John Woo Presents: Stranglehold Xbox 360 Review (Second Opinion)

Forget Chuck Norris.

A bold statement, I know. But compared to Tequilla Yuen, the smart-talking, bullet-dodging death-machine cop of the Hard Boiled Hong Kong action movie, Chuck Norris looks like a wimp. Directed by action legend John Woo, Chow Yun Fat was Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen, a cop with more lives than the most careful of cats, more bullets than blood and harder than nails. Containing some of the most balletic gun battles ever committed to celluloid and a body count of over 200 bad-guys, Hard Boiled was as subtle as a bullet to the brain, but far more exhilarating. Notorious in the gaming industry, a good many titles contain references and blatant rip-offs from the film, including the highly enjoyable Max Payne series, which even features a game-play mode called “Hard Boiled”. Hell, the direct translation of “Hard Boiled” into English is “Hot-Handed God of Cops”. Who couldn’t love a film like that?

Considering the popularity of the film, it’s surprising that Tequila hadn’t found his way into a game before now. However, rather than farm out the work to faceless developers, John Woo himself was at the helm of Stranglehold, the game that rightly puts Tequila back in the firing line. Chow Yun Fat even provides his voice and appearance to the character, already making Stranglehold one of the most faithful movie-to-videogame transitions ever. Indeed, from the very opening moment in which you hear the beautiful piano intro to the spinning slow-mo camera, Stranglehold captures the spirit of the movie genre perfectly. The appearance of two white doves in the animated menu system (a Woo trademark) actually had me shouting at my TV in delight.

This sense of delight carried on into the game itself. The opening cutscene of the game shows more directing skill than any of the copycat titles that have come before. John Woo’s genius is clearly visible in the inventive camera movements and sharp dialogue. The character models look fantastic, proving that computer games are veering ever closer to the day when we abolish real people and communicate entirely with virtual personas. Certainly, they can already out-act Keanu Reeves. The recreation of Chow Yun Fat in particular is excellent, with every wrinkle and bald patch faithfully mapped out.

Gameplay-wise, the game is a cinematic joy. Players are actively encouraged to find the most spectacular, dramatic manner in which to dispose of the hoards of enemies thrown in their path. A Burnout-style star system rates these kills in terms of their inventiveness and skill. Killing a single guy achieves one star. Sliding down a banister, while shooting a neon sign, causing it to fall on top of four shotgun wielding dudes, igniting a gas canister, which sends heavy objects shooting across the alleyway into the faces of those unfortunate enough not to have ducked counts for more. Traversing the upper floor of a restaurant astride a food trolley, before leaping off and grabbing a chandelier to swing to the other side of the room, all the while spitting flaming bullets of death from your duel machine pistols will also gain a considerable volume of stars. Believe it or not, these aren’t the most spectacular stunts available, and the options occasionally overwhelm. Aiming at enemies whilst in the midst of stunts engages a slow-mo camera, in which the player can view every bullet leaving the barrel of their gun. Cover disintegrates as lead smashes into it, sending up clouds of dust. A lovely touch is the way in which Tequila reacts to these shots, flinching his head and spitting out bits of plaster. You’ll want to play each set-piece over and over to fully explore the possibilities for destruction.

Add into this mix some of the most entertaining special powers ever conceived in an action game. Earning stars provides you with points, to spend on Tequila’s unique abilities. The first unlocked is the obsequious Healing power, but more enjoyable (read: death-dealing) fare follows. A particular favourite is an ability which allows Tequila to fire off one exactly accurate shot. Activating this power causes the game to slow to a crawl. As you aim your shot at an enemy, the camera zooms, allowing fine tuning of the crosshairs. Firing, the camera follows the bullet until it hits the unlucky soul, at which point a flawless hit box system detects exactly where you hit them, causing a gory and context-appropriate ending. I literally never tire of this, finding more and more nasty places in which to land my bullets (and whoever said video games made you violent?). Disappointingly, there are only four such powers to be unlocked, and while they all have their uses, gamers are greedy and always want more.

Further to this, Tequila occasionally gets embroiled in tense stand-offs with groups of bad guys (mostly at key plot moments). The game then allows the player to take them down, one at a time, dodging bullets with one thumb-stick while aiming with the other. It’s undoubtedly tough at first, but after a few attempts, the mini-game feels slick and satisfying. Another mini-game sees the player in a helicopter, singlehandedly taking down a drug-factory fleet with a minigun. Rather than feeling forced (as such sections usually do in lesser games), the action is exciting and challenging, with the slow-mo camera providing time in which to gun down rockets from the air and hit conveniently placed explosive barrels, demolishing entire islands in the process. Amusingly, the game provides a statistic of how much damage was done to the world after each level ends, with the total inevitably into the millions of dollars. The player is also rated for each run-through each level, providing an incentive to go back and try to perfect each section.

Indeed, slick and satisfying really sums up Stranglehold. It’s hard to think of any other movie-to-videogame tie-in that’s as polished and perfected as this. Evidentially, allowing the director and main star input into the game pays off, and one hopes that other developers take note. If you are wanting ear-drum shattering gunfire, with a heavy dollop of gore and a protagonist who never needs to reload, Stranglehold is your best bet.

Now get out of here, before I find my pistol.