VIDEO: The trailer for Stranglehold
There’s a great line in the 1992 John Woo movie Hard Boiled: “Give a guy a gun and he thinks he’s Superman. Give him two and he thinks he’s God!” Chow Yun-Fat’s Inspector Tequila doesn’t just think he’s God: with a Beretta in each hand, he achieves near-omnipotence. He leaps through the air, twisting like a ballerina, and drops a half-dozen gangsters before the first one hits the ground. In the movie’s most memorable moment, he slides down a railing on his back while plugging multiple bad guys.
It’s this sort of poetic violence that Stranglehold — Hard Boiled’s direct-to-game sequel — seeks to emulate. But Tequila has a merciful side, too, as you see when he escapes a firefight by jumping out a second-floor window while cradling a newborn baby under his jacket. This is the quality that Stranglehold lacks. Absent equal screen time to the innocent, the punishment of the guilty ends up feeling excessive — not to mention repetitive.
Stranglehold does at first promise to be spectacular and not simply a cash-in. John Woo’s name is plastered all over the packaging, belying his role as a “consultant.” Chow Yun-Fat lends his likeness, as well as his status as the baddest man alive. The first level sends Inspector Tequila rushing headlong through the dingy back alleys of Hong Kong, pumping round after round into one thug after another. The visual æsthetic is just like that of Hard Boiled; the café even seems to be modeled after one in the movie.
Most of the primary gameplay elements are introduced in this stage. Tequila can interact with the environment in numerous ways: running across railings, jumping onto handcarts, somersaulting off of walls. Most moves trigger a slow-motion effect called “Tequila Time”; the packaging calls this revolutionary, but it ought to be familiar to anyone who’s played Max Payne or F.E.A.R. More interesting is the “Massive D” feature (abbreviated because “destruction” just sounds so stuffy), in which shooting environmental triggers can kill your enemies in hilarious ways. That mostly means dropping stuff on them, like dinosaur skeletons at the museum, but Stranglehold also relishes the explosive power of the fire extinguisher.
For a short time, the mayhem is irresistible. Then you start to notice that every level has a suspicious number of fire extinguishers and handcarts. The same stunts are repeated. The level design regresses to stringing together kill boxes along a series of identical hallways.
Worse, the sloppy play control becomes crippling as the game begins to demand a level of precision that it won’t allow. The designers tried to simplify things by assigning the left trigger to activate Tequila’s context-sensitive special moves as well as his standard slo-mo leap. If he’s not positioned just so next to an interactive object — even the camera’s position is a factor — he’ll simply leap forward instead of performing the desired action. This is annoying on its own, and it becomes maddening around proximity mines. Two guns or not, Tequila is hardly God there.
The gameplay would need to be tethered to an amazing narrative to overcome its flaws. It isn’t. Yes, it took guts to produce the sequel to a well-loved movie like HardBoiled as a video game — that’s something I’d like to see more of. But the tacked-on story doesn’t do justice to the source material. Nods to staples of the John Woo œuvre, like the undercover cop with divided loyalties, seem to have been included out of a sense of obligation. Nothing is developed beyond the next gunfight. Inspector Tequila deserves better than Stranglehold — and so do gamers.