One of the achievements you can earn in John Woo's Stranglehold is triggered when you've caused 75 million dollars worth of damage. Stop and think about that figure for a moment. 75 million, that's a hell of a lot of damage for one bloke with a few guns. Yet, by the time you've worked your way through the opening level, raining bullet ridden death down upon the hundreds of baddies who pop out of doorways and from around corners while the environments splinter and explode around you, it suddenly becomes clear. For all the fuss about its cinematic heritage, Stranglehold is a game solely about causing as much damage as possible with as much style and flair as you can manage. And it's bloody good at it!
The pre-release hype has understandably focused on the involvement of film director John Woo and the fact that Stranglehold is intended as a true sequel to his 1992 Hong Kong action movie masterpiece 'Hard Boiled'. Taking place a few years after the events of the original film the story sees police inspector Tequila (once again played by Chow Yun-Fat) going up against some of Hong Kong's most dangerous gangs in a bid to rescue his ex and their daughter. It's not the most subtle plot in the world and its mix of double and triple crosses can get a touch confusing at times but it's carried along at a decent pace and who doesn't love a bit of melodrama with their action games.
Thankfully in between the cut scenes there's a game to play, a third-person shooter to be exact. The copious amounts of action involved takes place over seven long levels of ever increasing mayhem as you guide Tequila around destroying anything that moves and a fair amount of stuff that doesn't. It's that relentless action that's one of Stranglehold's strong points, enemies pop out of the scenery in what can feel at times like never ending streams, environments explode and collapse as your bullets rip through them and all the while you run and leap your way through everything looking cool. This looking cool bit is another thing the game does well thanks mainly to the inclusion of Tequila Time (a fancy name for some Matrix-esque 'bullet time') which kicks in when you dive around with an enemy in your sights. It's hard to explain just how much fun this slow motion action can be, suffice to say even in the first level you'll be pulling off elegant dives through market stalls while picking off your assailants with perfect headshots before landing and catching your breath as the wooden stall splinters around you under enemy fire. You can also switch on Tequila Time manually if you need it too, but only for a limited time before the on screen gauge runs out. It may all sound a little Max Payne but since John Woo films were a clear influence on those titles it's a little unfair to hold that against Stranglehold, it would be a bit like saying The Beatles were ripping off Oasis if they were still around today.
Your reward for all that slow motion diving around is that with each stylish kill you perform your Tequila Bomb meter fills up, this can then be used to perform one of four special abilities. To start with you'll just have access to the heal ability but as you play you'll unlock the accurate shot (zoomed in sniper like ability for a single shot), the barrage (limited invulnerability and extra damage) and finally a signature John Woo move where you spin around, guns outstretched, dealing death to anything close by while white doves fly into the sky completing the picture. Each ability uses up a different amount of the meter giving a thin slice of tactics to proceedings; do you risk not healing yourself so you can use the barrage ability after the next few kills? Is it worth taking out those snipers with the laser sights using the accurate shot or should you heal yourself before you go through that door? Every now and then Tequila also gets himself completely surrounded by enemies resulting in a classic stand off. These moments move the camera in behind Tequila's shoulder and slow time down giving you a chance to take out one enemy at a time by moving your target over them with one analogue stick while also needing to dodge their shots at the same time with the other.
I've mentioned that the environments are hugely destructible which can be good fun in itself but they're also interactive in more useful ways too. Throughout the levels you'll find all manor of banisters to slide down, poles to walk across, carts to ride along on and tables to skid over, almost always for no other reason than that it looks cool, especially if you're shooting people while you do it. Shooting shop signs off the wall so they land on the heads of enemies, setting off exploding petrol tanks to take out whole buildings or causing rock falls to land on a group of bad guys also provide as much entertainment as it does Tequila Bomb fuel. These environmental kills and features are signposted by a white glow around the object in question, a handy feature when it comes to some of the more obscure interactions but a bit of an over-kill when applied to every single banister or rail in the game.
The sacrifice you make for all the destructibility and interaction is that the levels are very linear with only the occasional maze-like open space giving any illusion of choice. It's also a little unbalanced at times, while the Tequila Bomb special abilities are all good fun you do unlock them all very early on leaving nothing new to be earned later in the game. This, combined with the linearity, can make the action feel a little repetitive at times since it never really asks anything more of you than kill everything and move on. Doing just that tends to be enough fun to keep you going but it does highlight why the developers were right to keep the game's length on the short side.
There aren't many games that ship without a multiplayer mode and Stranglehold is no different. Unfortunately, much of the fun of single player game is tied up in the use of the slow motion moves which are understandably much changed in multiplayer, after all you can't really have players popping in and out of slow motion at will and hope to have them remain in sync with each other. As it stands, Strangleholds multiplayer is fun for a while but a little underwhelming, showing up the limitations of the game, like the slightly twitchy aiming, that were better hidden in the single player. The slow motion is still there but it requires all players to enter and exit at the same time which plays out just as daft in practice as it sounds.
While the idea of a making a game rather than a film to provide a new chapter in Inspector Tequila's story is an interesting one, it's the quality of the action in-between the cut scenes that raises Stranglehold above similar games. By allowing the player to stylishly recreate John Woo's almost ballet-like action sequences so fluidly the game continually provides moments that will have you wishing there was a replay function. The fact that everything in the game, from the environments to the rewards system, is setup to encourage such visually pleasing action rather than simple run and gun ensures that you're never bored by the incredibly linear progression. If we're looking hard to nit pick it's a trifle short, can feel repetitive after a while and the restrictions on Tequila Time in multiplayer means it's never going to hold the interest in that area. Put aside such quibbles however and you're left with a fantastic action game that brings you as close to being the lead in a fully formed John Woo film as you're ever going to get, for his fans that alone will be enough, for the rest of you still left undecided go and watch 'Hard Boiled' with an Xbox controller in your hand and imagine how great it would be if it was interactive. 86%