There's a lot to be said for guns in video games. Now, I'm certainly not a condoner of violence in real life, but in the virtual worlds of video games, far away from reality, shooting a gun can be a thrilling experience. The feel of shooting is something many games have nailed, but the effects of stray bullets as you consistently miss your target aren't something that video games have done too well. Save for a few titles here and there the environment has nearly always been to look at rather than to interact with. Stranglehold changes all that.
While claiming everything in Stranglehold is destructible would be a blatant lie, there's rarely a moment in the game where you shoot something and it just sits there, un-touched other than a gun-shot texture being applied. And it's not just for effect either, with the destruction playing a big part in the gameplay. Whether you're running from destroyed cover to cover or shooting down a piece of the scenery to take down a group of enemies, it always pays to remember that you're in a game where nowhere is safe.
All this action isn't taking place for no reason, with the game's story involving kidnappings, a dead cop and a gang war, with double-crossing and backstabbing. It is of course from John Woo, the legendary Chinese film director, and Stranglehold is actually a sequel of sorts to his cult classic movie Hard Boiled - again starring Chow Yun Fat as Inspector Yuen (Tequila). It's not something you'll be welling up over as the credits roll, but it serves its purpose and in truth is about on par with what you'd expect from a Hollywood action movie. It's told well too, with some solid voice acting and stylish cutscenes.
In the game the core gameplay mechanic is Tequila Time, which is essentially Stranglehold's version of bullet time. You have a meter which shows how much Tequila Time you have left, and it's activated by pulling the left trigger while targeting an enemy - or by pressing the right bumper. Depending on the situation, Tequila will either dive, run up something, flip off something or perform an equally outrageous move. Tequila also performs numerous moves without your say so, such as sliding over tables when you run into them.
You can of course run through killing enemies without using Tequila Time, but doing so means you won't perform stylish moves and therefore won't fill your Tequila Bomb meter. As this meter is filled the four Tequila Bomb moves are activated in turn. The easiest to get is a health boost, which is followed by a sniper-like targeted shot. While the health boost comes in handy when you've exhausted the health packs in an area, the targeted shot is something that I rarely used. The final two moves are far more useful, with the third giving you temporary invulnerability and unlimited ammo, while the final move sees Tequila spinning around, taking out every enemy in the area.
While not necessary, the final two Tequila Bombs often get you out of tricky situations and look cool to boot. While the game encourages you to play in various different styles depending on the situation, taking cover and being a little cautious is hardly ever an option due to the rapidly depleting areas of cover. Seeing as running in all guns blazing is often the only real option, you'll frequently find yourself outnumbered with slowing time not being enough to save your skin. A quick press down on the d-pad will cause you to unleash your spinning attack and give you an instant moment of peace - only a moment mind.
It seems a tad unfair to criticise Stranglehold's relentless shooting, considering it does this better than any other game I've played this gen, but things do start to get a little repetitive. There are also some rather extreme shifts in difficulty, with certain sections proving to be a recipe for frustration. You'll get through the whole game in under seven hours, but at times (especially on anything about the normal difficulty setting) you'll start to hate the game's patronising need to ask if you want to play on an easier difficulty - especially when it was the game's camera that caused you to flail around like an idiot for five seconds.
When you're finished with the campaign you can jump into the game's online multiplayer mode, but it really does feel like it was tacked on. It seems churlish to criticise it too much, seeing as the focus was clearly on creating a polished, action-packed single-player game, but it's worth noting if you think multiplayer will give the game some extra longevity. Of more interest is John Woo the barman, who will sell you various behind the scenes game development items, such as footage of the game in various prototype forms, including test footage of the game dynamics built into the dev team's Psi-ops engine.
If you were to see the game during a quiet moment you could be forgiven for thinking that the dev team has failed to make the most of the Unreal Engine 3, but you only have to witness the insane amount of on-screen carnage to realise that Stranglehold is one of the most impressive next-gen games to date. Character models are a little rough around the edges, but when things kick-off you'll appreciate that new HD screen you spent most of your last paycheque on. Sound is equally impressive, with a perfectly suited soundtrack and plenty of thumping sound effects.
The biggest complement that I can pay to Stranglehold is that when I'd finished it, I wanted to jump straight back in and play through again. It's got its flaws but if you like shooting things it's hard to see how you could play Stranglehold without a big grin on your face. There are numerous things I'd love to see improved in a sequel, but for now it delivers on its promise of Hollywood style cinematic action.