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John Woo Presents This? You Must Be Kidding
When someone like John Woo has his name plastered all over an action game, and said action game has graphics that are about as sharp as any of the latest and greatest games, you expect that it will deliver the action in spades. However, things aren’t quite like that in Midway’s poor attempt at transferring the elements of a Hard Boiled sequel into a video game…the results are an over-the-top, over-the-top third-person shooter that brings the bullets, physical destruction of environments and plenty of blood, goons and exotic locations but lacks everything that makes a John Woo production standout.
While that brief description above sounds like a tantalizing experience, the problem is that the game itself just doesn’t bring enough realism to the table. Yes, realism. While 12 year old, impatient whiners who play mature rated games when they shouldn’t will probably say the game is awesome, everyone else out there who has a lick of common sense (and is actually old enough to play the game) will see John Woo Presents Stranglehold as a completely missed opportunity for something special. Find out what else fits within the spectrum of a missed opportunity in this Stranglehold review.
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Stranglehold has one of the most convoluted story premises that could ever be imagined. In a sentence, it just doesn’t make any sense at all. I don’t know if I should give it all away or not but the entire thing revolves around two rival crime syndicates trying to strong-arm each other for control of Hong Kong. Tequila gets involved when his wife and daughter are kidnapped, when in reality it was all a setup just so the Hong Kong resident mafia boss could use Tequila to wipe out the competition. The plot gets more ridiculous from then on, involving some murderous family ties that takes the plot from B-movie silliness to straight-up incomprehensible. In fact, to this day, I’m still trying to figure out the “Whys” of the stupendous plot twist that not only ruins the story arc and character continuity, but mainly just because it really made NO sense whatsoever. Still, it was obvious a plot was tossed together just so players could have a paper-thin reason to travel to fanciful locations and blast the crap out of everything in sight, sort of like with Saints Row 2.
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The concept for this game is two-fold. On the one hand we have a game that goes over and beyond to provide gamers with the most physically destructive shooting title ever made, (with the exception of Red Faction: Guerrilla): Environments can be completely wrecked and just about anything that isn’t (and sometimes is) bolted down can be completely destroyed, similar to EA's Black. And it’s not just about objects getting destroyed….you can completely and utterly demolish things. Tiger Hill made it their mission and motto that every single bullet has to go somewhere; bullets must hit something. I really liked this concept and it creates a very volatile and exciting atmosphere for gun fights.
The problem is that the second fold of the concept completely throws the first fold out of the window. The problem is that someone must have walked in on the meeting when they were going over the concept of the game and apparently brought their 12 year old kid who blurted out “The game needs to be an arcade game…I don’t like games where you have to reload, use strategy or get hurt.” And the project manager must have been silly enough to listen because that’s exactly how the game plays out based on that concept. Imagine never having to reload, having a near infinite supply of bullets, and basically going through and stringing together combos in order to use an instant-kill skill for EVERY bad guy on-screen…even ones you can’t see. This completely destroys the need to take cover, the need to strategically stake out a stage or even the necessity of utilizing many stunt-oriented objects littered throughout the stages. I don’t know why they went this route with Stranglehold but it destroys an otherwise excellent concept.
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Gameplay - Part 1
Remember how I was just talking about a 12 year old kid having some sort of input on the design concept for the gameplay of Stranglehold? Well, here is where it all falls apart under said design concept. The game carries the look and feel of a cinematic game experience, and as seen in most trailers, most gamers would be lead to believe this is a true iteration of John Woo’s imagination come to life through an interactive game title that could possibly trump the likes of Max Payne. However, nothing of the sort happens because Stranglehold’s cinematic look is completely foregone in the gameplay department, relegating gamers to a very stringent arcade execution consisting of set-piece environments and idiot-AI who run straight at you shooting like complete buffoons.
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Gameplay - Part 2
The game needed to be more like the very thing everyone thought it was competing with…Max Payne. Instead of focusing on small fire-arm skirmishes in elaborate, destructive environments where a handful of guys and Inspector Tequila battle it out with a lot of running, dodging, jumping, reloading and bullet-ballet on display, we’re instead giving a straight-up arcade game that’s more reminiscent to Virtua Cop than a John Woo flick. In fact, if you knock off Woo’s name from the title, it would be hard to attribute Stranglehold's quality to the action movie greatness that Woo established in Hong Kong.
The destructible environments are great, and sometimes fun to just destroy, but the deathmatch settings in the single player game coupled with the idiot AI enemies creates less than thrilling scenarios where the player is forcibly destroying the environment just for the heck of it and not necessarily because the bad guys are trying to play out their role the way they should be doing in order to create the cinematic gunfights most players were looking for to begin with.
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Pumping up bad guys full of headshots is pretty easy. But games like this, especially like this, are designed to be played with a gamepad. The only problem, and one of the biggest problems, is that Stranglehold doesn’t support gamepads. It’s almost as bad as The Lord of the Rings: Conquest and the inability to change the control scheme for controllers.
Still, controlling Tequila in the game is easy…almost too easy. The problem is that the game has a lot of automated environmental interaction. Tequila automatically slides across tables, countertops and other flat surfaces. Every other interactive object requires the space bar. The problem is that it all feels really twitchy and results in pulling off moves/stunts/dives you may not have intended to do. It doesn’t really impede the process of the shooting and aiming, however it does greatly take away from the immersion the game is supposed to contain. Instead of seamlessly using the environment as a tool to further enhance Tequila’s shooting, the table-sliding, chair-hopping, counter dashing becomes cumbersome and sloppy. Again, not to draw more comparisons to the legend of video game bullet-time, but Stranglehold greatly lacks the finesse and refinement of controls offered in Max Payne.
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Graphics And Sound
Visually, I can’t knock Stranglehold. On the highest settings it’s right up there with games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves or Red Dead Redemption. Strangely, Tiger Hill really put a lot of time and energy into the visual components of the game, and I suppose that’s what's so disappointing about it all considering that the game doesn’t have half as much gameplay integrity to match the awesome graphics. The character models, lighting, and texture work are superb and some of the best put out there this generation.
The music is also quite good, and matches the modern, urban themes that were present visually. My only gripe with the sound is that many of the guns sound underwhelming and don’t pack the realistic punch I was expecting. Other than that, the game managed some fairly good audio and visual aesthetics.
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A nearly non-working multiplayer component is attached to the game, but PC gamers should be savvy enough by now to know that most ports from a console onto PC usually include some sort of broken feature here and there…and in this case, it’s the multiplayer. It’s not a very good multiplayer component anyway, so it’s not much of a loss given the arcade physics and Gunz: The Duel-esque gameplay mechanics.
Still, the rest of the content is quite in-depth. And as players play-through the game multiple times extra credits can be earned to unlock playable characters in the broken multiplayer, or behind-the-scenes featurettes to see what didn’t make it into the game, as well as art galleries and trailers. There’s enough useless stuff to unlock for those who enjoy that sort of thing, adding elements of replayability to the game.
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Graphics, sound and John Woo’s name plastered onto the title of a game isn’t enough to make a game good. Stranglehold has all the glitz, glimmer, glamour and promise of a high-profile game that just didn’t quite pan out. I really can’t recommend this game to anyone looking for a true video game experience that succeeds John Woo’s action, squib-infested masterpiece, Hard Boiled. I also can’t recommend this game for anyone who enjoys bullet ballet and wanted something as a worthy follow-up (or gameplay successor) to Max Payne. Instead, all you’ll find in Stranglehold is a lot of stuff to shoot and unlock, but a game that fails to deliver the cinematic qualities that will draw gamers back to playing it again. Nevertheless, if you enjoy games like Gunz: The Duel or (believe it or not) a sped-up, unsatisfactory version of S4 League, then you might like Stranglehold but I doubt it. Try Damnation or Wet instead.