Wasted away again in Margaritaville.
In the interest of full disclosure, Midway sent me this nifty pair of matched Beretta 9mm replica pistols (they’re cigarette lighters). Will this cool bribe influence my review? I leave that for you to decide.
However, did any reviewers other than myself honestly divulge this information? Nope, and at least one of them is selling their guns on Ebay. Tsk. Tsk.
I’m keeping mine (they’re too cool), for practicing my slow-motion diving and shooting. And for the last couple of days, I’ve been dual-wielding the virtual version of these pistols in Stranglehold.
John Woo’s Stranglehold, as the game is also known, is the spiritual sequel to the Hong Kong action classic Hard Boiled starring Chow Yun-Fat. A rogue cop named Tequila, reprises the star role and is voiced (this time in English) by Chow.
Investigating the murder of a fellow Hong Kong police officer, Tequila uncovers a network of Chinese and Russian mobsters who try to kill Tequila and double cross each other simulatenously. To add to the mess, Tequila’s old girlfriend and daughter show up to get kidnapped, are passed from gang to gang, and make the story oh-so dramatic by having the ex-girlfriend be the daughter of one of the gang leaders. It’s cheesy and ridiculous, and to appreciate it, you’ll need some Tequila of your own. A couple shots at least.
Speaking of shots, if you ignore the story, you’ll discover that the rest of the game is about shooting. Lots and lots of shooting. Seemingly endless waves of grunts appear out of thin air for you to show off your arsenal of satisfying weapons. In the short seven hours or so it takes to play through the main mode, I racked up 1,293 kills. Desensitized, my ass!
That deserves another shot of Tequila, as alcohol and guns are the ingredients for my favorite cocktail. You can tally these devastating headcounts for one reason - “Tequila Time”, a slow-motion mode that works like bullet-time in Max Payne and F.E.A.R., only with more booze. Though triggering Tequila Time manually is the most effective strategy, Stranglehold tries to get you to use it interactively with the environment, just as you would find in a John Woo film. Slide down a banister, leap onto a rolling cart, and roll through the restaurant shooting baddies in slow-mo and you will earn extra “Style Points”.
The environmental interactions, though, don’t work very well. Try to swing onto a chandelier and you are just as likely to dive across the floor instead. It's easier just to run, turn on the Tequila, and shoot everyone in the head.
To add to your supercop abilities, you can also fill up your “Tequila Bomb” (I just invented a new drink!) and use it to heal yourself, make crazy sniper shots, or just shoot everyone in the room while doves mysteriously fly around you.
The only break between shooting people comes in shooting people in a different way. A mini-game, similar to John Woo’s famous Mexican standoffs, has you lean and dodge bullets Matrix-style with one stick while you aim and shoot enemies with the other. It’s not revolutionary, but hey, at least it’s new.
Unfortunately, the gameplay breaks down fairly often, with enemies acting like idiots, getting stuck on objects, or becoming bulletproof from particular angles. One frustrating boss fight is impossible to complete unless you move through his apartment in exactly one particular way, and another involved me and the boss character just emptying dual sub-machine guns (two each!) into each other from point-blank range for about two minutes.
I grabbed a health pack. He didn’t. A winner is me.
A number of the levels are frustrating as well. “Blow up 16 drug tables” gets infuriating in the confusing shanty town of tin huts with no map until you finally find the next door you can shoot open or the telephone poll you can shoot down so you can run across it. “Plant the 12 bombs” took me forever to find the last bomb location I had missed.
On the other hand, it’s the interaction with the environment that’s the best part of the game. Nearly everything can be shot up and destroyed. So much so that when you can’t shoot something up, it really stands out.
But other than all the flying debris, the graphics are pretty bad. Low-res textures, lousy water effects, and a finicky camera just don’t pass the next-gen sniff test. And with the incredible-looking characters in The Darkness and Heavenly Sword out there, Stranglehold’s wooden, oddly sheened faces don’t cut it anymore.
Sound is a lot better, with satisfying guns and explosions, Muzak in the elevators, and good voice acting by the cast. I think I’ve learned some new Chinese insults.
The multiplayer game feels as tacked-on as this paragraph where I talk about the multiplayer mode. It’s deathmatch-only, and Tequila Time becomes pretty pointless when everybody goes slo-mo at the same time. Obviously, due to the restraints of the space-time continuum, a multiplayer game cannot go slo-mo for just one player.
Really, the saving grace of Stranglehold is that it’s actually fun when it’s working right. The gunplay is satisfying, and the flying bullets and shreddable environments just feel right. If you’re a fan of Hard Boiled or action games in general, Stranglehold is a worthy rental and you’ll easily beat it before it’s due back.
Me? I’m sticking to my Berettas and pouring another Tequila. Now I just need to find two people who need their cigarettes lit at the same time and aren’t easily startled.