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Stranglehold Review

Stranglehold pack shot
Developer:Tiger Hill Entertainment
Publisher:Midway
Genre:Action
Platform:Xbox 360
Official Site:http://strangleholdgame.com/
Release Date:September 14th, 2007 (UK)
Reviewer:James Barlow (Malis)
 

Come in, sit down, and meet the parents. There's old man Max Payne, and his lovely wife F.E.A.R. (no, don't ask, nobody knows how he got someone half his age). And who's that bringing in the lemonade and cookies? Why, it's their lovely daughter, Stranglehold - flashing you a quick nervous smile as she floats past. Can you remember when you first met?

It was at the cinema, when you went to see Hard Boiled - an explosive little John Woo Hong Kong action title that introduced fans to Tequila - a maverick cop who can mow through a veritable army of thugs with nothing more than a pair of berrettas and banister rail. Fast-forward a few years, and the series has all grown up into the pretty little thing you see now, with John Woo bringing his most famous creation to the gaming medium for a true sequel.

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John Woo was heavily involved in the title, and it shows. More than just a name on the box, Mr Woo's flair and style is stamped all over the game. The story is a straight homage to the classic Hong Kong melodramatic style he became renowned for - flimsy, incomprehensible, and ticking along at breakneck speed. Chow Yun Fat reprises his role as Inspector Tequila, and adds considerably to the game's pedigree. While the story is pretty standard fare (rescue the girls), Stranglehold delivers what little content there is with staggering style. Cutscenes are delivered in a fantastic cinematic style, with camera work and framing really setting the screen alight. It's honestly one of the few games I've played where it's clear a director has lovingly crafted each scene.

If Woo's direction is evident in the story, then it's even more prevalent in the action. Well-known for his balletic gun-fights and obscene body counts, Stranglehold allows you to relive every slow-motion gun fantasy you ever dreamed of - this girl's a kinky one. If the third-person styling reminds you of Max Payne, and the explosive slow-motion carnage leaves you recalling F.E.A.R., it's because these titles borrowed from John Woo themselves - now the man himself is back to do it properly.

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Tequila has several abilities at his disposal; slow-motion Tequila Time, and Tequila Bombs. Slow motion acts as you'd expect, allowing you to dive about in ridiculously cool fashion, and dodge bullets. Tequila Bombs are abilities that have to be charged up, by killing enemies stylishly, and range from a small health boost, to unlimited ammo rampages and a smart bomb spin attack that kills everyone in the room as doves soar overhead. If you hadn't realised by now, Stranglehold is utterly over the top. Throw into the mix environmental moves (sliding across the room on a trolley, or swinging from lights), and you have action that can be utterly jaw-dropping at times.

It's true that graphically, Stranglehold really only goes through the motions; although it's by no means ugly, it doesn't hold a candle to other games running on the new Unreal engine. Textures look a little scruffy, and the lighting a little flat, and it's quite noticeable when the action slows down. In truth, this is forgivable due to the stunning destruction effects that have been implemented into the environments. Walls splinter and chip, glass shatters, signs tumble and buildings fall down - all under the unrelenting rain of bullets spat out by both you and your enemies.

Experiencing the explosive carnage caused by a Stranglehold gunfight is nothing short of breathtaking the first time - the world literally tumbles down around you, offering new opportunities of cover, and often removing old ones. The beauty of the game comes when you realise how to chain together all the slow-motion moves, wall-flips, dives and environmental attacks into one stylish kill. What other game lets you dive across a room on a trolley, roll off and kick a table over as cover, then dive backwards over a bar when the table is shredded by rifle fire?

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So you've met the girl, and it all sounds promising. And that's because Stranglehold seems exactly that at first - a good catch. However, after the honeymoon period has worn off and you've settled in for the long haul, the game starts to show some worryingly annoying habits. The action starts to become repetitive, the weapons stay the same, and that one hundredth wave of enemies feels no more special than the first one you faced in a shady Hong Kong back ally. All of which is slightly predictable for a game of this type, and to some degrees, forgivable - hey every marriage has its ups and downs, right?

What's not so forgiving is the level design. Sadly, Stranglehold's levels only serve to heighten the game's flaws. There's two distinct types of levels or areas that you'll play in; standard A to B levels and set-piece levels. Set-piece levels generally consist of a large multi-floored room with no exit. From here your task is to simply survive and fend off enemies - a task which can take up to twenty minutes and beyond. When the dust finally settles you're whisked off to the next room. And the next. And another... Point is, when you've played one, you've played them all, and a casino is much like a restaurant, only with a different skin. The repetitive design of the levels only heightens the lack of variety in the move department - once you've slid down one rail, you've slid down them all, and it's no use disguising it as a dinosaur tail. In addition, the bosses are simply ridiculous - and would give Superman a run for his money judging by the bullets they absorb. In short, they grate jarringly with the player - more laborious obstacles than entertaining events.

Perhaps the game's other biggest failing lies in teaching the player. At first you'll bumble through the levels, forgetting your moves and just sitting behind a pillar, killing enemies as they run forwards. Often was the time I stood in the middle of the room wanting to do something cool - only to be pinned back by enemy gunfire before I could work out what I wanted to do. For a game that wants to give the impression of reflexive and reactive gameplay, the only truly off-the-cuff move is a slow-motion dive. Halfway through the game it does all click, and the style meter starts to rack up - but is it too late by then? A few hours later and it's over, and the feeling that you've missed out on a good game becomes all too prevalent. Sure, she offers throwaway multi-player mode, and you could play through again aiming for high style scores - but is there anything of any depth to keep you together?

Summary

Stranglehold delivers some exhilarating action - without doubt some of the best I've ever seen. The level of destruction and carnage is unprecedented, and anyone looking for a short fix of mayhem will love it. Dig deeper a little deeper though, and you'll realise that behind the pretty smile there's sadly not much there. Repetitive level design and a short lifespan (around eight hours) mean this girl's more suited for a one night stand than a marriage. Best to leave her at the altar.

The bottom line
6.5 / 10

Good stuff

  • Explosive action
  • Environmental destruction is fantastic
  • Brilliant direction in cut-scenes
  • Chow Yun Fat

Not so good stuff

  • Repetitive gameplay
  • Lacklustre level design
  • Too short


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