If Stranglehold teaches us one thing, it is this: if we were a psychopath/terrorist, our best bet would be to become a cop in order to feed our murderous/destructive urges. By the end of the game yours truly had killed 1306 people - I know I can do better - and did $150 million worth of damage. Pretty sweet.
Stranglehold is the first attempt at game development by legendary action director John Woo. This game is actually the official sequel to his movie Hard Boiled, bringing back Chow Yun-Fat in the role of Inspector Tequila. It is a classic Hong Kong action movie in a game. This shows in the game's sense of style and tendency for blowing stuff up.
The story starts with two crimes: a cop's murder in Hong Kong and a kidnapping in Chicago. These are obviously related and soon bring Inspector Tequila into the mix. The story isn't very deep but it's there and enough to keep you mostly interested till the end. This game is definitely more about action than story, which has some great cheezy one-liners.
The graphics are good. There is a decent variety in environments, however the art direction isn't anything special. Running on the Unreal 3 engine means there isn't too much to complain about. However, other games have looked much better using the same engine and we don't just mean Gears of War. The music and sound are OK but not all that noticeable while playing, which is a shame.
Now for the gameplay. You have a lot of freedom of movement; you can run up stair banisters, leap through the air, swing on lights and lots more. The controls handle how you would expect a third-person shooter to and are fairly solid, except for a few problems with aiming. It is almost impossible to aim at someone when you are diving right next to him in slow motion. This doesn't stop the fun though and the game is definitely more fun in close quarter combat, indoor environments. It's pretty cool when you leap onto a food cart, ride it across the room, shoot a couple of guys and then shoot a gas canister, which explodes, killing a couple more.
All this would be impossible without something called Tequila Time, which is this game's version of Matrix's bullet time. The amount you can use this is shown on a bar under your health and slowly recharges over time. When used, the screen goes red and things slow down (duh). You can activate this at will, plus it will automatically activate when you target an enemy while performing any athletic move. This doesn't always work well as it sometime switches itself on and off too quickly and can make you miss your target.
You also get four special powers called Tequila Bombs. You unlock them as you progress through the game and will get them all fairly early. The first is just a small healing ability, the second allows you to zoom in on a target and get a perfectly aimed single shot followed by a wicked follow-the-bullet-and-kill animation. Let us tell you now, shooting guys in the crotch, eye or throat NEVER gets old! It is very satisfying and the developers have made great animations and sound effects to accompany the different locations on a person's body you may hit.
Unfortunately the usefulness of the ability is only really there for taking out pesky snipers in the distance. The third ability makes you invulnerable with unlimited bullets for a few seconds. This is mostly useful for killing off bosses and destroying the environment. The final ability is the typical "kill everyone in the room" skill. This has a short animation of Tequila spinning around shooting whichever gun you're using with doves flying around him… no idea where the birds came from, but hey. In order to use the abilities you have to charge your Tequila Bomb gauge. This is done by collecting paper origami cranes around the levels or getting more stylish kills, e.g., using the environment and killing several people in a row while diving through the air. This does a good job of balancing the use of these powers.
The action is broken up a bit by two things, the first being showdowns. This involves using quick thinking and reflexes to aim at the bad guys, shooting them, and dodging their bullets by bobbing from side to side. This is a pretty cool gimmick and becomes quite challenging later on in the game and you definitely feel proud when you do well. The other thing to break up the action is a trip on a helicopter, shooting its attached gun. This basically is a side scrolling shooter mode. It would have been better broken into two parts at different points in the game, because it only does happen once and is a bit too long.
Now for a few issues… the game did very noticeably stutter during one cut scene and seemed to freeze during a few of the load screens, especially during a few very annoying loading scenes while you wait in an elevator. Why Tequila didn't just go to the top floor in the first elevator we will never understand. Another personal pet peeve is buildings blowing up for no reason. I have nothing against buildings blowing up now and then, but the developers could have at least shown a bomb to explain why the buildings are blowing up.
The level design is mostly good, with lots of environmental hazards you can take advantage of during a shoot out. There is a few annoying levels where if you do something wrong you die and have to start again. These levels become very frustrating and really made us wish we could just skip them. There is little we hate more than being forced to repeat a stage over and over; it just becomes boring.
The boss fights aren't really anything too special. While they are simple fun there isn't much to them and they aren't particularly challenging. The difficulty in the game is a bit unbalanced where some stages are a bit too easy and then others are extremely difficult.
To comment on the game's multiplayer, it isn't terribly good. The games are laggy, mostly empty and with everyone moving around quickly and diving everywhere, it makes aiming almost impossible. You can use Tequila Time in multiplayer but not all the time or whenever you like. Also it doesn't really help much, because it affects everyone the same way, so using it might end up causing your death more than your enemies. I was hoping the multiplayer would be something similar to The Specialists, which is a great Half-Life mod, but it just isn't. Speaking of mods, Stranglehold honestly felt like a really well developed mod for Max Payne and while it was good and fun, it just made me want a new Max Payne game even more.
For the most part I enjoyed Stranglehold and it is one of those games where being short is a good thing. It can be fun to play through multiple times and on the different difficulty levels but you will have certain levels as favourites that are more fun to play over and over. If you enjoy a good third person action game, Hong Kong style, then it definitely would not hurt to give Stranglehold a look. Enjoy your murderous rampage...