It would be very easy for the average person to take one look at Stranglehold and write it off as a Max Payne rip-off. That's because, in a sort of round about way, it is. Midway and John Woo's video game sequel to the director's classic Hong Kong action flick Hard Boiled borrows very liberally from the mechanics of Remedy's slow-motion, heavy-action franchise, which is a little ironic and mind-bending because Max Payne was itself a tribute to John Woo's brand of cinematic action. Regardless, if you're going to make a game based on a badass cop dodging, diving, and shooting all over the place in slow-motion, there are certainly worse places to look for inspiration. Stranglehold effectively takes the elements that made Max Payne fun and uses them to its own advantage, while sprinkling in a number of original touches and gimmicks that give the game its own Hong Kong cinema flavor. It's an interesting piece of work that's more fun than it isn't, and fans of Hard Boiled ought to especially enjoy watching Chow Yun-Fat reprise his role as Inspector Tequila.
Stranglehold takes place many years after Hard Boiled, though Yun-Fat's Inspector Tequila doesn't seem to have lost a step. He's still a rogue cop on the Hong Kong police force, and when a member of the force turns up dead, evidently offed by one of HK's major gangs, Tequila steps up to deal with the situation. What follows is a sometimes confusing and ham-fisted story of gangs double- and triple-crossing one another. Somewhere in there, Tequila's former girlfriend and daughter both end up being held hostage by one of the gangs. It's a decent crime tale that's certainly better than much of John Woo's American work (though exactly how involved Woo was in this game's production is debatable), but there is still something about the whole story that feels very Hollywood. It lacks the gritty feel of the original flick, and a lot of the film's cool factor to boot. Nevertheless, the plot serves as an OK-enough motivation to get Tequila back in action and shooting people in the face--and really, that's pretty much all you need.
You will shoot a lot of people in Stranglehold. This game's body count is pretty staggering for a game that runs only about six or seven hours. Enemies come flying out of every nook and cranny of each stage, and always with guns blazing. Fortunately, they don't have the ability to jump and dive around in bullet time like our man Tequila. Though the game refers to it as "Tequila Time," this is really just the bullet-time mechanic from Max Payne given a fancy makeover. The one trick is that you won't ever go into bullet-time automatically as a result of diving around, unless you specifically have an enemy in your targeting reticle sights. There is also a specific button that puts you into bullet-time completely separate from the shoot dodging, though it's rare when you ever need to use it.
That's not the only ability he's got, either. Tequila can interact with practically every piece of scenery in a level. If you run up to a table, you can choose to slide right over it, or kick it over and use it as a temporary cover point. If you run up to a wall, you can dash up it and dive even further than usual. If there's a rail nearby, you can run up or slide down it. See a little wheel cart sitting around? You can jump onto it and roll around the area, blasting everyone silly. Pieces of the environment can also be shot or otherwise destroyed for both fun and efficiency. If an enemy is standing underneath a neon sign, shoot it and watch the sucker get crushed. Exploding barrels are all over the place, and you can imagine the havoc they wreak when shot. There are even occasional environmental puzzles that require wooden poles or planks to be shot out to create new pathways for Tequila to traverse. These are arguably the game's weakest links, in that they're often difficult to discern and sometimes take more shots than they ought to actually work. Fortunately, about halfway through the game, the developers apparently decided to just give up on these distractions and focus almost exclusively on the shooting.
There's even more on offer. Pulling off stylish moves throughout the game fills up a meter that lets you trigger one of four different "Tequila bombs." These are special abilities that do everything from recharging your health, to letting you spin around like a gun-toting whirling dervish, killing all the enemies that surround you, all while doves go fluttering off into the sky (what would a Woo production be without doves?). These special abilities are all useful, though some more so than others. One example is the accurate-shot ability, which lets you move a targeting reticle in slo-mo to any part of an enemy's body, and then watch the bullet fly directly to its target. Save for a few enemies who are especially vulnerable to this move, it's hard to ever really want to use it when the next ability up the scale is an all-out barrage of invincibility and limitless gunfire that usually lasts long enough to clear the room.
The last element of gameplay isn't so much an ability as it is a sort of minigame. Periodically, Tequila will run into a group of enemies and end up in a standoff. These standoffs quickly snap Tequila's focus around from one enemy to the next. Using both the A and D buttons to dodge and the mouse to aim, you have to take enemies out one by one whil avoiding getting shot. It's tough to do (tougher even than on the Xbox 360 version, given that the right analog stick of the Xbox controller is definitely better suited for dodging), though once you get the hang of it, it's also quite amusing to watch Tequila dart from enemy to enemy while dodging bullets and unleashing hot-leaded hits of his own. Granted, it's a silly contrivance to have only one enemy at a time firing at you; if there are five guys, why don't they all shoot at once? But it is pretty fun, so it's a forgivable contrivance.
You can't quite call Stranglehold a one-trick pony, given that it does have a few different things going on at all times. However, all those things are fed directly into the act of shooting people--and shooting them often, to boot. Accordingly, it's good that the guns are appropriately satisfying to shoot. There's nothing remotely realistic about the game's guns, mind you, though that's arguably a good thing in the context of this game. Being able to shoot a guy from a hundred feet away with a shotgun and still take him out is helpful when you've got dozens of heavily armed enemies running around. Apart from that, you've got Tequila's default pair of pistols, along with assault rifles, submachine guns, heavy machine guns, grenades, and even the occasional rocket launcher to play around with. Each gun has its own strengths and weaknesses in power and accuracy, though they rarely matter much. You get to carry only two types of guns at once, and normally you'll want the gun that will do the most damage at all times. It's also worth noting that the PC version of Stranglehold controls a bit better than its console counterpart. Aiming with the mouse makes targeting enemies much, much easier, and it generally just feels better. Some of the character-movement controls on the keyboard feel stiffer in this version, but the improved shooting controls make up for that issue.
By no means is Stranglehold an overly challenging game, but by the time you hit the third or fourth level, you'll see a noticeable jump in difficulty. That's a good thing, because the early portions of the game are a bit of a cakewalk at times, even while you're still feeling out all your different abilities. Once you get past the point where the difficulty gears up, you'll actually have to use those different abilities smartly to survive some sequences. Cover points are also helpful, though you can rarely stay in one place for very long, as the environment around you tends to get destroyed very quickly. Likewise, enemies are usually smart enough to run up and start shooting if you stay in one place for too long. The Tequila bombs become a lifesaver in a few situations, though they also tend to make a few of the boss fights overly easy. Turning the game up to the hard difficulty level fixes that some, though not entirely.
As helpful as some of these abilities become later in the game, they're not entirely required. In fact, for much of the game, you can get away with just diving around like a crazy person over and over again, periodically ducking for cover for a second or two, and busting out with the occasional Tequila bomb for good measure. In a sense, it makes the gameplay a foregone conclusion. It's not that the gameplay isn't fun, because it is. But it's not so dynamic and over-the-top that you won't ever find yourself bored due to repetition. It's enjoyable to shoot enemies and blast apart the environment in the process, but when you end up doing it the same way over and over and over again, you'll be ready to move on and hope something new comes up. It rarely does. Little of what Stranglehold does ever feels like it operates outside of expected boundaries, and the few things that are original aren't necessarily amazing enough to hold up the entire game. Again, the gameplay is solid and even thrilling in spots, but it's probably not a bad thing that the game only lasts for a half-dozen hours or so. It might have gotten stale beyond that length.
Apart from the short single-player campaign, there are some production bonuses to buy through an extras shop (John Woo himself sits behind the counter), and a multiplayer mode that's probably not going to garner much attention. It's not that it's completely awful or anything, but it feels very tacked-on. You can only engage in standard deathmatches or team deathmatches with up to six players. Though the multiplayer plays a lot like the single-player game, it's not nearly as good. Maps are a little on the condensed side, and though you can use the slow-motion mechanic in multiplayer, its scattered execution in this mode makes it all but worthless. Essentially, it seems like you can't go into slo-mo unless you and your opponents all have a full Tequila time meter. At that point it becomes pointless to fumble around with it when you could just be focusing on shooting someone, and it almost makes things even more distracting when it suddenly pops on. With limited play modes, inconsistent, cramped gameplay, and the fact that there seem to be very, very few people playing this game online, this isn't a multiplayer game to get excited about.
Stranglehold's presentation is mostly good, though it's not without blemishes. By far the most impressive aspect of the game visually is the environments, and specifically how awesome it is to watch them get completely destroyed. Whether you're in a gaudy Hong Kong casino, a lavish penthouse, or a cold, sterile-looking history museum, it's great fun to destroy the scenery. It's really quite impressive how much of every environment is destructible. It's also a boon for the gameplay, because each cover point you hide behind tends to get shot to hell very quickly, which forces you to duck and run. On the less positive side, character models are overly shiny and not especially detailed, animations are limited, and the camera periodically gets in the way of the action when it snaps to angles that are hardly beneficial to your survival.
Unfortunately, we experienced some performance issues specific to the PC version of Stranglehold. On the first test machine we tried, a single-core Pentium 3.4 GHz with a gig of RAM, Windows XP, and an nVidia GeForce 7800 GTX card, the game refused to run. Every time we'd boot the game up, we'd get one of those delightful blue screens of death that force you to reboot your machine. On a more powerful dual-core machine with 2 gigs of RAM, Windows Vista, and an nVidia 8800 GTX video card, that problem ceased, though during gameplay, the game would periodically crash to the desktop. Fortunately, the game autosaves after every checkpoint, so as annoying as this issue is, you won't ever lose significant progress. At the very least, when the game ran, it ran very smoothly, with no hitches or frame rate problems to speak of.
Audio is more consistently enjoyable than the visuals. Chow Yun-Fat joins several other noted actors for the voice cast. Dialogue is appropriately cheesy, especially when Tequila's boss keeps tossing out every angry police captain cliché in the book. Largely the voice acting is quite solid. Yun-Fat dead-reads a few of his lines, but mostly he sells the character as well as he can while speaking English. It is sort of weird that the sequel to a classic Hong Kong action flick would be entirely in English instead of Cantonese, but considering the audience, it's also not really surprising. The soundtrack is a nice mix of typically bombastic orchestral pieces and some Asian-flavored string sections, and the game's sound effects are mostly top notch, from the gun sounds right on down to the individual sounds of bullets hitting each and every type of surface.
Stranglehold isn't the sort of game that's going to set the shooter genre on fire. It's a more than competent take on an existing formula that has enough unique moments and overall challenge to succeed. Sure, it gets repetitive at times, its few forays into more action-adventure style gaming over straight ahead shooting aren't much fun, and the multiplayer is borderline irrelevant; but there's enough solid, exciting action here for any shooter fan to sink their teeth into. It's a short ride, but an entertaining one while it lasts.