The complexity of games is constantly growing. Each and every generation, the boundaries of interaction, presentation and imagination are pushed to their absolute limits, and then beyond. However, this ideal, while important in the overall scheme of progressing
the industry, can also be detrimental to the most important facet of gaming: fun
. This is why it’s refreshing to come across games that remind us of just how far we’ve come by taking things back a step; removing some of the complexity of our growth but maintaining an air progression, nonetheless. Stranglehold is one such game as it marries concepts of evolved technology with simple controls and simpler narrative which in turn gives birth to that all important concept of fun. This is a game that isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, but it does go above and beyond to reinvent cool
. Anyone who has seen any of John Woo or Chow Yun-Fat’s honkie flicks will immediately know what to expect here, anyone who hasn’t seen what these two are capable of when working together, you’re going to have to bear with me.
Meet Tequila, a head-strong Honk Kong Police detective played by Chow Yun-Fat (reprising his famous role from the John Woo movie, Hard Boiled
), he’s every mobster’s worst nightmare and a man who literally dances
with weapons so stylishly, he pushes JT out of the running for, who exactly, is bringing sexy back. Tequila is also a cop who tends to play by his own rules, thinking on his toes rather than “by the book
”, which, while getting the job done, means he has created a myriad of enemies, including his boss who doesn’t approve of his tactics. Stranglehold begins with the kidnapping of the daughter and grand-daughter of James Wong, head of Hong Kong’s most powerful triad, Dragon Claw. The upstart Golden Kane triad is responsible alongside a Russian mob called the Zakarov Syndicate and in the process, the GK also send a message to the Hong Kong police with the execution of one of its members - they leave a voice-mail that a lone cop be sent to Kowloon Square to see this and after exercising his signature disdain for procedure with the police chief, Tequila sets off on his own.
The game’s cut-scenes reveal a title working to mimic the stylings of film thanks largely to Woo’s involvement in the project, and the smallest thing, like watching Tequila cross a road and hesitate as cars drive by, make the experience all the more engrossing, however, once we’re removed from the cinematic narrative and are given full control of Tequila, an all-new experience reveals itself setting Stranglehold up to be a game that, while following certain filmmaking rules, is anything but an interactive copy of a John Woo movie.
The first few levels of the game reveal the overall play-style, which is a fairly linear game path that leads to various open-area encounters. So, traversing the narrow walkways of Kowloon’s back alleys is safe, but as soon as you come to an area with enough room to fight, expect to do just that. The game also does a great job of slowly introducing you to the various moves and features of playing as Tequila. Anyone who has played Max Payne will be familiar with the concept of bullet-time gunplay, and while Stranglehold certainly offers something similar, it is also a step above Payne with the inclusion of interactive environmental aids (such as food carts), the Tequila Bomb moves, and what Tiger Hill Entertainment are claiming to be “the most destructible environments ever created”.
This move allows you to use your Tequila Bomb guage to refill small increments of health when you're in desperate need.
This is easily the best move in the game as it allows you to aim anywhere on the target, fire and follow the bullet to your targeted area in bullet time. Awesome.
This move gives Tequila invincibility, more strength and unlimited ammo for a short time.
As a Woo/Yun-Fat action movie staple, the spin attack has been included to use during moments where you're completely overwhelmed. Every enemy surrounding you at the time you use this will be killed.
The most impressive thing about Stranglehold is how the game manages to simplify all of the above. You’re never once over encumbered with too many buttons to make everything work. In fact, you really only need to use your two analogue sticks to move Tequila and control the camera, the left trigger performs Tequila moves (such as wall-jumping and diving) and the right trigger is for firing your weapons. Beyond these, the right bumper is used to manually enter “Tequila Time” (basically bullet-time) and the left can be used to take cover behind walls and other objects. Finally, your D-Pad is used to instigate Tequila Bomb moves (see box-out) and your X button is for picking up weapons, the A cycles your weapons with the B button is left for throwing grenades. You don’t even use the Y button. See, simple.
Using Tequila is - at first - a pretty daunting task. The first time you come across a table-top and he immediately slides across it (with uber-style, no less) you’re bound to be put off. And shifting the camera, Tequila and aiming, from the outset, equally feels a little awkward. But the first time you hit the left trigger and dive toward an enemy in slow-motion, aim carefully and perform a head-shot, I guarantee you’ll feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It really only does take five or 10 minutes to come to grips with how the game plays, and when you start really
using the environment the way Tiger Hill want you to, you’ll begin to understand just what this game has to offer.
“The most destructible environments ever created
” is a big call, but it would be one I would be willing to back Tiger Hill on. The first level is an excellent example of their claim and when you start sliding down rails in Tequila Time and shoot at the neon signs rested oh-so-tantalisingly above enemy heads just to watch them spectacularly fall, replete with particle effects, debris and sparks, upon the unsuspecting triad goon below, you can’t help but smile. Stringing together environmental kills, Tequila Time kills and the environmental aid kills is the ultimate goal, and if you can manage to keep a slow-motion kill rate moving nice and steady you’ll earn style points (50 being an Achievement goal). You’ll also get an A, B, C or D rating at the end of every level based on kills, style points, monetary damage caused and more, which goes a long way to replaying the levels later.
Scattered throughout each level you’ll find health packs handily mounted on walls (though you can also use a Tequila Bomb move if you’re desperate), and various weapons strewn about. At first Tequila has his two trusty hand-guns, but eventually you’ll get your hands on the shotgun, assault rifle, submachine gun, heavy machine gun, and the devastating bazooka, but my personal favourite is the golden .44 calibre Matador (a John Woo classic). You’ll also get your hands on grenades later in the game which can be a real help when the enemies really start coming in thick and fast.
Initially there are three difficulty levels, Casual, Normal and Hard but after completing the game you also unlock Hard Boiled mode. Playing through on Normal, I managed to finish the game in under 10 hours (because I couldn’t put the damn thing down), but with full access to individual chapters and even separate moments within them, there’s plenty of room to come back and replay the game. There is also a robust multiplayer mode which can be played over Xbox Live and proved to be a pretty cool extra feature to an already stellar game.
From a visual stand-point Stranglehold is at times a masterpiece and at others a little lacking. For the most part, the in-game stuff is excellent. Tequila looks amazing and you really feel as though the team at Tiger Hill have captured Chow’s likeness within the character, right down to simple body language. But the cut-scenes throughout still lack the same type of flair. Textures are often flat or bland, and the animations can also be quite awkward. In this sense, while the game does a bang-up job creating an experience similar to watching a John Woo movie, it still lacks in presentation.
Moreover, while the game’s levels are reasonably well switched-up (with some on-rails shooting and some equally cool themes that switch-up between levels) it would have been cool to see a few more Woo nods throughout. The Killer is one of my all-time favourite Woo/Yun-Fat films, and it pains me we didn’t see any sniper missions, or any on-rails stuff on boats (a Hong Kong action staple for chase-sequences), but that’s just me complaining, and there’s really no reason we couldn’t see something of this nature pop-up in future Stranglehold games (of which I’m certain we’ll see).
At the end of the day Stranglehold is that rare breed of game that fuses simplicity with great technology. The destruction model for the game’s environments (fuelled by the Havok and Unreal game engines) is unparalleled, while the overall sensation of cool
just keeps you pushing on (fuelled by John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat). It is a relatively short game, but there's plenty of reason to keep picking it up, if not for the Achievements then for higher scores per level or just plain beating the unforgiving Hard Boiled mode, if you're still not convinced though, we have the PC demo available for download here
. I grew up watching John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat in their honkie movie exploits, but never once did I imagine their filmmaking styles would be perfect for a videogame, now I do. More please.