Many games have been labelled as 'cinematic' or 'film-like' experiences, but for the most part they've still been video games; video games with extremely high production values, but still video games. The difference between those and Stranglehold is that, for the first time, you feel as if you're inside an action movie, playing the lead character and blowing stuff up.
From John Woo, Stranglehold is a video game sequel to the director's critically acclaimed and much loved Had Boiled. Just as Hard Boiled stars Chow Yun Fat as Inspector Yuen (Tequila), Stranglehold is the same. You play as Tequila in an action packed adventure that takes you all over the world. When a cop goes missing in Hong Kong, Tequila volunteers to take on the case and all hell breaks loose - the perfect set-up for an action-packed shooter.
As a third-person action game the simplest comparison is to Max Payne, but given the advancements in technology you can expect Stranglehold to be considerably more explosive. Yes, you slow down time when you dive, slide along ledges, ride on service trays or run down trolleys, but the feeling of being a tool of destruction has never been greater. Stray gun-fire will destroy practically everything in the environment, from fruit on market stalls to statues at the centre of lavish rooms.
We've seen destruction in games before, but here it looks more natural, with objects breaking apart into pieces, often in relation to where they've been hit. Stand behind a pillar and enemies will attempt to gun you down, but in doing so their bullets break up the concrete and reduce the thick support structure to a thin relic of its former self. We've all seen the famous Lobby scene in the original Matrix movie and longed for such destruction in video games. Stranglehold delivers it.
To ensure that everyone can experience Stranglehold without having to worry about complex controls, the guys at Midway have come up with a brilliantly simple set-up. In the Xbox 360 game you pull the left trigger to dive, entering slow-mo and allowing you to target enemies more easily. This is pretty standard stuff, but Stranglehold has a few more tricks up its sleeve.
The clever bit is how Tequila moves over the more unorthodox objects in the game. Run into a table and he'll automatically slide over it; run towards a rail and he'll hop up and run down it. By taking the act of performing an action out of your hands you're free to concentrate on the important stuff - like killing the swarms of guys hell-bent on filling you with lead.
During general gameplay you're best off going for headshots, but enemies react accordingly if they're hit in the leg or arm, and flashing objects in the environment often trigger more elaborate kills if you hit them - be it a simple exploding barrel or a collapsing platform.
At certain points in the game you enter a mini-game of sorts, where you're rooted to the spot but must dodge bullets and fire on enemies. Entirely in slow-mo, you control Tequila's body with the left analogue stick and his aim with the right, allowing you to dodge the incoming fire like a scene out of a high-budget action movie. While these moments appeared to look like flashy gimmicks, they're surprisingly good fun and allow for some impressive looking action and break up the near relentless action.
Something that seems a little less well thought out is the cover system. By pressing the left bumper Tequila will put his back to a wall and from here you can pop out (in slow motion) and pick off enemies. While something many gamers will expect in an action game, it feels slightly out of place in such a fast moving title. Hopefully this is a feature that becomes more useful later on in the game.
The final piece to the action puzzle is the Tequila Bomb system. The four directions on the d-pad trigger one of four special abilities. The most simple is the Heal move, which understandably replenishes your health meter; Precision Shot lets you target an enemy in a specific body part; Barrage gives you invulnerability for a limited period of time and arms you with infinite ammo; and Spin does what it sounds like, with Tequila unleashing a whirlwind of bullets on enemies.
Using the Unreal Engine 3 Stranglehold is a brilliant looking next-gen title. Even taking the incredible destruction out of the picture, the character models look excellent and the numerous environments are solid and full of detail. Little touches throughout should also please Woo fans, with the trademark white doves making an appearance and the game's 'hard' mode goes by the name Hard-Boiled.
New releases are coming thick and fast over the coming months, but if first-impressions of Stranglehold are anything to go by this should be one of the premier next-gen titles. The single-player campaign looks to be action packed in the extreme and a slow-mo filled multiplayer mode should add to the game's appeal. Midway are still nailing down a release date, but European gamers should be playing the game in September.