Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: "John Woo's Stranglehold"

Slick as Oil
review for Stranglehold, 1-player third-person shooter, available second-hand

If there’s one thing I’ve noticed, as a gamer primarily partaking in the action-adventure-shooter genre, it’s that we – that is to say, shooter fans – are very much connoisseurs. Moreso than any other breed of gamers, we very much refine our palette, so to speak. ...okay, I can't finish typing that sentence and take myself seriously at the same time. But the point I'm making is, is thus: perhaps a fan of fantasy RPGs can accept a slightly half-good goblin-hunting elf-romping MMO-ish-athon, but here in shooty-wizzy-bang-bang land, mediocrity is very much frowned upon. This is perhaps why RPG fans very much enjoyed Mass Effect, but those of us drawn in by the third-person shooting aspects were left disappointed – because we hate sub-par action. It’s all about big, epic gunfights, tight controls, fast pacing, and awesome - yet dignified! - set-pieces. And any “action” game sneaking in under our radar without these things will get chastised for it - indefinitely.

Stranglehold feels like a game that is tailored specifically for this considerably anal action-oriented gaming community. An official sequel to John Woo’s spectacular bullet ballet Hard Boiled, Chow-Yun Fat – Hong Kong’s posterboy for action movies – stars in a fast-paced, intense, and epic-gun-battle-ridden thrill ride. Sorta. The story itself is fairly B-movie. There are gangsters dealing drugs. There’s the hard boiled cop breaking all the rules. The cop crosses paths with the gangsters with a barrage of hot lead, usually ending the scene with a one-liner to add insult to injury. The plot is cheese, and not the suitable sort of Godzilla or Saints Row cheese – the uncomfortable kind that makes you feel embarrassed for watching, with cringe-worthy dialog and hackneyed scene progression. It’s a shame, because the gameplay is as awesome tits on fucking fire. (Fire is awesome. Tits are awesome. The maths works out.)

Taking control of Inspector Tequila, you’ll find that he has a thing for gravity-defying dives. Pulling the left trigger will send the digital Chow-Yun avatar head-first into a swan-dive – nothing special, except when you’re aiming at an enemy (and you’re never not aiming at an enemy), in which case pulling a dive will send you into “Tequila Time” (that’s slow-motion “bullet time” for those of you who need everything spelt out for you). The diving isn’t just a gimmick – it’s an essential gameplay mechanic that, beyond letting you pull off sleek headshots while jumping sideways over a banister, adds that unique yet familiar John Woo slow-motion fast-firing trope that every third-person shooter since Max Payne has been trying to ape.

Aside from that, the gameplay is very much skill-based. It’s an arcade shooter, not dissimilar to score-based malarkeys like The Club, and pulling of a kill with style will get you further than just shooting a guy in the chest. You’re very much encouraged to experiment and stage your own Hong Kong action scene within the game’s limitations, so you’ll find yourself doing cool shit like diving onto a sliding dinner cart, activating Tequila Time to gun down a whole row of goons, before flipping off the cart, running up the stair rails, before leaping off and swinging from the chandelier – gunning down bad guys all the while – before effortlessly leaping off and onto the ground, leaving behind a trail of death, destruction, and shells. When you string together a row of kick-ass kills this way, the game is incredibly satisfying – when you fuck it all up, you feel defeated and antagonized. Not everyone will appreciate the sink or swim style-focused shooting, especially if you’re more accustomed to more sober affairs like Gears of War, but if you appreciate over-the-top action like your Devil May Cry and Bayonetta-types, you’ll love most of Stranglehold to bits.

You’re also equipped with some Tequila Bombs – special moves which you can pull off at the press of a button, provided you fill up the bar by pulling off stylish kills. It creates a “kill well to continue killing well” mentality that pushes the player forward, as long as offering you some invaluable tactical advantages. The first Tequila Bomb, you can trigger any time – it will convert what you have in the bar to health. This shot of HP, when used in critical circumstances, can mean the difference between dying an annoying, humiliating death, and living to fight another minute.

The other Tequila Bombs you can only use after you’ve filled up a quarter, half, or three quarters of the bar respectively. “Aim” is exactly what you expect it is – you zoom in with sniper-like accuracy, the game pulls back to slo-mo, and you can pick of enemies from a distance. Upon firing, you’re treated to a tracking cam of the bullet, and finally the gory entry and subsequent death animation – and it is wicked. The other two are basically frenzy attacks – the last Bomb is a spinning shooting move that kills every enemy in the area, but the third, “Barrage,” gives Tequila infinite ammo, greatly increased attack power, and infinite health for a short period of time. I found myself not using Barrage as much as the game would have liked me to – as fun as it is to tank your way through the scenery, just mowing everyone down like an invincible madman, pulling off genuinely skillful kills was infinitely more satisfying. I have read, however, that Barrage is popular among fans, and it’s hard to deny its tactical brilliance – it sort of goes against how I play the game is all.

But, much like the cheesy B-movie plot and cutscenes, the boss battles err on the side of terrible. They’re not awful, but a lot of them equate to simply following an attack pattern and planning your killing around it. Chipping away at huge health bars is sort of fun, but I much preferred the awesome John Woo slo-motion and aerial acrobatics, not shooting at these bosses ripped from Time Crisis. It’s not a game-breaker, but it will split those interested in this game into two camps – those who can tolerate slight dips in quality, and those who can’t.

Me? I can. It’s sort of unpolished and the graphics are only on par with all those other games released at the start of the generation – in 2011, the 2007 engine shows its age. But it is fun. It is ridiculous gun porn, but fun as hell. It helps that it was made in collaboration with Woo himself, as it doesn't fall into the trap of paying tribute in lieu of refining the gameplay. The Woo-influence and the gunplay never cross each other – at best, it’s a ballet of bullets and technical brilliance that sees you pulling off incredibly slick kills while wearing awesome suits and feeling like a total badass. At worst, it’s a buggy, inconsistent third-person shooter that doesn't do what you want it to do. Is it okay? Yeah. Quality-wise, it’s a definite “good, almost great”. But content wise – it is fucking awesome. Any action connoisseur will do themselves a favour giving this a look-in – casual oberservers will either tolerate it or hate it with a passion. Midway is defunct so you won’t find it printed brand new anywhere, but I picked it up for $5 second-hand, so look around and you’ll find this one for uber-cheap – and if all else fails, you can find it in the budget titles section of your favourite PC games isle. Long story short – get this game, action fans. It’s Chow-Yun Fat-tastic.

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