Saturday 20 June 2009

Game Review: John Woo Presents Stranglehold (Part of E14's John Woo Double Feature)

John Woo presents: Stranglehold
Xbox 360 (version reviewed), Playstation 3, PC (BBFC Rating: 18)
Review by Rob Wade

Stranglehold opens with a set-piece detailing both a kidnapping in Chicago and an assassination in Hong Kong, seemingly happening simultaneously or thereabouts. Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to tell if two things are happening simultaneously in everything except the Saw franchise? That is, however, only because the Saw franchise relies on stuff like that, so jams it down your throat. Not an altogether unimaginative punishment, Saw, my kudos.

Anyway, you’re placed in the role of Hard Boiled’s hero, “Tequila” Yeun, on a desperate quest to find out who assassinated a police officer in Hong Kong. Once you find out the specifics, you become aware of the details of the kidnapping in Chicago, and where you come in. I don’t feel the need for spoilers, you can probably guess without too much trouble, going by the traditional action hero template i.e. if it’s not a relative, it’s a romantic connection. If it’s neither of those, it’s probably a pet. It’d have to be an exotic pet though, otherwise who gives a shit, so probably a lizard or something.

The game gets you right into the action without any elaborate storyline being given to you bar the opening, instead allowing you to start shooting guns right away. That’s just one of many plus points in its favour. As soon as you see the action icon on the screen for “jump on roll-cart using Left trigger”, you know you’re in for a cinematic experience, by which we mean “Expect Massive Damage”.

Before long, you’re rolling along the floor on roll-carts, swinging from chandeliers, sliding down banisters, running up banisters and more, all while firing up to TWO guns. As if all the set-piece acrobatics wasn’t enough, Stranglehold lets you fire TWO guns at once! (Fine, I know it’s a fairly common staple of most shooters now, I still think it’s cool ok?)

Let’s get, first, to the things I like about this game. Firstly, it satisfies the above mentioned criteria for awesomeness such as being able to run up and down and jump while shooting. However, there is more, believe it or not. Stranglehold definitely falls into the category of a cinematic piece of entertainment. Right from the off, all in-game cut-scenes are modelled using the game engine, something I’ve always liked in games. There’s really not much point in trying to get players involved in a cinematic experience if the cut-scenes are modelled using anything other than the game mechanics, but on the plus side it seems to be a trend that’s becoming all the more commonplace.

Adding to the cinematic atmosphere is the ability to trigger certain pre-programmed events that add to your style combo, rewarding you with suitably over-the-top moves that can be unlocked as you progress through the game. To give an example, you can get one star for shooting someone normally with a pistol. Shooting them in Bullet Time earns you three. Shooting the sign above them so that it drops down knocking them over the edge earns you up to 10. The emphasis is definitely on making these set-pieces count when they arrive. Add to that a one-on-one shootout called Standoff mode, and the cinematic experience gets bumped up further still.

It also may not have escaped your notice that this game looks pretty cool. Everything has a decent level of gritty realism without being hyper-realistic. Watching someone grasp for their throat once you pop a cap in it is a somewhat visceral thrill, but not sufficiently so due to the graphical style that you feel like a sociopath. Everything is sufficiently brightly coloured and neon-tinged, particularly in the city levels obviously, to make the game sufficiently glitzy without being over-the-top.

That’s not to say that this game is without flaws. While it is nice to pretty much be able to interact with every banister you find yourself near, from time to time you do find yourself getting stuck on a banister or standing next to it, the game being unable to decide whether to run up it or not.

And just a minor thing really, and it may just be me, but I do prefer games that let you carry more than two weapons to choose from. I know it’s more realistic to have people with limited carriage capacity, but come on, it’s a game based on the works of John Woo; since when does realism enter into the equation?

Graphics: 9/10 – Extremely solidly built graphically, with some refinements here and there to make it look more cinematic. Environments have a good degree of destructibility befitting a John Woo experience. Besides, anything that can render Chow-Yun Fat in a reasonable quality character model is aces in my book.

Sound: 7/10- Standard action game fare, dramatic music during fight scenes etc. All explosions and bullets sound reasonable, and cries of anguish are also particularly satisfying.

Gameplay: 10/10 - This game IS an action film. Fast, engaging and frantic, with plenty of cinematic set pieces to keep you searching for that high-score. Let’s face it, however, any game that can do a working Bullet Time model isn’t going to get below an 8.

Lifespan: 7/10 - This game will probably keep you busy for at least one play through, but there really isn’t a tremendous amount of content to keep you involved in the single-player campaign unless you’re a completist or a high-score chaser.

E14 Rating: 8/10

If you’re a John Woo fan, this game is definitely a must-purchase. The game satisfies all of the criteria that we have come to expect from his style. If you’re not a John Woo fan, and are just after a decent game to pass some time, seriously consider picking this game up anyway. You can get it relatively cheap from most places now, and it really is a good one.

Don't forget that John Woo's latest film, Red Cliff, is in cinemas nationwide.

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