On March 21st, 2007 PSX Extreme was invited to attend Midway's Press Event right here in New York City. Midway scoped out Shop Studios as their venue for the second time and it was quite an enjoyable event complete with a cocktail hour thereafter. Most important though were the games Midway had on display, one of which was Stranglehold.
Stranglehold is the John Woo action game slated to hit at the end of this Summer. It stars Chow Yun-Fat, as he reprises his role from the 1992 John Woo movie "Hard Boiled" as Inspector Tequila. So think of Stranglehold as a videogame sequel to a movie. 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 (with the shoulder trigger) by also going into "Tequila Time", which lets Tequila dive and shoot at the same time. The second is my personal favorite, '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 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. The final Tequila bomb is a health restore, that uses a bit of your filled up Tequila meter to restore life.
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. So, in the Chicago Museum stage that I was playing through, I was able to run up the tail of a T-Rex's skeleton, hop on to the second floor balcony, jump onto a cart, use it to slide across the balcony, as I unloaded countless clips of ammo out of my two hand-guns. Objects don't get in the way of your running, as Tequila automatically slides over them, 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 rumble 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.
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. Gamers looking for another gritty action cop game will likely find much comfort in Stranglehold. Look for it on the PS3, Xbox 360 and PC this Summer.
E3 2006 gameplay exhibition impressions, by Frank Provo
One of my favorite moments during E3 this year was the opportunity to sit-in on an extended demonstration for Midway's upcoming gun-action game, John Woo presents Stranglehold, which, as the title implies, is being produced in co-operation with legendary Hong Kong director, John Woo. The game is the sequel to Woo's final Hong Kong gun-ballet, Hard Boiled, and reunites the director with the equally-legendary actor, Chow Yun Fat, who is lending his likeness and voice to the game in a reprisal of the role of "Tequila," the hard-boiled super cop.
Midway had a trailer for the game playing outside their main exhibition area, which you can view here. In the trailer, scenes of gunplay from Hard Boiled are interspersed with similar scenes from Stranglehold. The extended demonstration, which was limited to 12 people roughly every thirty minutes, included an additional portion where one of the developers ran through an actual gameplay demonstration.
Personally, I was very curious going in to check out the gameplay demonstration, because we've seen so many "gun porn" games in the past that haven't quite lived up to the promises made in the months leading up to release.
Every action game that involves gunplay promises to duplicate the Hollywood bullet-ballet experience, but so few actually deliver. Even Max Payne and Dead to Rights, with their bullet time effects and violent disarms, still didn't quite manage to drive home the same cathartic "hell yes" feeling that non-interactive films like Hard Boiled or The Killer were able to convey. That's why I had to check out the extended demonstration of Stranglehold, to see if Midway's game is on track to finally deliver the video game equivalent of a Hong Kong action movie.
A recorded video message from John Woo himself, shown just prior to the gameplay demonstration, helped put my mind at ease a little. "I am very happy to be helping to make Stranglehold," said Woo, "This game will give everyone a great opportunity to make a John Woo film." Apparently, it was his idea to produce a video game sequel to Hard Boiled, and he is keeping watch over many aspects of the game's creation.
Seeing the gameplay demonstration, I have no doubts that Woo indeed is helping guide the game's development. After an initial cinematic, the viewpoint shifted to a third-person vantage point showing Chow Yun Fat's character, Tequila, standing in the entry way to a large Chinese restaurant and tea house. Immediately, two goons whip out their guns and take aim at Tequila. In response, Tequila aims both of his guns at one thug and fires off a few rounds, and then slides down the bannister toward the other enemy, shooting while sliding down the railing. Anyone that has watched Hard Boiled recognizes that as a sequence similar to one shown in the film. Bear in mind, this was actual gameplay going on, with one of the developers controlling the action with an Xbox 360 controller (the final game is being produced for both the 360 and the PlayStation 3).
Much of the basic gameplay seems to be similar to what we saw in Dead to Rights and Max Payne. Tequila can pick up and use various weapons, such as pistols and shotguns. Enemies, when shot, go flying and react different depending on where they were hit. Someone taking a shotgun blast to the chest will fly back into a table, for instance, whereas someone shot in the leg will fall to the floor. Kills contribute to a bullet-time meter, which players can activate to dodge and shoot in slow-motion. Bullet-time also makes it possible to kill multiple enemies before they even have a chance to get so much as a single shot off.
Unlike previous gun porn games, however, Stranglehold looks to offer much more in the way of cause-effect and environmental interaction. When the developer controlling Tequila kicked over a table, for instance, he was then able to crouch behind the table and use it as cover. Moments later, though, he tagged an enemy with a shotgun blast that sent the thug flying backward into another table, shattering it to the point that it could no longer be stood upon or used as a shield. The developer made it a point to show us that nearly everything in the environment could be destroyed, and that many objects can be used to ratchet up the slylish nature of Tequila's gunplay. In one situation, Tequila leapt and slid across a table with his guns firing. Another time, the developer made him hop over a bannister, kick off a wall, and deliver a headshot to a cook holding a meat cleaver.
During the span of the roughly five-minute gun battle, we watched the developer blow chunks out of tables, swing across light fixtures, slide underneath tables and come out the other side, jump atop and use drink carts like skateboards, and absolutely mangle dozens of gang-affiliated enemies in innumerably athletic ways. I'm a huge fan of John Woo's action films, and, from what I saw during the gameplay demonstration, Strangehold duplicates his style better than any other video game previously has.
Certain gameplay aspects have been specifically designed to duplicate scenes from John Woo's films. Every kill the developer made during the demonstration earned him so-called style points. Those style points contribute to a meter that, once filled, allows the player to perform special "Tequila Bomb" attacks. Tequila Bombs function just like the special attacks in similar games do, in that they eliminate any nearby enemies, but they're much flashier and badass than what we've previously seen from games such as Max Payne and Dead to Rights. The specific Tequila Bomb demonstrated for us during the session involved Chow Yun Fat's classic slow-motion spin, where he holds his pistols to the side with his arms extended and slowly twists his body to shoot individual targets, eventually ending up semi-kneeling on the floor with his arms crossed. A generous use of cinematic camera changes, close-ups, and slow-motion reaction shots gave us the opportunity to savor every round fired and every kill produced by the Tequila Bomb, and in just the same fashion that John Woo filmed similar scenes in his now-classic Hong Kong gun-ballets.
The demonstration concluded with a boss battle, pitting Tequila against a sharp-dressed gang leader armed with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher. Somehow, by ducking behind cover, leaping to safety, and unloading a few clips of ammo, the developer was able to vanquish the well-armed foe. He then put the game into a free look mode and gave us a grand tour of the aftermath. Chunks were blown out of walls. Broken dishes, cups, and chunks of fruit littered the floor. Tables were toppled, and they had holes blown through them. Among all of the debris were bloody corpses, lots of them, some shredded. Standing in the middle of it all was the hot-handed God of cops, Tequila.
That aftermath really hammered home how the development team at Tiger Hill Entertainment is taking advantage of the horsepower offered by the various next-gen consoles. Players will be able to shoot and destroy almost anything, and, thanks to the intricate physics programming, no two battles will play out the same way twice. Meanwhile, as I noted above, the camera angles really capture the unique flair of John Woo's film style.
I was also impressed by how sharp and detailed the graphics were. Fine features, such as the wood grain on the table tops and sweat droplets on the gangsters' faces, were easy to make out. Teensy-tiny bits of glass, which dusted the floor as a result of a few windows being shot, looked just like tiny glass bits ought to look (like thousands of clear pebbles gently reflecting the ambient light). The character faces and bodies looked very lifelike. Tequila looked like Chow Yun Fat, right down to that lip-curl he does when he's on a rampage. About halfway through the battle, I noticed that there were fine cuts and streaks of blood on Tequila's face. They weren't there from the get-go; he acquired them from all the shrapnel flying about as a result of wooden tables and concrete slabs splintering around him. Few games out right now actually display enough detail to justify playing them on a high-definition display. I have a feeling that Stranglehold is going to be one of those games.
The only aspect of the visuals I wasn't absolutely keen on was the way the colors appeared to be slightly over-saturated. I forgot to inquire as to why they chose to make the game look like an overcranked Technicolor movie print, but my guess would be that they did so to mimic the look that so many of John Woo's actual films has. On the upside, the oversaturation is slight, such that the characters and environments don't fall into that super-surreal neon comic book style that games like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Crackdown employ.
All told, I'm glad I took some time out to view the extended presentation for Stranglehold.
Anything can happen between now and the game's release (Q4 2006 or Q1 2007), but, I have to say, I think Midway is on the right track. If they manage to make the whole game as exciting and diverse as the brief demo shown at E3, it has the potential to be regarded with the same high opinions that people express for Woo's seminal films.
3/29/2007 Arnold K. & Frank P.