When was the last time gamers were treated to a balls-out action game with mindless gun play, bullet dodging, and sense enhancing abilities? Probably Max Payne 2. Not many other gun-slinging cop-games have managed to capture that same caliber of mayhem that Rockstar pioneered with Max Payne. That is, until now. When we first caught wind of Stranglehold, it was back in 2006, when the game was unnamed and still fairly early in development. After having numerous hands-on attempts with early builds we knew that Stranglehold had a high chance of catching high praise. And now, playing the complete title, Stranglehold seems to live up to its potential.
As many of you should know by now, Stranglehold is actually a videogame sequel to the John Woo movie "Hard Boiled". So it's not a coincidence that Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo have once again stapled their namesakes to the same project. In Stranglehold, Chow Yun-Fat reprises his role as Inspector Tequila, albeit in a virtual form. The story behind Stranglehold is a cop drama that involves the murder of a friend and the kidnapping of a loved one. Inspector Tequila is affected by both, and thus takes matters into his own hands.
The first thing you'll notice when playing Stranglehold is that it borrows a lot of elements from Max Payne, but adds a bunch of its own unique features to make it feel distinct. The distinction is instantly noticeable when you begin seeing the freeze frames, the diving shots, the choreography (such as jumping over/sliding on objects in front of you), and those awesome sweeping spins of gunfire as Tequila twists and turns, shooting every bad guy around him from every angle he can work with.
Tequila can pull of a variety of these maneuvers called "Tequila Bombs", all of which require the filling of the Tequila meter. The first Tequila Bomb is called 'barrage' -- and it's basically what Bullet Time was to Max Payne. When time is slowed down, Tequila's movements are, more or less, real-time. So with that advantage at your toll, you're able to eradicate enemies with much higher efficiency.
You can manually trigger the slow-motion by going into "Tequila Time", which lets Tequila dive and shoot at the same time. Manually using Tequila Time is done by hitting the R2 button. The second bomb is my personal favorite; it's called 'Precision Aim', as it takes Tequila into a sniper mode, slows down time, and allows him to pick off roof-top enemies with ease. Depending on where you place the bullet will determine the death animation for the enemy - so it's always fun to shoot them in different spots.
The third bomb is a pre-scripted cinematic action-scene, as opposed to a player controlled event. This is the signature sweeping spin, called Spin Attack, I mentioned earlier where Tequila takes out every enemy around him. It's an absolutely beautiful sight to behold, and definitely captures that John Woo signature style (complete with flying doves!). The final Tequila bomb is a health restore, that uses a bit of your filled up Tequila meter to restore life. You can trigger each bomb by pressing a certain direction on the D-pad.
Interactivity with the surroundings is a huge component of the game. When an object nearby you is glowing, that means you can interact with it in various ways. If an enemy is standing below a glowing object, you can use that object to kill him by shooting it down with a few bullets. If an entire structure, such as a banister, is glowing, then you can run or slide down the banister, and shoot all of the enemies immediately around you, simultaneously. For instance, in the Chicago Museum stage you can run up the tail of a T-Rex's skeleton, hop on to the second floor balcony, jump onto a cart and use it to slide across the balcony, as you unload countless clips of ammo out of both of your hand-guns.
Objects don't get in the way of your running, as Tequila automatically slides or jumps over them, and the action continues. If you must hide, then do so. If you want to use the destruction of the environments to your advantage (maybe crush someone underneath some ruble and debris?), by all means. Stranglehold gives the gamer the opportunity to be the choreographer of a John Woo movie, by offering a flexible amount of control over Tequila.
There's a plethora of weapons to choose from, ranging from duel wielding pistols, Uzis, a shotgun, machine gun, and so on. The action is always intense and there's never a dull moment in the game. The controls take some time getting used to, because there are quite a number of commands to memorize. Furthermore, aiming can take a bit of practice as the precision can feel a little loose. But once you have your button placement and control of the aim down, then you should be set.
Lastly, there are multiplayer options for you to choose from, albeit they're slim. Up to six players can compete in either a deathmatch or team deathmatch, so don't expect Unreal Tournament-like multiplayer features here. But when you have an eight hour game, it's nice to know that there are some extra little diversions to keep the value of the game a little higher.
Visually, the game looks acceptable for a multi-platform title. The resolution is clean, and the fact that the environments are so deformable helps quite a bit. Chow Yun-Fat was modeled quite well, and the detail of his virtual face is pretty much a spitting image of his real-life likeness. There's a ton of attention to detail to the environments, seeing as how destructible they are. While character details do exhibit some rough spots, such as blotchy texturing, with the occasional rough edge, we're still presented with some fantastic looking models.
Textures are a mixed bag, with some bits of the environment showing solid quality detailing, meanwhile other bits of the word looking blurry. This is a multiplatform game, so optimization clearly isn't as spectacular as it is on other games. Stranglehold renders at 720p, with a fairly consistent 30 frames per second. Thus, the game's furious action, completely destructive environments, coupled with a solid framerate make for a very pleasing visual experience.
When you're playing a game like Stranglehold, you know exactly what to expect out of its audio - tons of voice acting and very, very loud sound effects. Explosions, crashing, and gun fire will be primarily what you hear in Stranglehold as you wreck hell on everything in your path. Voice acting is performed by Chow Yun-Fat and a host of others, and it's performed quite well. It's got the typical cheesy one liners that you'd expect to hear out of an action game such as this, as well as longer cut-scenes that unravel the plot.
To those who have been dying for a new Max Payne and are sick of Rockstar's wait, Stranglehold is precisely the game you want to look at. It has all of the characteristics that made Max Payne so fantastic, but with its own twists, additions, and enhancements. It presents a nice visual package, but an even better adrenaline-rushing gameplay experience that really has you engrossed all throughout the game. The controls take some time to get used to, and the graphics aren't super hot, but they do the job well enough. Action fans shouldn't miss out on Stranglehold.
9/29/2007 Arnold Katayev