doctor_kaz's John Woo Presents Stranglehold (PC) review

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Good overlooked game. Tech is especially impressive

It has been a long time since Max Payne 2, and Max Payne 3 is still a while away. In the meantime, we have Stranglehold, a fine action game that matches and in some ways, exceeds the cinematic carnage of the Max Payne series. As action games go, there is little in Stranglehold that you haven't seen before. Its lack of originality is forgivable though, when you consider that it is a successor to Hard Boiled, the Hong Kong action film that largely inspired the Max Payne series and many other games. It is especially forgivable when you see how well the game succeeds on a lot of levels, like its terrific style and spectacularly destructible environments. It has a few flaws, but it is a solid action game, and a fine addition to your collection if you are a fan of the genre.

Stranglehold follows the story of Inspector Tequila, the main character in Hard Boiled. The story in the game isn't connected to the film, and it's not necessary to watch the movie to understand what happens in the game. If you did see the movie, you will appreciate how faithful the game is to the movie in its style. The movie had numerous destructive shootouts where environments would be shredded to pieces, bodies would drop by the dozens, and flying debris would fill the air. The action heroes of the movie performed all sorts of slow-motion acrobatic feats while double-fisting guns. The game follows this formula perfectly. As Inspector Tequila, you will constantly find yourself diving sideways, diving forwards, and performing all sorts of other breathtaking moves while you mow down waves of enemies with uzis, pistols, and the other typical weapons of the genre. All the while, glass shatters, fruit explodes, cars explode, wood splinters, statues crumble, pillars fall over, and tiles fly off of walls. Stranglehold is a rare example of successful collaboration between the movie world and the game world.

The game matches the feel of the Hard Boiled, and it is very easy on the eyes, even though it is not perfect. The visuals don't sport the same level of polish found in top-notch Unreal 3 engine games like Gears of War and Mass Effect. The faces don't look quite as good, the animation isn't quite as smooth, and there are other bits and pieces that aren't perfect. The game makes up for its visual shortcomings though with some nice artwork and a huge variety of colorful environments. Stranglehold's visual design is 180 degrees different from almost every other prominent Unreal 3 game. Instead of washing an endless series of rooms in grays and earth colors, this game makes full use of a color palette in both indoor and outdoor areas. Simply finding out what kind of room you will be shooting up next is often enough to entice you to play through to the next level.

The action in Stranglehold is facilitated by fantastic use of the Havok physics engine. Almost everything in every environment is destructible, a vastly underappreciated feat that has only been matched by just a few games. Environments are some of the most interactive and realistic to date. Stranglehold's environments don't just include the usual handful of destructible or movable objects in an indestructible shell like most games. In Stranglehold, almost everything that you can see or touch will break if a bullet is fired at it. It is a feature that gives every firefight a destructive edge rarely seen in any action game. One of the fun parts of this game is surveying the room after a firefight and seeing all of the damage that has been done.

The destructible environments also affect gameplay. Many levels have enemies staged directly under gigantic heavy objects, such as neon signs and boulders. By shooting the supports for those objects, you can cause them to come crashing down on top of the poor unfortunate souls. It's not a brand new idea, but it is put to excellent use, and it fits into the game perfectly. Cover is often destructible too, and that also has a major effect upon the game. Try hiding behind a pillar or a table, and chances are, within a few seconds, your cover will be chewed to pieces. Stranglehold isn't a tactical affair. It's an ultra violent romp. One exciting boss battle pits you in a room against a meathead with a machine gun that you have to defeat by constantly running from cover point to cover point. As the fight progresses, the pillars and even the floors on the second level practically melt under the hail of bullets, and by the end there is almost nowhere left to hide. It is one of the more interesting boss battles that I have played in recent memory.

Environments are highly interactive, allowing you to pull off all sorts of outlandish cinematic moves. You can shoot enemies while swinging from a chandelier or wield twin uzis while you ride a pushcart on your stomach. The game encourages you to pull off these moves by giving you bonus points for stylish kills. This carrot-and-stick mechanic isn't complicated, but it is very effective.

The shootouts in the game would have been nearly perfect were it not for a couple of flaws. One of these flaws is that the audio for the weapons is really weak, and in general, none of them feel like they pack much of a punch. One of the defining traits of a great shooter like Call of Duty 4 or F.E.A.R. is great weapon sounds. Great sound effects give firefights an intense, visceral feel – a feel that is sorely missing in Stranglehold. The shotgun and the assault rifle lack the resounding "boom" or "crack" make these weapons sound powerful. They feel more like toys – albeit toys that can reduce a well furnished room to rubble in a couple of minutes. In addition, most of the enemies that you fight are simplistic, repetitive fodder that either stands in one place and shoots at you or rushes right at you. They spawn all over the place in nearly endless waves and the levels sometimes overstay their welcome. The boss battles are satisfying, but the other thousand enemies that you fight could have used more variety. The game is also very short, clocking in at 6 hours or less for most gamers.

Stranglehold is a successful Hollywood-to-games crossover that will be enjoyable for "Hard Boiled" movie fans and action game fans alike. It may seem like it is derivative, or a ripoff of Max Payne, but that is because it is emulating the movies that have led to "bullet time" and other conventions in action games. With its stylish and destructible environments, the game actually rises a notch above an ordinary shooter. In a world full of crummy action movie game tie-ins, Stranglehold is a welcome and underappreciated success.

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