Continuing the story of Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen from John Woo‘s "Hard Boiled" film, Stranglehold provides gamers with an adrenaline-pumping experience, and one that is apparently quite faithful to Woo’s work according to long-time fans, although as someone who hasn’t seen his films, I can’t vouch for the veracity of that viewpoint. Tequila’s essentially a one-man army in a war against underworld crime in Hong Kong, and players are given a wide variety of shooting techniques and environmental hazards to dispatch enemies to even the odds.
This results in a game that gives you a lot to do, but doesn’t offer an in-depth experience, and one that will likely be appreciated by players with itchy trigger fingers while leaving players desiring a deeper game disappointed. If viewed as just a video game sequel to a John Woo film, Strangehold succeeds about as well as could be expected given that it offers a very cinematic experience. Unfortunately, when stacked up against other action games, Stranglehold doesn’t hold up as well due to its lack of depth.
The main problem I have is that the gameplay itself is hollow and the experience gets repetitive quickly. Sure, it’s fun to just shoot up wave after wave of enemies, and you’re given a lot of methods in which to kill opponents, but none of them really have any depth to them. The only one that does involves using a zip line to propel yourself down towards foes, then using “Tequila time” (basically bullet time, but with a different name and hailed as an all-new feature) to shoot your enemies in slow motion. You can also shoot at enemies while on the zip line without using bullet time, which increases your chances of being shot, but makes using the zip line to kill foes far more exciting.
The most gory method of killing your enemies involves hitting up on the d-pad, allowing you to aim with pinpoint precision and leading to graphic shots of body parts being shot, or in the case of direct hits to the face, eyes being shot out and noses being destroyed on contact. The most absurd shooting style requires you to simply tap right on the d-pad, enabling you to basically enter into a rage and shoot people for a limited amount of time while being almost impervious to damage and spewing up round after round of bullets that aren’t taken away from your ammo allotment.
While these things certainly add some variety, they hurt the ‘Tequila vs. the entire Hong Kong underworld’ concept of the game as Tequila becomes far too powerful as the game progresses. This problem is only compounded by the ability to regain health thanks (in large part) to making use of the flashier killing methods, which enable you to store up a lot of reserve health if you stick to just using fancy killing methods. What’s worse is that, like the other deck-stacking gameplay elements, only a simple d-button press is needed to activate it (in this case, hitting left is all that‘s needed).
I could understand stacking the odds more in the favor of the protagonist in the game if there weren’t save points and levels were long, but here, you’re constantly reaching checkpoints, sometimes just two minutes after the last one. While I’m glad that the game isn’t frustratingly difficult, it ends up feeling almost too easy given the odds that you’re facing, and it only makes monotony set in faster, because when you’re not shooting waves of foes, you’re shooting saves of foes and completing a single simplistic objective (like destroying drug tables early in the game) over and over again.
While seemingly every other part of the gameplay bugged me in some way, the use of the environment as a tool to take down enemies is one thing I feel the developers nailed perfectly. Being able to use things like hot dog carts, railings, and just about any flat surface that can be slid across while shooting was pretty inventive for a shooting game and added some much-needed variety in the basic ’shoot everyone in a room, then do it again for 20 minutes’ gameplay.
Despite the problems I have with some of the gameplay elements, I’ve got to give credit where it’s due - the controls are fantastic, and you can always count on Tequila to react just when you need him to. In an action-heavy game like this, sluggish controls would kill the game, but here, they’re responsive, and despite having a lot of shooting options available, learning the controls never seemed like a daunting task. Given all that you’re able to do in Stranglehold, that’s an impressive accomplishment.
The developers have done a great job at making the game’s world look realistic, although the lack of non-enemy human beings and repetitious environments hurts the reality of the game quite a bit. Looking past those flaws reveals a game with beautiful surroundings that can mostly be destroyed by players at will. The environments aren’t just nice to look at due to how detailed and realistic they look, but they can also play a key role in gameplay. Hiding behind a hanging row of fish early in the game, for example, allows you to have a small shield to protect you from enemy fire until the fish are literally blown to bits. Much like the sight of seeing an enemy’s face get destroyed, there’s something exciting and a bit disturbing about seeing it unfold.
Stranglehold’s audio isn’t anything special outside of the voice acting. Sound effects for all of the weapons and attacks are loud, which works since this is basically a playable action film, but none of them left a lasting impression on me. The same holds true with the music - it always fits the scene and in the case of the slower songs, actually adds a great deal of drama to the happenings of the game, none of it sticks out in my mind after playing. The voice work, however, does. Everyone plays their parts well, and while the action movie archetypal characters don’t go through much development, the few emotions the actors are able to convey are all done well and everything’s treated seriously, with nothing being treated as if it’s campy, which is impressive accomplishment in a game with as many absurdities as this one.
Taken as a whole, Stranglehold is a well-made, but short and shallow gaming experience that ends up being best suited for a rental and not worth its asking price for anyone expecting a game with a lot of depth to it. If you want a game where you just shoot thousands of people in many fun and completely insane ways, then you might get your money’s worth out of it. For anyone else, just try the demo. Odds are, that’ll satiate your desire for virtual blood lust, thus giving you more time to devote to more enjoyable and engrossing gaming experiences.