A relic stuck between generations
I recently purchased and played two movie games from gog.com, Midway’s Stranglehold and Westwood’s Blade Runner. I would have loved to call them a “Good Old Double Feature”, but this first half is not appealing to me at all. Here is my review of John Woo Presents Stranglehold.
2007 was a great year for video game. More importantly, it was a big year for debuts in the sense of “Best Debut”, that Giantbomb Game of the Year category I miss so dearly. Bioshock ushered in immersive sim for the consoles. Assassin’s Creed, flawed as it is, would start a series keeping Ubisoft running until now. Modern Warfare as a Call of Duty branch redefined the multiplayer shooter for the next decade. Mass Effect started a trilogy that is my favorite story ever, not unlike former Game Informer and Giantbomb staff member Dan Ryckert’s regard of Metal Gear Solid series as his. But not every debut is a winner. John Woo Presents Stranglehold of 2007 is such an unfortunate product.
The game witnessed the final days of Midway, did not launch a franchise and simply does not hold up now. In fact, some design choices made into the game even seem outdated when it was released in 2007. It’s an interesting relic worth examining in 2020 while not a fun game to play. Here are my thoughts on it.
You play Tequila, a trigger-happy Hong Kong cop, and shoot everyone rushing at you throughout the game’s 7 stages and the short 4 hours it takes you to finish the campaign. The game is poised as the sequel to Woo’s 1992 movie Hard-boiled. This might be the only reasonable way to make any sequel to Woo’s early work, since none of other shooting action heroes Chow Yun-Fat played in early Woo movies is in fighting shape by the end. And A Better Tomorrow 2 had already done the twins thing…They could have done a heist game based on Once A Thief, but it would also be too ambitious back then.
But Tequila in this game feels interchangeable with those heroes caught up by Karma. The only difference is that he is a cop with a badge while other characters Chow played are on the other side of the law. Ironically, this cop also has way more blood on his hands than gangster and assassin have in earlier Woo movies… “Karma catch up with villain and hero alike” is one of the themes in Woo’s early works, but neither Hard-boiled nor Stranglehold carry such message while offer violence with little consequence.
Hard-boiled, Woo’s last movie before his venture in Hollywood, is nowhere near his best in departments such as story and character. The Killer would be my pick. Still, it has a decent male friendship story line and a memorable henchman who refuses to hurt the unarmed and the innocent. None of those is present in Stranglehold. The plot with its fairly obvious twist and turn would lead Tequila into simply killing every NPC he encounters, some just takes more shots than other.
So, does Stranglehold have a story? “No, not really” would be my answer. Or I would not have written 3 paragraphs mainly on early Woo movies.
Since this is a look back in 2020, it is hard not to compare Stranglehold with other games came out between now and then. I would like to compare it to 2012’s Sleeping Dogs and 2019’s Hong Kong Massacre.
Sleeping Dogs, another AAA game marketed itself as interactive high-octane action straight out of Hong Kong cinema. I first played it 6 years ago, when it was the free game for Xbox Live Gold member on Xbox 360 for the first half of January, 2014. I entered cynically, exited a believer. Grand Theft Auto V was my favorite game of 2013, and Sleeping Dogs looked pale in comparison. But as I played, I found Sleeping Dogs every mechanic, flaws not withdrawn, made me feel like an action hero. And the story is a good mixture of Jackie Chen’s first 3 Police Story movies. I swore I would never touch another Rockstar open world game ever since.
I replayed the game on PC in April, 2019, did not get far because of life. But as I walk around the game’s opening area as Wei Shen, I couldn’t help but think about the neighborhood I grow in. It was among the dying breed in Shanghai we call “Long Tang”, nothing fancy but life is decent and lively there. The Long Tang I spent the first 10 years of my life in eventually got demolished in 2009 and now a mall is open on the old ground. The opening neighborhood in Sleeping Dogs has the same vibe, and the first mission there is buying affordable clothes and food before the street fight.
On the contrary, every area in Stranglehold is warzone from start to finish. No matter it’s a back alley in Hong Kong or a fancy museum in Chicago. Tequila is not only a one-man death squad, but also a wreck crew. The only time to breath is during cut scenes. It makes the game feel like montage of outdated action scenes while playing Sleeping Dogs feels like marathoning several action movies. While both games witnessed the final days of their respective developers, I would only weep for United Front Games. Tiger Hill, well, you brought it on yourself.
And there are the boss fights of Stranglehold. Those are bullet sponges with life bars. Sleeping Dogs with its hand-to-hand combat segment would pitch Wei Shen against opponents that cannot be taken down easily. It feels like the right way to have boss fights while Stranglehold’s firefights had the wrong one…
Hong Kong Massacre came out on January, 22nd, 2019, way before the real-life fiasco started in summer that year. The title is offensive nonetheless. It’s Max Payne game with Hotline Miami style top down presentation minus Sam Lake’s hard-boiled script and James McCaffrey’s scenery chewing. It’s a simple revenge tale and simple fun.
On the contrary, Stranglehold made thing too complicated for its own good. Before I got into the complication, let me say that lack of zone in and over-the-shoulder perspective felt weird, considering it came out after the original Gears of War. One can argue that there was not enough time to integrate those, but Stranglehold does have a half-assed cover system. Tequila can get behind the tall pillar and lay left or right to shoot. But it’s useless since there are always the flanking fuckers.
The number of enemies in HKM’s stages is countable and there would be slow-motion zone in of final kill to signal that you cleared everyone out. Stranglehold, presumably mimicking the long shot in the hospital of Hard-boiled, always have enemies spawn in from unopenable doors to Tequila. Stranglehold would tell you whenever you reach a checkpoint, but it hardly feels satisfactory.
Tequila has 4 special abilities in Stranglehold: healing; sniping with a pistol; invincibility, in which he would take no damage and shooting with limitless ammo for a few seconds; and spin attack, a screen cleaning attack where white doves fly just like the hackiest Woo parody. At least the sniping and spinning feels unnecessary, if you consider how Max Payne games play.
There are also annoying gimmicks in some of the stages in Stranglehold. My least favorite is laser triggered explosives in a penthouse level. This game encourage run and gun plus dive and shoot, but that gimmick hold everything to a hold…
I do not like Stranglehold and I’m glad that I found out by paying 10 US dollars on gog.com instead of the full price. As the next generation of consoles coming out, this relic should serve as a caution tale about designing games for new hardware.