Do you like games with a metric ton of action, shooting and destruction? That’s an important question to answer when you are considering playing Stranglehold, a 3rd-person action game from Midway games and movie director John Woo. It is a sequel of sorts to his 1992 film Hard Boiled starring Chow Yun-Fat as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen but it’s not necessary to watch Hard Boiled first as the plot of Stranglehold has little to do with the movie other than featuring Tequila. And you won’t care about the plot anyway. What you need to know about Hard Boiled is it’s near the top of the Movie Body Counts charts with 307 corpses which will tell you a lot about its video game sequel. Stranglehold is an extremely fun, violent, destructive and sometimes frustrating experience. Let’s see just how it stacks up.
Stranglehold uses the fantastic-looking Unreal Engine 3, which recently wowed us in Bioshock. In general, the visuals in Stranglehold also look good but to a lesser extent and with some exceptions. The environments are rendered with extraordinary detail which gives them a lifelike appearance. Rooms are filled with small objects, terrain and building textures are sharp and we haven’t even talked about the game’s ability to let you tear things up. Just about everything in Stranglehold can be destroyed. Frequently you will walk into a room and the camera will pan around showing you exquisite architecture, furniture, priceless artwork or some other beautiful but obviously fragile collection of items. You will smile as you know what will happen when you are done with the inevitable gunfight: the room will be a devastated wasteland. Part of the fun of Stranglehold is admiring the glorious carnage you will leave behind. You are certainly guaranteed to smile at least once or twice at the crazy destruction. In fact, the game keeps track of the dollar amount of damage you cause: at the end of the game it told me I had inflicted a measly $119,042,272. I was really hoping to break $150 million.
While you will leave a trail of carnage behind, you will not leave a trail of bodies behind as they disappear shortly after you dispatch them. This was disappointing as you certainly pile up a lot of kills and all you have left to show for it at the end of the battle is their weapon laying on the ground. The character models themselves look good for the most part and are well-animated. During several of the game’s up-close cutscenes you’ll notice the plastic-like skin textures and the odd lighting and this can certainly take you out of the game for a moment. After the realistic environments it is unfortunate that the game isn’t able to better capture character models. Your main character mostly looks like Chow Yun-Fat but again, there are times when the animation, lighting or texturing fails and you are left shaking your head.
The other black mark against Stranglehold’s graphics are the ever-present shining objects you can interact with. Banisters, cables, signs and rolling carts all have a pulsing silver glow to them letting you know they are important. Without some visual cue it would be easy to miss them but the constant shining just sticks out badly in an otherwise above-average visual presentation.
Overall the graphics in Stranglehold are good and the framerate remains solid considering the amazing amount of action happening onscreen. There are times when there are insane amounts of things happening at once and the game never stutters or hitches.
Stranglehold has a nice song playing while you are navigating the main menu. It’s orchestral and exciting and certainly prepares you for the adrenaline-feast that you’ll be experiencing shortly. Beyond that the music in Stranglehold is… inconsequential. It’s probably there during the shooting sequences and is probably adequate, but to be honest I never noticed it as I was too busy unleashing carnage on the bad guys. And that’s fine by me as I don’t want to be focusing on a gorgeous symphonic score while I am lining up headshots.
The sound effects in Stranglehold were much more important. Guns sound appropriately loud and realistic, you hear bullets zip past your head and the game accompanies the environmental destruction with the varied sounds of things breaking. There is quite a bit of voice acting in Stranglehold and it mostly ranges from good to great. Chow Yun-Fat turns in a fine performance as “Tequila” Yuen. The game is filled with the many over-the-top lines that you would expect to find in a Hong Kong action movie. Other actors also perform well, capturing their characters with appropriate energy. One thing I wished for was the option to turn on subtitles as some of the dialog was just a bit difficult to understand due to the Hong Kong accents.
Stranglehold controls much like other 3rd person action games: the left stick handles movement and the right stick controls aiming and turning. I found the default controls a bit too loose but after tightening the settings they worked fine. The game does have an aim-assist which you can adjust but I left it on the default Medium setting. Combat is fast and chaotic so the controls need to work well in a game like this and fortunately they do with few exceptions. Once I adjusted to the aiming and interaction controls, I rarely paid attention to them and never found myself fighting them. The D-pad is used to access Tequila’s special abilities called (groan) “Tequila Bombs”. These are easy to activate and frequently make the difference between a restart or walking away from a shattered room with a smile on your face.
The one gripe against the controls has to do with the camera. For some reason the camera is set a little too close to your character and this cannot be adjusted. As a result your peripheral view is limited and often the game would indicate that I was being shot by someone to my side and when I turned around there was a guy right next to me plonking away with his gun. Situational awareness is important in a game like this and Stranglehold made it unnecessarily difficult. It also made the game feel somewhat claustrophobic and I often found myself wishing for some way to move the camera back just a bit farther.
One bizarre feature of the game is the fact that you stylishly slide across any and every table you run into. At the very beginning of the game I ran into a table filled with fruit and watermelon and as I slid across it I sent a spray of disintegrated fruit flying into the air. This looked cool and made me laugh the first time or two but then got old and seemed silly, especially as you slide across every table you bump into whether you want to or not.
Stranglehold is a very fun game to play as long as you like shooting and lots of it. There are only a few moments outside of cutscenes where you are not in a firefight. Stranglehold throws lots of enemies at you at once and this lends the game a frantic, almost out-of-control feeling. Yet just when you think you are going to die, you manage to shoot a wooden post and the platform it is holding up collapses, crushing your enemies. Or you shoot a sign and it falls and kills the enemy. Or you remember you have your Tequila Bomb special abilities and you unleash a slow-motion Barrage or Spin attack and the bad guys drop in a thunderstorm of bullets while doves take flight all around you. At those moments Stranglehold really shines.
Another way you can gain control of the enemies you face is by activating Bullet Time. Excuse me, I mean Tequila Time. You have a bar that represents your available Tequila Time and this depletes while you have it activated and it replenishes over time when it’s deactivated. In a recursive twist of fate, Stranglehold owes a definite debt to Max Payne, but the original Max Payne gently lifted its Bullet Time mechanic from John Woo’s movies. The important thing is you will need to use it in order to manage the fact that there are often 5-10 guys shooting at you at the same time and from different directions.
Other times you will walk into a room and find yourself surrounded by thugs, all pointing their guns at you. In this Standoff mode you have only a second or two to line up your shot in slow-motion while dodging before you have to shoot the next thug and then the next. These were fun and a nice but tense way to break up the flow of the action.
You are awarded Style Points for managing to pull of stylish kills. Standing in one place and firing at a thug will get you few Style Points while diving onto a rolling cart and riding it slow-motion down a flight of stairs while you shoot someone at the bottom before you plow into him with the cart will earn you lots of Style Points. Style Points refill your Tequila Bomb meter and let you use your special attacks which are all quite cool to watch and fun to use.
The game was challenging for me on Casual difficulty and there were plenty of times I died but it always seemed fair and usually meant I forgot to use a Tequila Bomb attack or didn’t find adequate cover. In addition to Casual difficulty there is Normal, Hard and (of course) Hard Boiled difficulty. There are plenty of fun achievements to obtain as well.
Stranglehold has an enjoyable but brief story mode. The manual spends about 8 pages detailing the backgrounds of the various characters and factions but frankly no one plays a game like Stranglehold looking for high literature. It begins with a dead cop and lots of bad guys get involved and there’s a kidnapping and vengeance and shooting. There’s lots of shooting and a final body count of 1,171 dead by the end of the game. The game does include multiplayer deathmatch and team deathmatch but this almost seems like it was added as an afterthought.
The story mode in Stranglehold will take you about six or seven hours to complete. Once you are done you could replay it on higher difficulty levels or you could go back and replay a particular chapter or even just a part of a chapter. You could also play around with multiplayer but there really isn’t a lot of depth or longevity there either. This is problematic as I got the game on a Monday evening and was finished with it by Thursday evening, playing only 1-2 hours a night. You can spend your $60 however you want but I would definitely recommend Stranglehold as a solid rental.