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In 1992, Hong Kong film studio, Golden Princess released John Woo’s Hard Boiled, a film that starred Chow Yun-fat as a police inspector ("Tequila" Yuen) who (with the help of an undercover cop named Tony) wages war against Hong Kong’s most powerful crime syndicate after the death of his partner. The film did well in Hong Kong but its reception was rather mediocre when compared to the praise of Woo’s other films. However, when the film received a western release, it was highly regarded among fans and critics as one of the best action films ever made. Despite it’s international cult following, the adventures of “Hard Boiled” inspector Tequila would be put on hold. That is until a sequel was finally made in 2007.
(I'm as flummoxed as you are about the baby)
Why am I talking about this bit of Hong Kong action cinema? It turns out that this film’s sequel is not actually another film but rather a video game. Hey there guys gals and welcome to another review. Tonight I am going to be taking a look at John Woo Presents: Stranglehold for the Xbox 360 (also available on PlayStation 3 and PC).
Are you willing to clean up the streets of Hong Kong or are you not man enough for the task?
When the daughter and granddaughter of James Wong (leader of The Dragon Claw, the most powerful gang in Hong Kong) have been kidnapped by a rival crime syndicate, all Hell breaks loose. After a police officer is gunned down during a failed hostage negotiation, Inspector Tequila is called in to get the two women back and to kick ass and take names while doing so. Of course in typical action movie fashion, he throws the proverbial rulebook out the window and at about the mid-way point, shit gets real. Damn real! I can’t say anything other than that or I would be giving out some major spoilers.
Stranglehold’s story may not be the kind of cinematic fare that would be winning any Academy Awards but that isn’t what it is meant to be. It is supposed to be an action packed ride with thrills, spills and kills and it delivers that in spades. Although, like any good film in the genre (Lethal Weapon 1-3. 4 was OK), there are also some instances of pretty clever writing and even a little bit of heart as well. This is definitely a well-written action film. Er ah, game.
The only real regret when it comes to the game’s story is that is pretty short. The game can be completed within six-seven hours, if you happen to be really good at it. It took me nine.
The game’s audio is fantastic. Chow Yun-fat does a wonderful job reprising his role from the original film. The other actors also give great performances and truly showed respect for the material. During the cutscenes, I almost forgot that I was playing a game because the performances made it feel like a genuine action film. In terms of music, the game’s score is a solid blend of the typical heavy rock and oriental folk music that you would hear in these kinds of action/martial arts movies but there is also plenty of mellower and bluesier jazz tunes that Woo incorporated into Hard Boiled. It is a definitely an interesting clash of styles that pays off beautifully. Woo knew exactly what kind of music he wanted to use to set the tone of each scene and he did so perfectly. Another really cool thing about the game’s musical score is that it was composed by System of a Down front-man, Serj Tankian (who is absolutely awesome).
(Why would you dive in the middle of a gun fight? Doesn't that leave you open?)
From a graphical standpoint, Stranglehold looks stunning. Which isn’t surprising considering that it is one of the first titles to use the Unreal Engine 3. Now I should say that it doesn’t look quite as good as Gears of War (a review on this coming by the way) and BioShock, which have also used the same engine (and were released in the same year as well I might add). However, with its realistic character designs and gorgeous backdrops which range from the dank and demolished slums of Kowloon (which is also a Shenmue II local) to the beautiful Tai O harbor to the class and elegance of a Chicago penthouse, Stranglehold is definitely one of the more impressive looking games to come out of 2007. This is also without mentioning the cutscenes, which genuinely feel as if an action director and cinematographer are working together to film a movie as opposed to programming camera shots into a video game. Not too mention, there are also some really nice subtle touches like the realism of the game’s weather conditions or the blood that splatters all over Tequila’s jacket. But oddly enough, the blood has a habit of magically washing off during scene changes.
Now that we got all of that wonderful technical “move magic” out of the way (for now), let’s talk about Stranglehold’s gameplay. Stranglehold is the typical third-person shooter experience with the goal being to gun down the goons that get in the way of fulfilling your objectives and taking out the big boss at the end of the level.
Now before I tell you that the game has a few added twists in terms of gameplay that set it apart from other games in the genre, I should say that I suck at these kinds of games and that I had to beat it on the easiest difficulty setting. Good thing you change the difficulty before loading your save file. That isn’t to say that the game isn’t challenging on the easiest setting, since I still got my ass handed to me on quite a few occasions.
Anyway, as I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, Stranglehold has a few unique gameplay elements that sets it apart from other third-person shooters. The developers (Midway Chicago & Tiger Hill Entertainment) have included some special mechanics that have incorporated Woo’s direction style into the gameplay. The first is the addition of Tequila Time or as it is more commonly known to moviegoers as “bullet time.” You know, that moment when everything just stops for a second before everything begins to move in slow motion? If you’ve seen The Matrix, you know what I’m talking about. Speaking of The Matrix, when bullets are fired in Tequila Time, you can actually see the ripple effect that comes from the them as they are fired from the gun and head towards their target, which is pretty cool. But does Tequila Time offer anything useful to the gameplay rather than just being a stylized gimmick? Considering that it slows down time and allows you to quickly take out enemies, helps you perform some fancier kills (more on this later) and deal out some extra damage in tough boss fights, TT is absolutely useful. However, you should know that there is a Tequila Time Bar below the health bar and it does drain fairly quickly but it will refill on its own over time, so use it at your own discretion.
Oh and I also like how the camera will film (or as I should say program) the Tequila Time sequences in a sepia-toned filter, which gives them a nice cinematic touch.
(Finally. The hours I've spent playing Hogan's Alley pays off!)
The second is the addition of the Tequila Bomb (huzzah for alcoholism) Gauge. The Tequila Bomb Gauge consists of four special abilities that are acquired during certain points of the game. The first is the Health Boost, which will give Tequila a small bit of extra health, every time it is used. This is probably going to be the Tequila Bomb that you use the most, since the extra health boost will come in handy in tight spots that don’t have a first aid kit in sight. The second TB technique is the Spin Attack. This is actually a very typical action film move. A crowd of bad guys swarm in on the hero and circle around him, when all of a suddenly he spins around and in a blink of an eye, he shots them all. That in a nutshell is the Spin Attack. It’s definitely cool to look at as it is done in Tequila Time. The third TB technique is Precision Aim. This is more of a first-person shooter sniper style attack that is used to take out enemies from a distance. Again, this is in Tequila Time, so you can see the bullet fly towards and make contact with its target in slow motion. This looks cool and definitely comes in handy in instances with enemy snipers that you can’t hit otherwise. Although, this doesn’t look as gory as you would expect. One someone is shot in the head, they are either going hold their throat or their eye and they are going to groan for a few seconds and then fall down. No brains will splatter but that isn’t really an overly bad thing. The final TB technique is the Barrage Attack. This is another use of a classic action film cliché. You see, when the a large group of baddies come charging in at the hero from over in the distance, he loads his weapon of choice and proceeds to blast his way through the enemy horde. This is exactly what the Barrage Attack is and it comes in handy, as it can also allow you to deal out a good amount of damage to over powered bosses in a short time. However, the length of this attack depends on the amount of energy in the Tequila Time Bar. While all four of these special abilities are certainly useful, it should be noted that they can drain the Tequila Bomb Gauge rather quickly, so be sure to use them carefully and in moderation. Paper Cranes help fill this gauge, so make sure to pick as many of them as you can find.
The third addition is the use of the Standoff sections in each level. Oh the Standoff. What would an action film be like without one? You see, at certain points in each level, a group of goons will have you completely surrounded and you will be forced into a Standoff. The Standoff works sort of like a rail shooter in the sense that you have to focus a cursor in order to shoot a group of enemies. You shoot one enemy, then move on to the next. You know the drill. These definitely look cool thanks to the use of Tequila Time but they are tricky because of the fact that you have to dodge enemy fire as you move the cursor. Luckily, you don’t have to kill them all them in order to advance past the section. You merely have to survive.
One other addition is the Star Rewards System that gives you bonus points (which like the Paper Cranes will help fill the Tequila Bomb Gauge) for performing fancy kills using some of Tequila’s (non TB) special moves. Shooting henchmen while running on or sliding down rails, propelling yourself off of a wall, sliding on and kicking up tables, using your body to steer rolling carts, going down a zip line or swinging on a chandelier are among some of the cool kills you can pull off. You can also earn style points for setting off traps (falling rocks, laser trip wires, exploding propane tanks/bombs) by firing your gun at a flashing light that is conveniently there to point out where to shoot and you can even blow up cars if you shoot them enough. I should also tell you that the flashing light will also point out things that you need to shoot in order to access new areas. For instance, shooting down power lines to use as railings to run up to reach rooftops or planks of wood that can be shot down to use as a new platform.
I guess I should say that there is also an online multiplayer component in which you can use characters that you can buy with points earned during your play through of the main game. Sadly I was unable to play it (I don’t have an Xbox Live Gold membership) but from what I’ve read about it, it seems fairly mediocre and not worth the game’s price tag. Just as well, since this game is about four years old, which means that it’s not too likely that there would be many other folks to play with anyway.
(Uh oh! Kwyjibo on the loose!)
Now, I know that I have given Stranglehold plenty of positive criticism thus far but there are a few things about the game that irk me just a bit. Nothing that makes the game unplayable but definitely a few things that make playing it more frustrating than it should have been. For instance, there wasn’t a map screen. Now most of the time this wasn’t a problem but there were a few instances where I have gotten lost, which wasn’t too much fun I must say.
There is also a problem with some of Tequila’s special moves, well not with the moves themselves but with the fact that they are basically performed with the same button command. There were instances where I was trying to duck for cover but I would instead be sliding all over the place or I would be trying to run up a railing or slide down a zip cord but I would instead be diving or jumping off walls or doing some other crazy move. These problems didn’t occur too often but they did happen and resulted in a few cheap deaths thanks to the insane amount of goons on screen. Gerrr.
But probably the most irritating thing about the game is the fact that the camera has this weird way of zooming in and out as Tequila is wandering around the environment (mostly when turning or when he was in a corner) this was not only aggravating but it gave me a few (quite literal) headaches.
Now that I’ve spewed out that little bit of venom, let’s talk extra features. As far as the extra content goes, you can use in-game currency to (as I already noted) to buy an assortment of characters for the online multiplayer mode. You can also use this money to acquire artwork and videos (which are mostly promos and behind the scenes stuff).
(This is what happens when you name your kids after alcohol)
What can I say about Stranglehold? Well that giving it a score is actually pretty hard. I love the way in which the game is shot (from a cutsence and bullet time point of view anyway) and how the story is exactly like a kick ass action film. However, some clunky mechanics and a pretty short length, keeps the game fairly far from being perfect but if you can pick it up for a fair price, I would say that it is definitely worth a buy.
Final Score: 7/10