girls, courageously hawking their Vitamin C-laden wares outside tube and train stations around the nation, without ever giving a thought to the dangers they face.
For example, did you know that the average fruit seller has his entire stock of watermelons shot up by a gang of heavily armed Chinese triads four times a week?
Did you realise, as you bit into that apple and felt incredibly smugly healthy for buying it rather than chomping into a Mars bar for the fourth time today, that the man who sold it to you will probably have a renegade cop on a mission for revenge dive through an entire table of peaches and oranges in the next ten minutes?
Did you, quite frankly, have the slightest idea that the single largest hazard to the fruit seller's largely uninsured and deliciously succulent inventory is not fruit flies, or black mould, but Chow Yun Fat?
So spare a thought for the humble fruit seller. In fact, perhaps you could take a moment to consider their anguish this very evening, while your Xbox 360 sucks down Midway's own freshest produce - yes, ladies and gents, it's time for you to get your grubby paws on the playable demo of John Woo Presents Stranglehold.
Today's demo shows off the entire first level of the game, bringing Chow Yun Fat through the astonishingly mean streets of a Hong Kong market area. As you probably know by now (and if you don't, you could always swot up with our in-depth preview), Chow reprises his role as Inspector Tequila from Woo's 1992 action classic Hard Boiled. In real terms, this translates into two things - paper thin plot, and a hell of a lot of slow motion, dual-fisted action.
As such, we'll forgive the game for throwing wave after wave of pistol-wielding maniacs at us with no explanation - other than a text box informing us that this is a "rough neighbourhood". The conceit of the demo is that you run through this rough neighborhood, learning the ropes by capping a bunch of bandits en-route, and then get ambushed in a busy marketplace. Cue plenty more fighting your way through elaborate set-pieces as you head for a final showdown at a bustling tea-house (where none other than John Woo himself is the bartender).
The whole experience is about 20 minutes long at the outside, but unusually for a demo, there's quite a lot of replayability built into the code. Playing through this section in the full game, we only got handed one of Tequila's special powers ("Tequila Bombs") - a superb slow-motion zoom which allows you to pick off a distant enemy, and showcases the locational damage and astonishing range of death animations.
However, in the demo, completing a play-through unlocks harder difficulty modes - and also unlocks additional Tequila Bomb powers. Play through twice, and you'll have access to all four powers (healing, which is unlocked from the outset; zoom mode, barrage mode, and spin attack). It's a nice mechanism for showing off everything the game has on offer, and means that there's vastly more meat on the Stranglehold demo than you'd expect from the usual Xbox Live demo offerings.
As for how the game is actually shaping up, well, you'll be the ultimate judge of that once you get your paws on the code this evening. However, having played through a significantly larger chunk of the game last month, we can confirm that the first level seems a pretty solid indicator of where Stranglehold goes in subsequent stages.
The demo, like the rest of the game, is essentially built as a series of arenas - each new area you walk into has a certain number of enemies, a certain number of explosive objects or destructible scenery components, and of course, a certain amount of cover. (In this demo, there's generally also a certain amount of fruit to splatter all over the place.)
At heart, the game is about your reaction times, and your ability to take stock of the environment on the fly, working out the optimal way to dispose of your enemies. Shooting overhead objects so that they crush your foes is a key tactic - but even more important is learning to use the slow motion system in the game, called Tequila Time.
You can trigger Tequila Time manually using the right bumper, but you also go automatically into slow motion when you've got an enemy in your sights during a particularly cool manoeuvre. Diving sideways, forwards or backwards counts; sliding over a table or counter (which is triggered simply by running into it) also counts, as does running up or down a railing. The result is that you find yourself looking for the most dramatic route through an arena, since that will give you the most slow-motion carnage opportunities.
A couple of further observations. The code in this demo is significantly more polished than the version of the game we played for last month's preview, and we're pleased to note that many of the reservations we had about the game have been put to rest. The framerate is now solid and slick, and the game looks great - for the most part. We're not entirely sold on all of the character art, but the environments are superbly detailed and incredibly enjoyable to lay waste to.
Moreover, it seems that the control system has been significantly tweaked. The fundamentals remain the same, of course, but some problems we encountered previously with the analogue sticks (Tequila tended to barely move at all before suddenly lurching into fast motion at the very edges of the stick's movement) have been ironed out entirely. Navigating the world still takes a little practise to get right, but it's definitely more enjoyable now.
Some other issues still remain, in our eyes. Sliding over tables, counters and other objects is entirely automatic, but sometimes it feels almost too easy - on multiple occasions we simply brushed against a table by accident, only for Chow Yun Fat (who must spend a good twenty minutes each morning greasing up his backside - draw your own conclusions) to slide dramatically across it for no reason. Requiring a little more deliberate intent - a firm push of the stick, say - to slide across an object would probably feel more natural.
However, there's no denying the game's style - and while, yes, it's basically the same system we saw in Max Payne, it's worth recalling just how much Max Payne borrowed from John Woo in the first place. Stranglehold's graphics, the presence of the superbly emotive Chow Yun Fat and the very cinematic approach to its violence may even give it the edge over Remedy's "game noir".
For Xbox Live adherents, a short trailer video at the end for the multiplayer mode may also stoke your interest. It looks like you can play as John Woo in multiplayer. Hell, it looks like you can play as Chow Yun Fat and shoot John Woo in the balls - judging by the sheer breadth of weird porn on the Internet, we're damned sure there's someone out there to whom we've just guaranteed a sale.
Either way, there's a solid chunk of entertainment hitting Xbox Live tonight - it's a hefty 1.28GB though, so you'll want to get your broadband all greased up in preparation. Then it's off to the mean streets of Hong Kong with you - but please, do keep an eye out for the fruit sellers. One man's explosive, pulpy special effect is another man's apples, after all.