Developer: Tiger Hill Entertainment
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Game Version: Unpatched
John Woo. The name automatically conjures up images. Stylish but shallow fight scenes. Lots of shooting. Poor plots. Some more shooting, going into slow motion randomly every few seconds. Doves stupidly shoved into the middle of action scenes, appearing from nowhere for absolutely no bloody reason. (Does he think doves are somehow attracted to gunfire or something? It’s not symbolic, it’s pathetic.) Some more shooting in slow motion. Then a lot more shooting. And then some more shooting. And now his name is on a computer game. As you can probably guess, all the stuff I listed above from his films is here. Including the damned doves turning up every time the lead character performs his most powerful move, for which I was tempted to knock a big chunk off the score for, but I’m feeling generous.
Stranglehold is actually supposed to be a game sequel to John Woo’s earlier film, Hard-Boiled. Hard-Boiled was a hugely influential action film. (Or so the back of the game box tells me. Personally I’ve never heard of it.) In the game, a digital recreation of Chow Yun-Fat plays Inspector Tequila, a policeman who charges around killing enemies for some reason or other that’s as irrelevant as the plot in most of John Woo’s films.
Max Payne was partially inspired by John Woo movies, but the mechanics of how Bullet Time worked were the games own, and have been copied many times since. But of course, seven years after the release of Max Payne, John Woo will have redesigned the system and improved on it, won’t he? Actually, no, the slow motion feature is practically indistinguishable from Bullet Time. I guess that demonstrates how well it worked. The main difference from Bullet Time is that now it’s called Tequila Time, which sounds more like a Mexican theme night in a pub than something which would be useful in combat. Diving forwards, backwards or sideways doesn’t automatically put you into slow motion though, but it does enter Tequila Time automatically when you aim at someone while doing this. And of course, you can enter the mode at any time you like too, by pressing the appropriate key.
A newer addition to the standard bullet time feature is what the game refers to as the Tequila Bomb Gauge, which despite the name, has nothing at all to do with either alcohol or explosives. Rather, it’s a meter that fills up as you earn style points (which you get mainly by chaining together kills). You can also refill the gauge faster by, completely nonsensically, collecting paper origami cranes scattered randomly around the levels. The more it fills up, the better the moves you can perform, as each of the special moves you get access to depletes the gauge by varying amounts. There are four moves in total, the first being a simple instant healing feature. The second is a precision aim feature, which zooms you in in slow motion so you can target precise body parts, allowing you to get perfect headshots, or for the sadists, to watch the enemy double up in pain as you shoot them in the crotch. Thirdly, and more interestingly, you get the incredibly powerful barrage, which puts you into bullet…sorry… tequila time, gives you infinite rapid firing ammo for your current weapon and makes you invulnerable to bullets. It’s fun to use and makes you unstoppable, but it uses a large portion of your tequila bomb gauge. And finally, there’s the spin attack, where simulated Chow Yun-Fat spins around (amongst a bunch of those bloody doves flying around) firing his guns and killing absolutely everyone in the immediate area. It’s like those smart bombs in the old arcade games.
You also get certain points in the game where you’ll find yourself surrounded by enemies with guns pointing at you from all sides. Well, you’ll find that through most of the game, but there are certain scripted points in the game where it happens during a cutscene and the game puts you straight into Standoff mode. In these sections of the game, you’ll face one of the enemies and have a few seconds to aim at him and fire, while trying to dodge the bullets they’re firing at you in slow motion, Matrix style. These are fairly well done and break up the repetitive nature of the gameplay a bit, but they’re nothing revolutionary.
The trouble is that, despite all these moves, the actual levels in the game can start to feel a bit repetitive. You basically enter a new area, kill approximately 6.3 billion enemies that appear, and then move on to the next area. There are a few things to try to add a bit of style to the proceedings, such as the ability to shoot environmental features to kill enemies in various ways such as shooting away a sign to fall on their heads, or the ability to run up and down stair rails while shooting people in slow motion. There’s also the occasional varied section such as a part where you get to shoot from a helicopter. But ultimately, it still comes down to constant shooting. It’s fortunate that the shooting is entertaining enough to carry the game through its entire (very short) length.
One thing the game does very well is destructible environments. Weapons smash apart statues and tear through stone pillars as easily as smashing through glass. In fact, when you get the stats at the end of the level, one of the things it tells you is the value of all the damage you’ve caused, usually millions of dollars. It’s like they’re encouraging the destruction. I decided to try and cause as much damage as I could in the levels, until I smashed a fish tank and felt guilty at the loss of innocent aquatic life. I swore that in future, I would protect all the innocent fish from harm! And so I just shot everything else to pieces instead. The damage that can be caused really becomes apparent when using the games cover system, where you can hide behind walls and pillars and peek around to shoot at all the hapless criminals. While taking cover behind a pillar with bullets flying all around, you’ll see the rubble fall as the concrete gets blasted to pieces.
What does save the game a bit from the repetition are the boss fights, which are some of the best I’ve played in a game, and generally go beyond simply having an enemy that’s ridiculously resistant to bullets. Not that there aren’t any of those, but there’s more to it. For instance, one of my favourite end of level sections is a fight through an apartment with laser beam security, where the entire area is a constantly changing maze of laser beams you need to navigate between in pursuit of your enemy. All while he sends loads of henchmen at you, of course.
There are a few flaws with the game, the main one being the repetitiveness of the main core of much of the game, as mentioned earlier. Another problem is that, while it’s nice to have all the fancy moves such as jumping on rails, it often needs you to be in a precise position to line up to do these things, meaning that you often end up unable to use them when you would like to. At other times you’ll find your main character jumping onto railings when you don’t want him to. And there’s also the fact that the game only takes around 5 – 6 hours to complete. I’m not completely opposed to short games and do believe in quality being the most important thing, but even so, 5 hours is just pushing the limits too far, especially when they’re trying to charge £30 for the game new and probably more for consoles. There is a multiplayer mode included in the game, but it’s unlikely to have any long lasting appeal. All of which drags down the game's worth. But despite all that, the game is fun for the very short time that it lasts.
Save System Review: The game uses a checkpoint save system, but the checkpoints are quite regular so you never have to replay too much game.
Graphics: The graphics are good as you’d expect from the Unreal 3 Engine, and the environments are quite well done, but it doesn’t really use the engine to its full potential, especially in terms of character models.
Sound: Sound is pretty much what you’d expect. It does the job it needs to do, while never drawing attention to itself. It’s nothing too exceptional, but not bad. Voice acting is quite good though.
Bugs: I didn’t really notice any bugs while playing the game.
Gameplay: The basic mechanics of the game work well, but then they should do; they’ve been around since Max Payne. Other than that, despite some interesting boss fights, most of the levels do become a bit too repetitive.
Storyline: The standard “cop out for revenge by shooting several gazillion criminals” action movie plot. It’s not going to win awards for originality. The cutscenes are well done and look cinematic though.
Arbitrary Final Score:
Glad of the Max Payne influence or does that game have too much of a stranglehold over the genre? Say what you think on the forum.