09-19-2007, 11:52 AM
Like a bullet in a China shop
16 CommentsThe developers at Midway obviously understand three important rules. One, smashing an object to pieces becomes increasingly more entertaining in direct proportion to how big and expensive it looks. Two, rendering a man infertile with a high velocity projectile never ever stops being funny. And three, the true path to happiness has got sod all to do with enlightenment, or loving your neighbour, or any of that hippy-dippy nonsense.
Real happiness is watching a never-ending stream of angry strangers writhing on the floor in agony. And anyonewho dares think otherwise is, frankly, deluding themselves.
For the eight or so hours it lasts you on your first play through, John Woo's Stranglehold will preach this simple gospel to you, holding a big-ass gun to your throat and pistol-whipping you repeatedly over the head until you become a true believer.
Make no mistake, few can boast gunplay this satisfying - not that you'd think it by the time you reach the second level, mind you. After the excellent opener (a relatively risk-free sprint through a Hong Kong market district ending in a tile-smashing total trashing of a restaurant) you're whisked off to Tai O - a rickety old village on stilts, all corrugated iron, wooden shacks and skag-infested dosshouses.
You're asked to destroy a handful of little heroin-making installations. A tally appears in the top right-hand corner, and off you go, pumping merrily away with your shottie, seeking them out and laying waste to all and sundry.
Fair enough - but then you're asked you to do it again. And again. And agaaain. A seemingly endless trail of near-identical objectives that set you up a treat for what - at this point - you fear could end up being seven dull levels of tedious, imagination-free gaming. Thankfully that doesn't happen. Because the third level is the inspired Mega Restaurant.
The next hour is an assault on the senses the like of which we've rarely experienced. Priceless Ming vases shatter in the faces of your (frankly stupid) assailants. What they lack in smarts they make up for in numbers, falling over themselves as you shower them with bullets, swinging one-handed from a light fixture, cackling to yourself as you hold down the right trigger as though your life depends on it.
With each subsequent floor of the restaurant, you're presented with yet another choice cut of Grade A carnage - until you bear witness to one battle that is quite simply outstanding.
WOO'S THE MAN
A standoff in an opulent dining hall, where the mission objective is to ensure that at least one member of the band, located in the centre of the stage, is still playing when the shooting stops. No mean feat considering you're using up more small arms fire than the whole of Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon combined. Kicking over tables one minute, sliding over the tops of others the next - with SMG fire shattering fishtanks and cracking skulls at the rate of two a second.
Fifteen minutes of hand-numbing intensity later, you're left sweating and breathless, giving a mental standing ovation to the men and women who brought us this classic gaming moment. Surely things don't get much better than this, do they? Well, yes. Yes, they do. Yes, they do indeed.
It's due in part to the variation in environments - mixing up wide open arenas and tight corridors decorated wall to wall in increasingly interesting ways. Penthouse apartments, all glass and laser trip wires, and a spacious museum with a range of ancient artefacts to condemn to the history books, punctuate the more standard car parks and urban environments. The important thing here is that they force you to play subtly differently. You'll be blowing everything apart one minute and then cowering behind a crumbling concrete block the next.
This is all helped immeasurably by the breakability of (pretty much) everything in a stage. Tiles, lights, tables, pillars - if you can see it, chances are you can blow it apart, and this lends the game a uniquely satisfying energy. Finish a gunfight in any location and it'll looked like you've been spring-cleaning with C4 and a bulldozer. Now, on its own, this would be enjoyable enough - but Stranglehold has a handful of great little mechanics that really polish the whole experience off.
Killing in style is the name of the game. A tap of the right bumper, or holding the left-trigger near a railing, bannister, trolley (or anything else you can interact with) puts you into the well-documented 'Tequila Time' - a focused, slow-motion state that, when you plug heads with a bullet, will award you stars for stylish kills. These stars contribute to your tequila bomb meter - a means of activating several special skills which allow you to either heal yourself a little, or kill more effectively in different, stylish ways.
It's a damn clever system, and a great spin on classic risk/reward gameplay. For example, theoretically at least, so long as you murder enough men, lying face down on a trolley, before diving onto a bannister and kneecapping three of his mates simultaneously with a shotgun, you can heal yourself as much as you like. Or at the very least, experience the thrill of pumping out shotgun blasts, three a second, into anyone stupid enough get in the way.
It's truly exhilarating stuff - and more than enough to make you overlook some very minor flaws. Some of the presentation is a bit rough around the edges, with animations that make Inspector Tequila snap in and out of different movements like he's being dragged around by an epileptic toddler. And there are times when the controls can feel over-sensitive one minute and a less than responsive the next.
And despite the game's undoubted scope for replayability, it is decidedly low on play time. But in the cold light of day, we're not too bothered with all that - because Stranglehold offers something so raw and so hyper-energetic that the next game you play after it will feel positively tired and lethargic in comparison. Woo hoo.
Short-lived but brain-rattingly ace dual-blam action.
Ludicrous, destructive violence
Infinite replayability. Almost
Ocassional ropey visuals
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