If you're like me, you've played boatloads of action games. From Nazi-killing vampires to Mafia hitmen to scientists with no voice, we've done them all. We've handled countless arsenals, almost all of which consist of, at the very least, a pistol, shotgun, submachine gun, assault rifle, sniper rifle, grenades, and a rocket launcher. We've seen the same stereotypical action game crap go on over and over. We're jaded. Games need to do something special, even if it's just one thing, to keep our attention.
And here comes Stranglehold, the new game by Tiger Hill Entertainment, Midway, and action movie director John Woo. Stranglehold is a video game sequel to the classic 1992 action flick Hard Boiled starring Chow Yun-Fat, and yes, he's back as Inspector Tequila. You'll take on hordes of low-level Hong Kong thugs and then bring the pain to America as you hunt down a criminal organization that has kidnapped Tequila's daughter as well as his ex. And this is the part where you yawn and mention that you've seen this plot dozens of times and possibly discount this game completely - and hell, I don't blame you. But once you get into the world of Stranglehold, you'll see that while the developers didn't really aim that high, they are delivering a solid, authentic experience here.
As Inspector Tequila you're going to get all those great, semi-acrobatic moves that made the action in John Woo's movies so original - especially compared to the crap Hollywood was shoveling out in the early 90s. You'll get to dive in all directions, run up or slide down banisters, hit the deck and fire from the floor, and take out ridiculous numbers of thugs while hardly breaking a sweat (although you'll notice that during the close-ups, Tequila does often actually start sweating, bleeding, and even grimacing during the more intense firefights). All it takes is a flick of the left trigger to send Tequila into a context-sensitive maneuver, often aerial, while the slow motion allows you to plug four guys almost simultaneously. Sometimes you'll have to do a little dance to get the game to agree that yes, you do want to run up this railing, but overall the system works well enough.
Tequila does have other capabilities, too, like ducking or hiding behind walls for cover. Gears of War has become the de facto standard for getting cover in an action game, and while Stranglehold doesn't take the crown, it does shoot the crown into tiny little pieces. You see, a huge amount of the nicely detailed rooms you'll be fighting in are highly destructible, and that includes the cover you're hiding behind. From museum fossils to tables to even concrete pillars, almost all of Stranglehold's interior environments can be busted up - quite realistically - in the massive amount of gunfire that goes on. Your cover can get literally blown to smithereens, exposing you, and you can do the same to the enemy. Sure, it looks great, but it also adds up to some unique gameplay as Tequila is forced to stay on the move, dodging from one fragile bit of protection to another. And if you've seen Hard Boiled recently, then you'll know that this is certainly not out of place in the John Woo world.
It's not a video game without some over-the-top powers, though, and that's where Stranglehold delivers pretty well. Let's start out with the fact that the only time you'll see Tequila reload his guns are when you unleash certain abilities. Even having any kind reloading in this game is solely there to make Tequila look like a badass. And not only does the esteemed Inspector get his own version of slow-motion Bullet Time - creatively called Tequila Time - but he's got four special "Tequila Bomb" maneuvers he can bust out as well. Tequila Time paints the scene in some sepia tones and gives you the reaction time necessary to take out multiple guys while in a mid-air dive off of a staircase, and you can use it often enough that it becomes almost a necessity as you progress through this game's steep learning curve.
Tequila Bombs mostly have their uses. Kill enemies or pick up the paper cranes hidden throughout the levels to fill up a circular meter, and tap a direction on the D-pad to unleash it. The first and cheapest Bomb allows you to heal yourself a little bit, giving you that extra boost of energy in between first aid kits scattered throughout the levels. The next one allows you to take a slow-motion zoom into an enemy and fire off a single, high-powered bullet and get a pretty satisfactory close-up of the pain you have inflicted on your enemy. You'll find that this one is best used on bosses rather than on the more conventional gun-toting rabble.
Next is the Barrage, probably the best of the Bombs, as you become invincible for a short while, firing your weapon with massive speed in slow motion and with no need to worry about ammo (this ability is incredibly useful with the shotgun, as in the Barrage it fires almost as fast as an assault rifle). Finally, there's the Spin Attack, which sends doves flying out in classic John Woo style while Tequila automatically kills any normal enemy in his line of sight. This final attack is fun to see once or twice, but it's not terribly useful since there are rarely more than 3 or 4 enemies you can tag with it at once. Since the other Tequila Bombs are cheaper and can be used more often, it's better to stick with them.
The feature that makes the world of Stranglehold so destructible has its own little buzzword title, "Massive D", but what it really means is that you are going to get very gratifying firefights out of this. Shotguns lift your enemy upwards a bit, and the pellets that don't hit him will go on to trash a couple of slot machines or blow out an aquarium. While scenes like this are carefully scripted, rare occurrences in some games, it's a regular thing in Stranglehold. Whole sections of floors, railings, and other chunks of a level can be taken down, and while the first level (and the demo available on Xbox Live) might lead you to believe that the whole game will annoyingly place rickety signs right above the heads of every enemy you encounter, that stops pretty quickly and you're left with having to actually shoot your enemy more often than not (rather than do some goofy gimmick to take him out).
The final gameplay element would be the Standoffs, where Tequila suddenly loses all his fancy weaponry and is left with dual pistols. He gets surrounded by enemies and must take each one out in sequence while dodging bullets. Here, Tequila can't actually move, and all you can do is aim with the right stick like normal and flick the left stick left and right to dodge incoming bullets coming one way or the other. These sequences are pretty dull to me and really just don't make a lot of sense, especially since Tequila is surrounded; if all these guys just minded the crossfire and pulled their triggers at once, Tequila would be dead. But instead the player gets to take each one out in sequence; it just goes against the whole multiple-enemies-at-once thing that makes the rest of the game so fun.
Stranglehold does mix up the action in better ways by tossing in an arbitrary goal here and there, like giving you the goal of protecting a jazz band that's being forced to play right in the middle of a gunfight (if that's not John Woo, I'm not sure what is). Stuff like this could have been really frustrating, but the enemies you fight don't actually try to kill the band; the only time they will die is if you accidentally put them in between you and your enemies, or your own stray fire hits them. Throughout the levels there are a few bits of unique action that break up the pace a bit, and while some aren't quite as successful as others (there's a very long sequence where you fire a machine gun from a helicopter that seems to drag on forever), they do a better job of keeping it fresh than the Standoffs.
From a visual perspective, Stranglehold isn't the best looking game out there, but it's not very far from it, either. Not many games out there send you into Hong Kong back alleys and slums, and fewer still will send you into history museums where the T-Rex skeletons can be blown apart. The visuals on their own are good at best, but when stuff starts breaking in a deliciously satisfying way in slow-motion, you'll forget about how that last wall texture wasn't quite as high of a resolution as some games might have. And Chow Yun-Fat does bring both his likeness and his voice acting to the game, in English rather than Chinese, while the rest of the cast fall in to their respective roles well enough. The sounds of destroyed rooms and huge firefights are excellent; turn up your 5.1 surround system for this one. Nothing in the sound or graphics departments are likely to win any awards, but it is all solid and the fun factor is where this one shines anyway.
Stranglehold does include a multiplayer mode that attempts to bring just about all the special abilities from the single player game online, but it has backfired in a couple of ways. The huge amount of physics calculations don't work well over a network stream, the player limit is a pretty abysmal six, and those invincibility-granting Tequila Bombs are really annoying to be on the receiving end of. What comes through is a multiplayer mode that really feels tacked on and just not well thought-out. Luckily, the game does include replay value in the much more entertaining single player mode with some fun achievements, four difficulty levels (the last two can easily muster up controller-breaking levels of challenge) and unlockable bonuses.
While Stranglehold doesn't revolutionize action games, or even any one part of action games, it's a solid game with an authentic cinematic style, great use of Chow Yun-Fat, excellent action, and destructible environments. This one won't be going down in the history books along with the very best action games and the multiplayer mode is mediocre at best, but Stranglehold still carves out a niche that you'll want to come back and experience again every once in a while. Last I checked, Marcus Fenix and Gordon Freeman couldn't fly through the air horizontally while taking out a half-dozen guys with a pair of Berettas. Until they figure that out, Stranglehold definitely has a place in any action fan's library.