Developer: Midway Chicago, Tiger Hill Entertainment
Released: September 2007
Played: complete in 4.5 hours
The sequel to the 1992 action movie Hard Boiled, and a collaboration between director John Woo and actor Chow Yun-fat, Stranglehold follows Inspector Tequila as he gets caught in a war between the Golden Kane and Dragon Claw gangs, and Tequila must fight for justice and his estranged family.
Stranglehold was well received, with average review scores of 77%. Reviewers enjoyed John Woo's sense of cinematic flair in the game structure, and the action and style were highly praised. Many critics felt the visuals were somewhat lacking and that the game is too short, and some complained of the lack of Cantonese language in a Hong Kong setting.
The XBox 360 and PS3 versions received a map pack a few months after launch, including 10 new multiplayer maps and 21 character skins. The XBox pack also included new achievements.
I figured I'd try Stranglehold when I found a copy at a GameStop for $1. Naturally at that price (and having not seen Hard Boiled) I expected very little, but I was pleasantly surprised.
Plotwise, Stranglehold is solid if somewhat mundane for its genre. A cop who lives dangerously gets involved in a case with personal stakes and ends up in the middle of a gang war. This is something you've probably seen before if you've watched any action movies where the protagonists are cops. There are a couple of twists and turns and even some fun characters - like Yung, the big chin in a red suit, who acts so flippant that he seems almost aware he's a bad guy in a video game. But, like I said, nothing terribly exciting or unexpected in the game's story.
Visually the game is decent enough, if a little dated at this point. Characters' faces are pretty good for the time, and Inspector Tequila displays a fairly wide range of emotion in a reasonably believable way. There's some variety in environments: a market, floating slums, high-end restaurants, a museum (with dinosaur skeletons!), a fancy penthouse, a condemned neighbourhood, and a few others. There's a good level of detail and a lot of colour, especially in some of the fancy interior locations. Unfortunately the area design tends to be pretty illogical, especially in areas like the museum which has too many, and too long, hallways between exhibit rooms. Sometimes it's way too obvious that each level is just a string of arenas connected by hallways.
What impressed me about Stranglehold is how slick the gameplay is. The leaping, shooting, and bullet time - sorry, Tequila Time - are almost a dead ringer for the original Max Payne games, but Stranglehold expands on that formula in a few ways. You can slide or run on a lot of environmental bits, like tables or railings. You can leap over short obstacles, swing from chandeliers, or (my favourite) dive onto roller carts and roll across the room while shooting. Interacting with the environment boosts your attacks and damage reduction. During any of these interactions, Tequila Time triggers automatically as long as you have meter left and - here's the cool part - only when you're aiming near an enemy. Diving or interacting with the environment doesn't drain meter unless you have a target, which keep movement fluid and fast-paced.
There are also plenty of objects for you to shoot and damage enemies with. There are of course the classic exploding barrels, but also stuff that's more fun: dropping signs, shooting out platform supports, triggering a rock slide - lots of fun stuff. A related element I really appreciated is that almost every environmental object reacts in some way to being shot, even if it has no game effect: fruits splatter, slot machines spew coins, wood splinters, leaves shred, glass shatters, columns and decor crumble and collapse. All this does a great job of amping up the adrenaline and putting you right in the middle of a wild firefight.
Your special abilities, Tequila Bombs (sigh) are also fun. As you progress through the game you quickly unlock four abilities - healing, precision shot (zoom in and fire one precise high-damage bullet), barrage (go invulnerable and gain massive fire rate bonus), and spin attack (instantly kill every enemy in sight except bosses) - which are powered by the style meter. You gain style by killing enemies in skilled or creative ways, and by stringing together combos by killing quickly. The biggest rewards are for headshots, multikills, and environmental kills, though you can also grab a meter boost by picking up the paper cranes hidden across the levels.
The boss fights are surprisingly well put together, too. Typically a boss battle consists of one very tough enemy with a big gun and a bunch of weak mooks, but each one requires a different strategy. One boss has a rocket launcher and requires you to keep moving; one will attack with a heavy machine gun and you'll need to use cover; the most interesting one takes place in a penthouse full of laser-triggered bombs, so you need to move carefully and without too many acrobatics.
I had two favourite levels. The market is great because there are so many interaction options, and with all the food and supplies around the action feels really chaotic, with fruit guts flying everywhere. The other one I like is the museum because you can run up the spine of a dinosaur while shooting guys in slow motion. Awesome.
My only real complaint about the gameplay is that some of the checkpoints are too far apart. It sucks to blow through three rooms and sixty guys only to die and have to do it all over again. I considered complaining about the repetition since gameplay consists almost solely of "enter room, kill wave after wave of guys, enter next room and do it again", but the game is too short for that to really be a problem - four and a half hours for me - and the action is fun enough that I don't mind.
Recommendation: play it.
Stranglehold is a game with some really slick action. It feels great to slide down a staircase's railing (or dinosaur spine) in slow motion and headshot four guys before you hit the ground, or to roll through a marketplace shootout on a food cart whilst firing two guns at bad guys as melons explode all around you. The visuals, story, acting, and sound are all solid if unmemorable, but Stranglehold has some great action packed into a short game. If you can find it cheap it's a good buy.