STAFF REVIEW of John Woo presents Stranglehold (Xbox 360)

Friday, October 26, 2007.
by Stacy Code

John Woo presents Stranglehold Box art John Woo Presents Stranglehold, developed by Tiger Hill and published by Midway, has a lot of expectation to live up to. Tiger Hill is a unique studio ? created in 2003 by John Woo and Terence Chang, Tiger Hill seeks to bring existing video game worlds into the world of action cinema, and to bring the world of action cinema into video games in a unique cross pollination. Strangehold is the video game sequel to John Woo?s arguably best Hong Kong action film, Hardboiled, and brings back Police Inspector Tequila Yuen, played by Chow Yun Fat, directed and shot by John Woo, and controlled by you, the player, in what is essentially a ten-hour Hong Kong action movie with the classic plot, action, gunfights, drama, betrayals and downfall that any action fan would expect from a John Woo film.

The story of Stranglehold is one of the biggest draws of the game, as it?s delivered to the player through many ways both passive and active. The plot of the game plays as a standalone sequel to Hardboiled (you don?t need to see the film to enjoy the story twists and characters of the game) and features all of the signature John Woo elements ? tortured hero character, often betrayed ? undercover partner and friend ? and of course the gun-ballet choreography that John Woo is famous for. In the eighties, frustrated with Hong Kong cinema?s limited palate for films ? mostly historical/mythical martial arts pictures at the time, and drama pieces, Woo decided to elevate the use of guns in action movies to the artistry shown by the users of classic weapons in the martial arts. His style of shooting and editing these gunfights was unique? slow motion, sweeping zooms and circular dolly shots around characters, and of course ultra-slow motion photography of the destruction on the environments these gun battles happen in ? exploding plaster, shattered glass, splintered wood, and of course ? the splatter of blood as the bullet hits home. And the hero characters wielded these guns as true martial arts weapons- extensions of their own hands, often fighting in many directions at once and with blinding speed.

Gameplay in the world of Stranglehold is a refined, evolved version of third person shooters such as Max Payne and Enter the Matrix. Yes, it?s a third person shooter, yes, you get to wield two guns at the same time, and yes, yes, YES - of course it has the iconic slow-motion time-dilation effect that?s known as bullet-time, Matrix-focus, etc. depending on who?s trademark we?re disrespecting here. Yet, despite the essentially pedestrian framework of the game ? run, pick up the guns, shoot the bad guys (in slow motion or otherwise), Strangehold adds enough genuine Hong Kong cinema flavour ? through sound, voice acting, cutscenes, music, and of course the levels and settings ? and through gameplay additions like the ?Tequila Bomb? powerups and the use of the whole environment in combat to take this kind of game to a new level.

You play the role of Tequila Yuen, hero character of Hardboiled and a classic, authority-bucking, no-nonsense renegade cop whose on-the-job body count is inverse to the word count of his short, no-nonsense, usually one-liner dialogue. Tequila?s objective on any given level is usually pretty simple ? kill all of the thugs, punks and scumbags who are running to kill you first. There are some fun mixups to the gameplay formula such as the Apocalypse now-style first-person ?machine-gunning tons of bad people from a helicopter doorway? sequence, ten-versus-you standoff sequences, and objectives to certain levels ? plant twenty bombs on this tanker to sink it, blow up forty meth labs in this shantytown to irritate the local drug kingpin ? but it all boils down to shooting things, and blowing them up. This would be dull and problematic, except for the John Woo element. This isn?t a game that rewards careful, slow, tactical, considered play ? this is a game based on a John Woo movie, and as such it rewards the player who runs hell-bent for justice and determined to take the bad guys out in the flashiest, most stylish, most cinematic way possible.

Control of Tequila will initially feel a little strange to the player expecting Max Payne with a graphical upgrade ? Tequila is very interactive to his environment; walk him forcibly into a table and he?ll suddenly vault onto it and slide across, clearing the glasses, plates, or merchandise off and smashing them. Walk him to a bar and he?ll vault over it, sliding headlong. What the player will find is that when the combat ensues, interacting with the environment ? sliding across a table, running up a banister like an acrobat, swinging from a chandelier, or even diving down a staircase ? automatically triggers ?Tequila Time? ? a slow-motion dilation of time that allows the player to deliberately, selectively pick his targets and blow them away while at the same time pulling off some serious movie-style moves. Awkward at first, the player will soon plot movement through a room based on how he can use the environment ? running across this lobby of the restaurant, sliding across those tables, and then running up the banister to jump onto that chandelier will keep the character in almost perpetual slow-mo, allowing maximum mayhem and rewarding the player more than bursting into the room and just blasting away. Right off it?ll be clear that everything ? everything in these environments is destructible ? glass shatters, plaster explodes, wood splinters into matchsticks, and in slow motion it can almost get hard to see through the sheer amount of damage spray getting kicked off by the volume of bullets being thrown back and forth. Players are awarded style points for how cinematically they take out the bad guys, and the points not only affect the letter grade awarded for each chapter?s completion, but can be spent in an Unlockables Shop on things like production art, behind-the-scenes goodies and other treats (and it?s an automatic Achievement just for going in there, so go on in and meet the proprietor.)

As the player guns down baddies, a special ?tequila bomb? meter at screen bottom is charged, and the energy stored in it can be spent in a few special moves that put the true John Woo finish on the game?s combat. In a pinch, small bits of the meter can be spent on a quick, on-the-spot health fix if the player?s hurting from enemy bullets, but the points are best spent on one of three special moves ? Precision Aim lets a player slo-mo, zoom, and target at the same time, and then rewards you with a slow, tracking camera shot that follows the bullet across the battlefield right into the enemy?s head, followed by a short clip of him reacting to getting shot. Barrage essentially gives you five to ten seconds of God Mode ? unlimited ammo, total indestructibility ? but it?s dressed up; you are treated to a clip of a visibly ticked off Tequila reloading all of his weapons, and the screen takes on a surreal, hazy, washed-out blue tint as he storms the level. The final special move (and the most expensive) is the spin attack, and it?s the perfect, signature John Woo moment of the whole game. Tequila slows, drops to a crouch, and amidst a flutter of trademark doves, whirls in a spin, weapons blasting continuously, taking down every single enemy in line of sight that isn?t a boss character. It?s essentially the coolest, most cinematic version of the ?smart bomb? pulled off in a video game yet.

Graphically, the game is a mixed bag. The character models, and these are important since so much of the game is told through its cinematics and its character models, are a little blocky and last-gen, looking like yesterday?s geometry wearing today?s textures and shaders. Animation on the characters is a little inconsistent as well ? Tequila?s own animation seems to feel a bit forced and robotic at times, and doesn?t seem to fit in as well sometimes with the enemy characters, some of whom seem motion-captured and some of whom seem key-frame animated. Texture detail is amazing, as one would expect on the Xbox 360, and the sheer amount of detail populating these levels is an eye popper ? Tequila ravages environments as diverse as a Hong Kong slum, a high-end penthouse apartment that would be Donald Trump?s envy, restaurants, natural history museums (think about all the stuff you could destroy in one of those!) and shipping harbors. The physics involved in the level is very convincing, important since so much stuff is getting blasted and since the player interacts with the environment so much during play. And the cutscenes are, of course, gorgeous, with all of the John Woo camera angles, cuts, setups and action ? and there?s lots of them; there?s essentially a John Woo movie laced throughout the course of the game.

Game audio is good ? effects sounds, bullet hits, are satisfying (important since the player will be hearing a lot of it over the fifteen to twenty hours of gameplay) but nothing particularly striking. The game?s music is a standout, though, and player?s will be charging up the Tequila Bomb meter just to perform the Spin Attack to hear the sound of Tequila?s theme music. There?s a solid mix of East and West in the soundtrack, with rising dynamic action music during fights and an Eastern cinema feel during the level exploration and cutscenes. Most important, the cast of voice actors is rounded out with Chow Yun Fat himself as Inspector Tequila, who?s in-game likeness is eerily lifelike.

Overall, Stranglehold is a fun shooter to play, and an exciting indicator of the things to come if the borders between Hollywood and gaming continue to blur. It?s a big old bullet festival where bodies fly and stuff gets broken by the truckload. There are the standard Achievements for beating successive chapters of the story, as well as a few fun ones that are easily unlocked through perseverance (Master of Barrage, Master of Precision aim) and killing a lot of enemies, and a few funny ones (Paleontologist ? completely destroy the T-Rex in the Museum of Natural History) and, surprisingly, a multiplayer mode which does manage to incorporate a balanced version of Tequila Time slow motion without completely disrupting the gameplay ? though no Halo-killer, it?s a fun place for the player to take the chops they?ve learned playing through the story campaign mode and take them up against some less forgiving, unpredictable opponents. John Woo?s Stranglehold is a Hong Kong cinema buff?s delight ? a movie made playable, with player as star. Pick up a pair of Beretta 92?s, put on your shades, and go get some.

Overall: 8.2 / 10
Gameplay: 8.6 / 10
Visuals: 7.4 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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