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...
For mash get Hulk Smash
As well as making the game extremely easy to get to grips with, Midway has gone that extra mile to ensure that pretty much smash everything up. And while the 'Massive Destructibility' is mostly there to add an extra touch of incendiary drama to the chaos, some of it's highlighted with a glint of white light to encourage you to send groups of enemies to their doom in the most spectacular fashion possible. For example, anyone stupid enough to stand under a neon sign will find themselves closely acquainted with it were you to shoot it, while all manner of other physics-driven moments of destruction gives the game an extra layer of strategy to the mindless diving run-and-gun antics. It's the gift that keeps on giving.
The environments, too, offer plenty of scope for hilariously over-the-top fun - at least to begin with. If anything glints at you, the chances are you can utilise it as a means of pulling off some kind of improbable stunt if you dive towards it. Trolleys, walls, tables, bannisters and chandeliers happily provide Tequila with some comical opportunity to take down bad guys in a stylish, if improbable manner. And as with the regular dives, the game automagically slows down time, taking the wise assumption that you're going to want to savour every last second of the glorious stunt-ridden action.
Layered on top of all this is the game's combat reward system. Based loosely around the premise of building up style combos, if you can chain kills together in a smug manner, you gain an ever-increasing number of stars until you either run out of things to kill, or fail to chain the moves quick enough. The more stylish you are, the more stars you're awarded, and doing so builds up your Tequila Move ring quicker than usual. Devised to match the orientation of the dpad, you initially gain the ability to administer a bit of emergency health by nudging left on the dpad when required - handy if there are no health packs in the vicinity.
Say hello to my Improbable Super Powers!
Within the first few levels you'll accumulate another three combat-specific specials; the first being Precision Aim, which effectively turns any weapon into a sniper rifle for a few seconds and allows you to take out enemies from distance with pin point accuracy. Not only is this highly effective, but also gives Midway yet another opportunity to follow the trajectory of the bullet right to its destination in a gloriously grisly display of slow-motion death and gore. Later, you gain access to the Barrage attack, which is effectively a chance to run around in (you guessed it) slow motion in the knowledge that you're not only invulnerable to enemy attack, but have unlimited ammo for the duration of the move. And finally, the Spin Attack takes out everyone within the vicinity in super stylish slo-mo - and scares some doves into the bargain. Yes.
But as slick as the game undoubtedly is in terms of visuals and playability, it does blow its wad rather early on for my liking. It's as if Midway worked on the assumption that most people don't bother completing games (and let's face it, they don't) and wanted to ensure that everyone gets to see all the cool stuff as soon as possible. Within the first few levels you've unlocked all the abilities, leaving the game to hold your interest through the storyline and differing environments alone. There are no attempts at varying the pace, the style of the gameplay, or even the scenarios. Basic plan? Kill everyone. And when they're dead? Kill their friends. And so on, until you meet the big bad scary end of level boss who, to be honest, aren't all that scary if you've saved up a Barrage attack and are handy with the Precision Aim. Given the team's previous project was the hugely underrated Psi-Ops, it's somewhat disappointing that it seems to have discarded how important it is to keep giving the player new toys to play with throughout the game, not just for the first few hours.
Once you're done with the six to eight hour main campaign, what's left? Well, not a huge amount to be frank. There's the Hard Boiled uber-difficult mode to go for if you fancy mining the game for some more achievement points, and an Unlock Shop where you can buy the usual concept art frippery, extra multiplayer characters (including Woo himself), but the incentive to replay the game is somewhat limited. There is an online Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch mode for up to six players, set across the seven small maps based on the areas used in single player, but without the Tequila Time ability, and limited destruction you're left with a rather uninspiring mode that has none of the effortless charm of single player. Seeing people diving around like buffoons in real-time doesn't quite cut it, really.
If you're prepared to do without online, then Stranglehold has an awful lot going for it. It might well be the most direct, straightforward action game you've played in years, but in a way I'd see that as job done by Midway - it never seeks to overcomplicate, the combat and controls are refined, the learning curve is well balanced, the visuals fantastic, and in many ways there's an almost old school purity about it. Simply put, it's exceptionally good at what it sets out to achieve, which is to distil the best bits of John Woo's cinematic vision and turn it into a crazed video game approximation that anyone can play - in that sense, you can't really fault it. Some might baulk at the lack of depth, and the sense of mindless repetition, in which case steer clear. The rest of you can put your brain on standby, and enjoy the most ridiculous display of videogaming carnage ever.
8 / 10