Chow Yun Fat knows a thing or two about puttin' holes in bad guys. But Midway? Not impressed, apparently. More than 50 action films across a 33-year career seems like a decent enough resume for the Hong Kong actor -- Midway could've just plopped Chow into the game, given him some gangsters to gun down, and called it a day. Nope. Rolling out Strangehold, the interactive sequel to John Woo's "Hard Boiled," the developer not only equips Mr. Fat with the same slick gunslinging he's known for on screen, but handy abilities that multiply his killing efficiency.
With apologies to the many Mafioso you'll encounter, Fat (starring as Inspector Tequila) can slow time on a whim, and moves through Stranglehold's object-dense environments like Tony Hawk without a skateboard: grinding down rails, pushing off walls, sliding over countertops, all with pistols drawn. An extreme-sports shooter? It's a wonder a third-person shooter hasn't implemented it before, actually. Stranglehold lightly, politely draws some mechanics we've seen succeed in Tony Hawk and other action titles, melding a satisfying simplicity to them that rarely loses its edge. Tequila slides about the environment with ease and agility, popping bullets at gangsters. There's no reload button. There's no jump button. There's no fancy HUD, map, objective scheme, or escort missions. You blast through cluttered, destructible levels, you shoot bad guys, and you have a great time doing it. It's a game that encourages you to be artful, reckless, or both at once, and this is where it succeeds.
Stranglehold's story provides a good context for the slippery shootouts to develop. As Tequila, the player is privy to a pretty average script that's saved by quality voice acting and Woo's hand in directing. Tequila's wife and daughter are kidnapped by Russian mobsters, and the Inspector's forced leave the force and make a pact with a Hong Kong drug lord to retrieve them. Pretty straightforward stuff, and even if the lines get cliched here and there, the storytelling's helped by some of the best facial modeling and animation we've seen in games. Character expressions bring the well-acted dialogue to life, but they're probably better on display during the zoomed-in, slow-mo kills you'll perform in the field.
We refer to "precision aim" here, one of four "Tequila bomb" abilities the player can deploy with the d-pad. Precision aim fires an accurate round at a single enemy, and when Tequila triggers the shot, Stranglehold switches to a behind-the-bullet cam to capture the kill. Whatever part of the body the bullet finds its way into calls up a unique, extended animation. The other special feats are just as fun: a quick health boost, a barrage attack that grants infinite ammo and invulnerability for a short time, and a cinematic spin attack. The latter costs the most off your gauge (replenished by taking down enemies), but is worth the price of admission: Tequila whirls about, taking down any gangster in range, as doves erupt from his feet. A cinematic cure-all when you're overwhelmed, in other words.
Style points are what charge the Tequila bomb gauge, with earnings based on how coolly kills are executed. Cap a few baddies while gliding down a handrail or while diving over a counter top, and you'll bag a few more points. Midway did well to make this a simple, non-judgmental system to retain the accessibility that permeates the rest of the gameplay. This begins with controls and a camera that hold their ground against pretty dynamic gunfights. The dive button's neighbor to your fire button on the left trigger, and you'll use this to send Tequila face-first across the environment, or trigger context-sensitive feats like running up ledges or hopping on a cart for a few roll-by shots.
It's a fluid system, and it helps that Stranglehold's levels feel dense but not too crowded, letting the action develop naturally. Many stages are bi-level, square designs (like later ones that take place in a Chicago museum) ripe with chandeliers and banisters to jump on, but others include a seaside drug camp and the back alleys of Hong Kong. Littering the environs are plenty of fruit baskets, crates (everybody loves crates!), statues, explosive barrels and other destructible debris that contributes some good atmosphere. Other centerpieces -- like a massive T-Rex skeleton, fountains, large pillars, and so on, all flake and fragment if they're shot up enough, and this makes the levels feel that much more fragile and alive.
The enemies that populate these scenes tend to come in waves but pose the right amount of danger. They're not necessarily the brightest or most tactically-oriented foes you'll encounter, but the gangsters make great disposable fodder. It never gets old punching some buckshot into group, and Midway supplies enough ragdoll to make each take-down rewarding. The handful of bosses you're paired against are decent diversions, though many of them seem to involve helicopters.
So, Stranglehold's brand of fluid gun-fu is catchy, but where does the game lose its grip? The title's token multiplayer mode feels pretty average, and will probably only keep you entertained for a few hours. Likewise, some aspects of the campaign in later levels feel a tad rushed -- not much -- environments just don't seem as well-constructed later in the game, and we'd like a few more neon signs or rock slides to drop on baddies, like we got in the first few.
Saving most of this is another mini-game that's a fun challenge, and Stranglehold's overall excellent presentation and audio. At certain points, Tequila will find himself surrounded by a half-dozen or more gunmen at close range, and the game transitions into a slow-mo shootout, where you'll dodge bullets with the left analog and direct your aim with the right. It's a fun exercise that tests your coordination, and contributes some good tension to the play. Otherwise, we appreciate Stranglehold's crisp, quality sound effects. The music does fine, but the sonic nuances capture the destructible landscape so well while bringing the games' weapons (pistols, shotgun, assault rifle, and SMGs) to life.
Stranglehold accomplishes what it sets out to do: be a cinematic, flashy action experience that mirrors one of Woo's films. It does this with excellent, accessible controls, playful, simple features that dodge gimmicks, fun environments that crumble during combat and polished presentation to make the package work. You won't find a terrible amount of depth, complicated, objective-based gameplay, or even a stunning story, but hey. Do you look down on your favorite action flick for lacking meaningful character development? We thought so. If you're in the market for a no-frills action fix, grab Stranglehold.