Version tested: Xbox 360
Stranglehold was never going to be a run of the mill shoot 'em up - this is extreme gun porn, with two hundred money shots before the first level is through.
With no pretensions to be anything other than a high-fiving celebration of John Woo's brand of explosive gunplay and balletic action, it hits the mark over and over and over again. From the first chapter to the crazy multiple climax of the seventh, this is a game determined to have you gurning joyously at the batshit craziness of it all. It might well be one of the most simple and hilariously repetitive games ever, but you can't help admire how Woo's demented cinematic vision has been so effortlessly translated into one of the rawest action videogames ever made. How we managed to avoid using the word intense in that paragraph, we'll never know. Whoops.
In this videogaming sequel to Woo's seminal 1991 movie Hard Boiled, you take on the role of the seemingly invincible Inspector Tequila, a renegade cop played by Chow Yun Fat who's not afraid to do things his own way. And when we say 'his own way', we don't just mean that he's a bit chippy to his boss and doesn't follow orders. What we actually mean is that he'll slaughter 1500 henchmen on the way to the otherwise noble goal of trying to save family members.
But who needs a chin-stroking plot and rich, nuanced dialogue when you can kill a roomful of enemies in the most spectacular style possible? If you're not already familiar with Woo's directorial style, you might instantly assume the balletic, time-slowing combat owes a substantial debt to Remedy's two Max Payne titles. To a degree, you'd be bang on the money - after all, the Finnish developer based the entire principle of 'bullet time' on Woo's techniques in the first place (one of the game modes was even called 'Hard Boiled'). Effectively, both borrows just as heavily in their own way, and given that it's almost four year since the last Max Payne title, a next generation reworking was long overdue.
In a visual sense, at least, Stranglehold really seeks to impress. Based on the celebrated Unreal 3 engine tech, and Havok physics, the game's a real next gen showcase in many ways. The character detail and animation is, in general, excellent (though sometimes the lighting can make Tequila look like a zombie), and the environments are consistently incredible. Running through the rainy gloom on Chapter 6 has to be among the most impressive environments ever created in a videogame, portraying the ambience of oppressive urban decay in manner more befitting Silent Hill, as opposed to a balls-out run and gun. The destructibility, too, adds a great deal to the sense of undiluted chaos that fills every scene with beautiful chaos. Throw in top-notch physics for free, and you end up with a spectacle that can't fail to impress the most jaded gamer.
To play, though, Stranglehold feels very familiar - but in a way that helps get you into it, rather than feeling generic. It keeps things simple from the off, using the well-worn third person action adventure template of the left stick for movement, the right stick for camera control, a single fire button, and the ever-useful ability to slow down time in a variety of ways (known as 'Tequila Time' here, but Bullet Time to everyone else). Although a quick tap of RB slows down time at your command (and recharges when you're not using it), by far the most effective way to use Tequila Time is to dive in a given direction by pointing the left stick and pulling the left trigger. This not only serves to slow down time whileyou're diving, but makes it much easier to evade the hot lead that'll doubtlessly be fizzing through the air. Equally importantly, every scene unfolds in an extremely cool fashion, though it does all get a bit comical at times when you're diving relentlessly this way and that. Sometimes a bit of stealthy duck and cover might have been more appropriate, y'know...