“A hardboiled, Hong Kong bullet ballet with cinematic grace and famous acting/directing talent.” That’s the promise Midway made when they unveiled John Woo presents Stranglehold at E3 ‘05. It sounded like a great concept and a spiritual sequel to Hard Boiled was exactly what action fans were looking for, but after two years of silence from the development team many where starting to wonder if the game was ever going to come out from behind closed doors.
Luckily that all changed last week when Midway finally unveiled a demo and gave gamers have their first choke of Stranglehold.
For those who weren’t into Hong Kong cinema back in 1992, Hard Boiled was John Woo’s last action epic before he left for Hollywood. With the help of Chow Yun-Fat and a talented stunt crew, Woo created Inspector Tequila, a no-holds barred, balls to the wall cop on a quest to take down Triad leader Johnny Wong. Over the course of the movie, Tequila engaged in a number of slow-mo gun battles, destroying a ridiculous amount of property and spilling an absurd amount of blood. Needless to say, expectations for Stranglehold are running high.
Luckily for true believers, Midway doesn’t disappoint. From the opening cinematic to the last round fired Stranglehold feels just like it should. Cut-scenes are filmed with John Woo’s trademarked style and feel more like they were filmed with a camera than animated in a studio.
Dialog feels natural and is very fluid. The caliber of acting talent working on the project is far superior to most other licensed titles on the market today. Many fans will be happy to note that the demo also features unusually strong writing, something also not often seen in a licensed game.
Game play itself is reminiscent of Max Payne with a similar focus being placed on slow-motion dives and gun battles. However, despite the similarities between the two games, Stranglehold is far more than just a clone. Where Max Payne would’ve been stopped by running into a low obstacle, Tequila just slides across it in slow mo and keeps going.
Tequila Time is a vastly improved version of Max Payne’s bullet time. Instead of activating every time you dive or slide, it only activates when there’s an enemy in your line of sight. It may seem like a trivial difference, but Tequila time runs out quickly so not wasting it when you can’t hit anyone is a great improvement. It also serves as a warning if there’s someone in front of you can’t quite see.
As you wage your war on crime, you’ll notice that your stylish kills start to fill a meter. When the meter fills to certain level it enables certain special abilities known as Tequila Bombs. There are four bombs in total and all of them are available in the demo, though you must play through multiple times to unlock them. Unfortunately the demo does not save your progress so you must re-unlock them every time you play.
The first bomb, Heal, is pretty straight forward. Push the D-pad left and all the energy in your meter is converted into health. Though it may not seem all that special, it’s a god send when you’re stuck in a long drawn out gun battle on Hard or Hard-Boiled difficulty.
Precision Shot, the second bomb, slows down time and allows Tequila to zoom in and take careful aim at an enemy. When you fire, the camera will track the bullet as it flies towards its target all the way through the impact and the reaction of the shot villain. Depending on where the bullet hits the shot can just wound the enemy or be fatal and often hilarious. For example try shooting an enemy in his privates. Watch as he grabs them, screams in pain and falls as his eyes roll back in his head.
When you complete the demo on Normal, you’ll unlock Hard difficulty and the Barrage Tequila Bomb. Barrage is fun because once you activate it you become invincible and have unlimited ammunition. It’s highly effective, especially if you’re backed against a wall and should prove to be even more fun if you can activate it with the rocket launcher in the final game.
The last Tequila Bomb, unlocked by beating the demo on Hard, is Spin Attack, a power that slows down time and eliminates ever enemy on the screen. It’s truly a sight to hold and should feel familiar to Woo fans. When activated the game cuts to a close up of Tequila. With a look of pure anger on his face Tequila begins to spin, firing like crazy. As a flock of doves takes off around him the game cuts back and forth between Tequila’s blazing guns and the enemies being gunned down. The entire scene is set to a very calming piece of soft music, a contrast often seen in many of Woo’s movies.
In addition to the feel of the story and the aforementioned Tequila Bombs, the environment of the game also fits within the realm of Woo by featuring completely unrealistic explosions and chaos. Shooting a basket of fruit would do little more than spray a teaspoon of juice in the real world, in Tequila’s world it will explode in a terrific spray of juice and fruit.
Mere concrete is, of course, fully destructible and offers little more than temporary cover when you’re involved in an intense gun battle. Fountains, signs, air conditioners, old door and market stands are all fully destructible and greatly increases your immersion into the world of Stranglehold.
Midway has done a phenomenal job with this demo, and assuming the normal tweaks and polish were added between the creation of the demo and the final release, Stranglehold is almost guaranteed to be one of the best licensed games of all time.
Though a normal gamer may just see Stranglehold as being a solid action title, for the gamer that’s a fan of John Woo, it looks like an experience that shouldn’t be missed.