Saturday, July 12, 2008

John Woo's Stranglehold Review

This was a long time coming, apologies for the delay if you had been waiting for what I had to say on it before you went out and bought it.

When I first heard of Stranglehold I pretty much expected a console-heavy port to the PC of a mediocre game based on something John Woo scribbled upon a beer-mat somewhere. As I'm a big fan of Woo, especially his less "sanitised" early Hong Kong movies featuring Chow Yun Fat and a near-constant stream of bullets and death set against a broader canvas of family, brotherhood and loyalty, no matter how bad the game was; I was probably going to get it anyway just so I could be Chow. I was glad when more details were released and I was able to bring you the first news in May '06.

I was thrilled last July when I discovered the extent of Woo's involvement with the game and later it was obvious from playing it that he was the "director" although you controlled the moves, you were doing it the way he would most likely have directed Chow if this was a movie. Everything was so classic Woo, so stylised and beautiful as you spat leaden death at enemies in close-up, slow motion, with two pistols, while spinning and avoiding doves, that you almost never realised that the game is really just another crummy console port where you have only one path to take and thinking is just not really required at all. Don't get me wrong- this is a good thing. Having almost nothing to think about, or figure out lends itself to what is essentially an interactive movie, a fucking brilliant interactive movie where you are Chow Yun Fat and you're following a path laid down by John Woo!

Hard Boiled was Woo's greatest movie although it a little "tamer" than A Better Tomorrow 2 it's still my favourite. Stranglehold is a kind of a sequel to Hard Boiled in so far as you are the unorthodox renegade cop Inspector Tequila courtesy of a stunning digital scan of the legendary Chow Yun Fat. The blatantly predictable story is classic Woo as well, whatever your mission is, it can naturally only be achieved by mowing through hordes of gun-wielding Triads in a veritable orgy of violence that epitomises cool.

This may not be the most intelligent shooter out there, but it certainly has the most eye-candy. There are many other slo-mo shooters on the market but Stranglehold's fine details make it what it is. Mostly it comes down to Woo's signature “Gun Ballet”. Tequila can interact with several objects whilst still wielding his two pistols or other weapons. Among his tricks is the ability to swing off chandeliers, slide across railings, run up banisters, run along on rails, spring off walls and zip down lines. When interacting with the environment in such a way, the slow-mo function is enabled and everything bizarrely turns sepia - to make you aim better?

A diverse selection of environmental interactions is expanded even further with the ability to shoot signs and other objects to send them crashing down on opponents, lending some tactical element to what you're shooting at. Many bad guys are as obliging as to stand right next to highly volatile gas canisters that will explode once it gets a sniff of a bullet.

If you kill your enemies in innovative enough ways, you get awarded style points that clock up on the left of the screen. These points are then proportionally added to your ‘Tequila Bomb Gauge’, which the allows you to perform a variety of impressive stunts from Tequila’s repertoire. These include common console power ups - health boosts, aiming bonuses, and various special attacks. As you progress through the game these are all eventually unlocked and are useful for getting out of between a rock and a hard place.

As Stranglehold is created with Unreal Engine 3, the game is extremly good looking although there are not many graphical options to play around with, probably down to the game being an Xbox 360 game first and foremost and there's no anti-aliasing. Nevertheless world is very full and the physics engine compliments this extremely well, with walls crumbling away when shot at and tables and chairs smashing apart from explosions. The destructible environment allows for a completely immersive experience and you get a genuine sense of panic as the wall you are hiding behind is slowly eradicated by gun fire and you’re left to face a barrage of enemies with no protection.

The voice acting on the whole is very good and echoes the film extremely well. The sound is very immersive and, in collaboration with the graphics and physics engine, creates an absorbing cinematic experience. Game music veterans Jamie Christopherson and Chris Velasco composed a complimentary score to the stylised Asian action on screen.

Final Verdict: If your rig can handle it then I insist you pick this up (especially as it's probably been discounted by now). Stranglehold is a lot of brain-dead fun and the ludicrous action scenes do get the adrenaline pumping in places even if they are repetitive.

Colonel Creedon Verdict: ****

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