John Woo’s Stranglehold

The mere mention of a John Woo/Chow Yun Fat team up makes any action movie fan drool with anticipation. If you have ever seen The Killer, Hard Boiled, A Better Tomorrow, or Face/Off, you know what to expect: A violent and bloody ballet of death and destruction, where the characters almost seem like superheroes as they glide across the screen. Woo’s Hard Boiled turned both he and actor Chow Yun Fat into international stars, and the two have teamed together once again to deliver a direct sequel to Hard Boiled, John Woo’s Stranglehold. Does this game have the intensity to finally realize the dream of a John Woo video game?

First off, this game has the best menu I have ever seen in a video game. Based off a DVD-like interface, the main menu shows a moment in time where Tequilla (the main character) is in the middle of enemies doing a Tequilla Spin (more on that later). As you choose various options, the menu zooms over to that part of the battle. It’s a nice touch and a welcome change to the generic menus you encounter in practically every game.

The game plot is classic Woo with some American touches. In the years since the events of Hard Boiled, Tequilla has begun to spout sarcastic and snappy one-liners. However, when it gets right down to it, he is still the merciless take-no-prisoners cop we knew in Hard Boiled. Though he appears a few years younger in this game (a topic the lead designer swiftly sidestepped when I questioned him about it at E3 2006), Chow Yun Fat brought his A-game to the table and Stranglehold is better for it. It would have been nice to hear him speak in his native language (at least for the parts in China), but thats a minor gripe that doesn’t really have a bearing on the score.

The secondary characters, with a few exceptions, don’t have the detail that all of the main characters do. The generic thugs have only three or four variations in an area, and they aren’t very detailed. However, do to the nature of Massive D (more on that in a moment) this can be forgiven as the processing power of the 360 was probably needed for that. Animations in the game are excellent, and are filled with little details. Be it the way enemies have multiple reactions to the same wound (shoot three different enemies in the throat and you’ll get three different animations), or the way that Tequilla tilts his head to avoid close calls while in cover (while grimacing at how close it got), this game is beautifully animated.

The environments themselves are both varied and fun to play in. And by play in, I mean destroy. Touting what they call Massive D, the game designers have basically created a world that with enough firepower, you can completely ruin. Everything in the environment reacts to gunfire and explosions realistically, and breaks apart if it’s possible to do so. There are, of course some things that can’t be blown apart, but it’s fun to enter a stage and predict just what kind of havoc you can create.

But Tequilla has more than just the ability to blow environments apart. Some parts of the environment can be interacted with to score style points. See a banister? Odds are Tequilla can run right up it, or slide down on it like a surfboard. See that sign above that enemies head? Shoot it and not him for extra points. Bunch of bad guys in that garage? Jump on the handy toolbox with wheels and glide down the ramp in beautiful slow-motion, scoring points as you go. All parts that he can interact with are highlighted in what’s termed as Tequilla-vision, which basically shows a white line over the interactive objects. The fun of the game not only comes with killing enemies, but stringing together environmental interactions with accurate gunshots to created stylish kills. Each kill is judged with a Five Star Rating system. The combo lasts until the star meter on the right hand side of the screen goes dark, and is a generous three seconds before it wears out. This encourages the player to jump around like a ballet trained gymnast, leaping off banisters and balconies trying to score the ultimate kill. Max Payne may have been the first game to use bullet-time (called Tequilla-Time in this game) and Total Overdose: A Gunslinger’s Tale in Mexico may have been the first game to use a combo meter to judge style, but Stranglehold is the first game to use them successfully together.

As the game progresses, you begin to unlock Tequilla Bombs. These are special powers that can be used after scoring a certain number of points. The first of these is a simple heal. Unlike most action games, Tequilla doesn’t heal just on his own. But with a simple tap of the digital, some minor damage is restored. This is good since it can’t be used as a replacement for a real health pack, but it keeps Tequilla alive long enough to reach one. The second Tequilla Bomb is a Ringo Lam-style Precision Shot. This gives you a one hit kill over practically any enemy in the game (except bosses) as Tequilla uses his exceptional aim to hit an enemy he couldn’t otherwise reach. The next one is called the Barrage attack, and it’s my personal favorite. The only time you see Tequilla reload in the game is when the camera pans back to start this power. This makes Tequilla invincible and his weapon turn into a weapon of massive destructive power. Use it with a rocket launcher or shotgun for best (and most destructive) results. Finally we have his most powerful Tequilla Bomb, the Spin attack. With weapon in hand (or hands) Tequilla spins around flooding the environment with bullet after bullet while neatly avoid any fire of his own. In singleplayer, this is a one hit kill on any non-boss enemy. A costly attack, to be sure, but a great one.

Armed with these powers, Tequilla spends about six to eight hours tearing through environments raging from bars to casinos to museums to slums in beautiful high definition. Some areas are better than others, but none of them feel too short. The best is the third stage where Tequilla visits the Mega Club, a casino/restaurant. In a nod to Desperado, Tequilla walks in carrying two guitar cases which you then strategically place in spots around the club. Once placed, the enemies make the foolish mistake of trying to kill the hero. While this is more of an arena-like area than the other parts of the game, it’s fun as there is plenty of ways to interact and defeat enemies.

Still the game does have some issues. First off, even for an intense shooter, it’s very short. The multi-player makes up for this, but the single-player could have been longer (or at least had one Church shootout in homage to the Chow//Woo film, the Killer). Second, while all areas have interactions that can easily be seen in Tequilla Vision, some areas require through searching as the target points are hidden or obscure. The second stage, for example, has a shot which can only be made by looking through a distant hole in a far away ship and hitting it with a precision shot. Unless you spent the Tequilla Bomb to look for it, you wouldn’t actually know it was there. And since you only get Tequilla Bombs by killing enemies, you could easily get lost trying to find a target point.

The multiplayer makes up for this a lot. At first you may wonder why a multiplayer game, which is about huge shootouts, is limited to eight characters. Then you realize that every single piece of destructibility from single player was carried over to multiplayer without any slowdown whatsoever. Once we found a game was wasn’t hosted by someone who wasn’t just trying to build achievement points (wimp!), we had a great time tearing things apart. Every Tequilla Bomb found its way into multiplayer without losing any balance. So while the Ringo Lam-Style Precision shot is still slow as mollasses its still a one hit kill on characters that are much tougher than normal. Barrage does massive damage, especially with the right weapon and is a great power if you are cornered. Finally, the Spin Attack Tequilla Bomb lost its insta-kill power, but it’s still really deadly as it now requires two shots to kill someone. Spin Attack with a fully automatic weapon, and you’re a force to be reckoned with.

As long as you go into this game expecting an intense John Woo thrill, you will not be disappointed. If you like games like Disgaea or Phoenix Wright, this isn’t for you. Otherwise, this is an amazingly great purchase. Get it now.