A senior designer, hands trembling, closes the laptop and removes it from the table. He’s just shown the first mock-up of “John Woo Presents Stranglehold” to the master of Hong Kong action himself. Woo squints slightly, and then leans slowly back in his chair and lets out a deep sigh. Tension wraps tight around everyone in the room as he prepares to speak.
A young programmer timidly replies:
“Sir, we’re already running the processor at maximum capacity, we – “
A cold stare from Woo hits him like a sniper bullet. Woo repeats:
It’s hard to tell exactly what role John Woo played as director of “Stranglehold,” but whatever it was, he has peppered the game with 60 rounds of his own unique style without reloading once. Fish tanks shatter, rockets fly, tankers explode and wave after wave of nameless enemies are mowed down by the steady rhythm of Chow Yun-Fat’s twin berettas. At times it feels like up to half of the game is played in slow motion. Remember when “Max Payne” was supposed to be like a John Woo movie in a videogame? This is a John Woo movie in a videogame.
“Stranglehold” is Woo’s videogame debut, the sequel to his legendary 1992 movie “Hard-Boiled.” As in “Hard Boiled,” the action follows Chow Yun-Fat as Inspector Tequila. Tequila must take revenge for his friend and rescue his wife and daughter, a task so honorable that it will require the killing of at least three times as many dudes. His adventure takes him through a casino, a country estate, a construction site, a penthouse and a museum, each of which he leaves in a shattered, smoldering wreck.
Every environment is crammed full of breakable items, and while it isn’t physics-based — instances of destruction are scripted — it happens so frequently and quickly that it can be hard to tell. Neon signs, slot machines, Degas’ “Tiny Dancer” — a couple, or perhaps a great many, well-placed shots will take out just about anything. The constantly shattering environment is one of a few strategies that Midway Chicago employs to bring across the John Woo Style.
The most common of these effects is Tequila Time, which causes the world to go into red-tinted slow-mo every time Tequila does something cool with his gun pointed at an enemy. Five thugs might run at you, forcing you to dive backwards into slow motion and take them all out before you hit the ground. Of course, you won’t have to reload, because Tequila only reloads when it’s badass. Every stage is full of objects that will automatically trigger Tequila-time as well: Tequila can jump on a rollcart, swing on a chandelier or slide down a banister as he deftly dispatches his foes. He can also use the environment to take cover, though the controls for this are unreliable. This makes for some great shots of a grimacing Chow Yun Fat standing in front of a shattering pillar, only to swing out and nail his opponents with a one-handed M4.
Killing enemies in especially badass ways fills up the Tequila bomb meter, which can be used to execute special moves. The first of them, precision aim, slows the world to a crawl and zooms in on enemies, and then follows the bullet to its final resting place. Barrage causes Tequila to actually reload, and triggers a rapid-fire, near-invincible, slow motion hail of bullets. The last move is Spin Attack — using this will kick in orchestral music and a shot of the rotating Tequila of death, killing every enemy in the room from inside a flock of doves. To emphasize the drama, this is portrayed in slow motion.
“Stranglehold’s” style is a tremendous success. And while Woo has often been called style over substance, the substance of “Stranglehold” is still worth mentioning. The intensity and frenetic pace of the action can become confusing, and even the most alert gamers will find it nearly impossible to keep track of everything that’s going on at once. The fighting delivers intangible satisfaction with every shot landed, but it can begin to feel a bit monotonous, even within the span of this very short game.
The levels are well-designed, aside from one notable exception – the second level feels tacked on and rushed, bearing no real connection to the story or any of the flair of the rest of the levels. Occasionally it feels like “kill all the enemies in this stage until you can move to the next,” but this formulaic approach does allow Midway to create some superbly arranged rooms that you’ll have to thoroughly explore and destroy.
The production of “Stranglehold” is an exciting precedent for video games, and there could have been nobody better than John Woo to be the first big-name crossover. The gameplay needs some tightening, some more variety, and a bit more polish, but “Stranglehold 2” could be incredible. “Stranglehold” is perhaps the best title for the next-gen gamer who wants to do a lot of killing and smashing, and I gather that many next-gen gamers do.