John Woo Presents Stranglehold Review

David Pitchforth

There have been games based on films for as long as I can remember. Harking back to my younger days, there was a game based on the film Aliens, in 1986, on the Commodore 64. As time has gone by, the once very clear line between games and films has started to get a little blurry. As technology improves, games based on films stop being purely video games, and start becoming more like interactive movies. Games like The Godfather throw you straight into the middle of established films, interacting with characters you already know, often voiced by the real life actors, and you can be totally immersed in the world created for you. Now we have a game that doesn’t just try to blur the line, it tries to erase it completely.

Stranglehold is the spiritual sequel to 1992’s Hard Boiled, directed by John Woo and starring Chow Yun Fat. Hard Boiled is an action film that not only became a cult classic, but it provided the stepping stone for director Woo to move to America and start making Hollywood blockbusters like Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission: Impossible 2. The main character of Hard Boiled, Inspector Yuen, affectionately known as Tequila, is reprised in Stranglehold as actor Chow Yun Fat lends his voice and his likeness to the game. John Woo also directs the action and his trademarks are stamped throughout the game, such as his penchant for white doves, slow motion action, and over-the-top gunplay.

The game itself is a 3rd person action shooter, and anyone who has played this type of game before will instantly feel comfortable playing it. The controls are tight and within moments of starting the game you’ll be pulling off stylish kills left, right and centre. And style is what this game is all about. Whether that’s running up a banister firing off headshots in slow-mo, swinging from a chandelier throwing grenades at people, or shooting neon signs onto the heads of your enemies while rolling on a roll cart, every time you kill someone earns you style points, which convert into stars of varying values, depending on how stylish your kill was. Kill enough people quickly enough and you can put together a huge combo which can earn you a 50 star style combo or above (which is an achievement), though it’s not too easy to do something of that magnitude and requires a lot of stylish or environmental kills to build up the combo that high. Scoring style points has two benefits; the first being an achievement for scoring over a certain amount, the other is that you can spend the style points in the shop on artwork, new characters for multiplayer, and more.

The game itself does have a story to follow, but to be honest the story is a simple one, and merely a vehicle that takes you from one location to another. You’ll be more concerned with the action in the game, and that’s an area where Stranglehold excels. Pretty much from the first moment of the game you’re confronted with enemies, with nary a moment to rest. The first level is the same as the demo, with a boss fight added, and it serves as a tutorial to start with, instructing you on how to interact with the environment and use it fully to your advantage. With the tutorial over, which doesn’t take long, the first level really eases you into the game, never really overwhelming you with enemies, but still providing enough target practise in getting your gun off and getting some nice stylish kills.

The main thing the first level does is introduce you to the “Tequila Bombs” that you get throughout the game. These are four special moves mapped to your d-pad, two of which unlock on the first level. The first bomb will give you a small health boost, handy in a tight spot, while the second is the Precision Shot mode, which allows you to use your gun in a sniper rifle like manner, zooming in on an enemy in slow motion so you can take aim properly and shot them wherever you want. The camera will then follow your bullet on its way to the target and provide a nice close-up reaction of the poor sap that just took a shot to the face/chest/groin/wherever. It’s a very movie-like trick that doesn’t tire as easily as I thought it might, as you shoot different parts of people to see what reactions you get when you hit them. The final two Tequila Bombs are unlocked in subsequent levels. Barrage is the next bomb, which slows time down and allows Tequila to fire off his weapon with unlimited ammo for a short space of time, doing more damage than usual, with the added bonus of being invulnerable as well. Against bosses this will almost certainly be your most used attack. The final bomb is the Spin Attack, and it’s a very John Woo type move. Tequila performs a 360 degree spin, with doves flying around him, and takes out every enemy who happens to be near him, while damaging bosses at the same time. In theory this is a great special, but I found that in most situations Barrage was more useful unless I was completely surrounded. Still, it has its place in the game and it’s definitely a great attack to watch.

To actually use these bombs you have to build up your Tequila Bomb meter by killing everyone around you, or finding the various Paper Doves that are scattered through the levels. The more stylish the kills, the faster your meter will build up, so mastering the techniques that are shown to you in the first level will be essential if you want to use the bombs on a regular basis. There’s no shortage of opportunities for this as almost every area in each level has been built with style in mind. Railings to run up, roll carts to jump on, tables to slide over, signs to crush people with – it’s all there if you look for it. Add lots of destructive scenery to the mix and you’ve got a cocktail for non-stop action that will satisfy even the most ardent action junkie.

Therein lays a problem however, if you want to be picky. The game is almost non-stop action, so for people who like their games to have a little variety to them, they may find Stranglehold to be too one-dimensional for them. The levels themselves are varied in design, ranging from slums to a casino, but the contents of each level are pretty much the same – go to an area, kill everyone, move to the next area, repeat until you get to the boss. There are no puzzles to solve, no boxes to move around to gain access to the next area, nothing to stimulate your mind. While this may indeed be a problem for some, I found it to be refreshing. There are enough games out there for me to stretch my mental abilities, but not that many where I could effectively take my brain out and give it a rest while relying solely on my reactions and accuracy. It’s an all-out kill fest that never stops, and because the game isn’t overly long (around 6-10 hours depending on your skill level) it doesn’t get too repetitive. Thankfully you do get the occasional breaks in the game, in the form of Mexican Standoffs. What happens here is that Tequila will find himself surrounded by several enemies, and in slow motion you’ll have to try to take all of them out, using the right thumbstick to aim while using the left thumbstick to sway your torso left and right to avoid the incoming bullets. These sequences can be very cool and are thankfully not overused, as you’d likely get very bored of them if you were doing them every ten minutes.

To help keep things fresh, Stranglehold supports multiplayer play over Xbox Live. Unfortunately, what could be the strongest part of the game turns out to be the weakest. The beauty of the single player game is in the way you can take on all comers at once, firing head shots every which way, diving around in slow-mo and generally enjoying the cinematic greatness of the game. In multiplayer these great points just don’t translate as well. With everyone having a more ample life meter, pulling off those perfect headshots don’t have the same impact as they do in the single player game, and a lot of the style, so important in the single player campaign, is missing here. It’s a shame really as it could have been excellent, but considering the wealth of online shooters currently available, as well as those coming soon, this is definitely a game which should be bought for the solo mode.

Of course, for a game to become more like an interactive movie, it has to be graphically sound, and Stranglehold doesn’t fail in this department. Chow Yun Fat is instantly recognisable to anyone who has seen his films, while the other characters all have a unique and realistic look to them. The cutscenes are excellent with everyone well animated and with Woo’s touch they’re all expertly directed. As mentioned before the levels are nicely varied in design; the 6th level may just be the nicest rain-soaked environment I’ve ever played in. There’s also no slowdown no matter how many enemies are on screen at once, or how much damage you’re causing to your surroundings.

The audio section of the game is kept just as strong as the graphical side thanks to some good voice acting, especially from Chow Yun Fat. The other voice actors all play their parts, though there are times when they sound slightly too American for Asian characters, but it’s a minor point which is easily overlooked. The weapons all sound appropriately powerful with some very nice environmental sounds thrown in, such as crumbling walls, smashed tables and destroyed signs. There’s never a time when the sounds feel like anything other than a part of the game, which is always a good sign of well implemented audio.

The achievements in Stranglehold are a well rounded bunch that will challenge you in many ways while always remaining achievable. Several are built around achieving certain landmarks in the game, either to do with style points earned, paper cranes collected, or kills performed in various ways. A lot of these achievements simply cannot be obtained with a single playthrough, which means that anyone wanting to 1000 this game will have to go through it at least twice. One achievement is for completing the game on it’s hardest difficulty, which is only unlocked after going through the game once on a lower setting. There are achievements centered around the online side of the game, with achievements for hosting matches on various maps, killing a certain number of people as one of the unlockable characters, or simply reaching a particular kill number. Again, while they’re not instantly accessible they’re all achievements that can be obtained if you’re willing to put the effort in.

When Midway and John Woo set out to create Stranglehold, they set out to create something that could as closely as possible resemble an interactive movie while still trying to create a game that was enjoyable to play, instead of something fun to watch. In many ways they succeeded, focusing on John Woo’s gun ballet that he made famous in Hard Boiled and giving you hundreds of enemies to use your skills on. They did skimp on the story slightly, which isn’t as deep and meaningful as I would have liked, but they served up the action by the truckload and don’t give you a moment to rest. If you like your shooters straight up and balls to the wall, you won’t go wrong with Stranglehold.

Excellent weapon sounds as you’d expect from this type of game, with some nice voice acting, especially from Chow Yun Fat. When the action heats up and the world around you starts to break, crumble and shatter you can hear it all and know exactly what’s breaking from the sounds you hear. Never intrusive, it always compliments the action.

Great character models, especially with regards to Inspector Tequila who looks just like he did in Hard Boiled, and just as cool. The ragdoll physics can give your kills some real punch as a shotgun blast throws an enemy into a box which shatters under his weight. The cut scenes have great production values and really add to the whole idea of this being a proper sequel to Hard Boiled.

If you’ve played a first person shooter before, you’ll be comfortable playing this game. The first level also acts as a training level which helps explain how you can interact with your environment and use it to your advantage and perform some very stylish kills.

As you’d expect from a game baring the moniker of John Woo, the game is expertly put together. John Woo himself cameos as the owner of the unlock shop where you can spend your style points on artwork, videos and multiplayer characters. Beautifully done.

While all the achievements are certainly gettable, the idea of playing through what is a fairly repetitive game twice may be too much for many people to deal with. If you’re willing to put in the time and effort you’ll find a good mix of achievements which will test you and may force you to do things slightly differently to normal.

I’d love to score the game higher, as it does so much right throughout the game, and it’s certainly one of the most enjoyable shooters you can find on the Xbox 360. However, a fairly short campaign, poor multiplayer games and no real incentive to play through more than once except for achievements and style points mean I can’t score it any higher than I have here. However, the most pertinent point was made in the first sentence, and if it’s a fun game you’re after, Stranglehold could easily be the game for you.

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