Ironically for a game premised on its association with arguably the world’s greatest action director, “John Woo Presents Stranglehold” is a technological marvel and a storytelling dud. Publisher-developer Midway has done an outstanding job of capturing the slow-mo, high-octane aesthetic of a Woo action scene and making it an interactive experience. That’s why it’s so disappointing to find that one good idea implemented in a dull collection of action videogame cliches.
Positioned as a sequel to Woo’s classic “Hard Boiled,” “Stranglehold” features the voice and likeness of Chow Yun-fat as Inspector Tequila, who once again has to dole out justice with only two handguns and an unlimited supply of ammo as back-up. The story is an amalgamation of every low-budget action movie ever made, from the kidnapped daughter to the double-crossing partner to the chief who tells Tequila, “Watch your step. You go out of bounds and you’ll lose your badge!”
Most uninspired of all is the way “Stranglehold” presents its story: in a collection of pre-animated and noninteractive cut scenes. As well directed as those scenes are, gamers can feel totally justified in skipping what are essentially excuses for the next level where Tequila has to shoot everyone he sees.
But oh, how amazing that shooting is. With the press of a single button, gamers can make Chow’s animated doppelganger dive onto a rolling cart, surf down a staircase, or flip off a wall. While he’s doing it, time slows down, the colors go sepia, and the player amasses points for killing with “style.”
The “style points” are used to unlock special moves, the most impressive of which follows a bullet into the exact body part the player targeted (yes, enemies can be executed John Wayne Bobbitt-style). Another sets Chow spinning in a circle as he, amid a flurry of Woo’s signature doves, guns down everyone in the room.
The game also has a fantastically implemented handful of “standoffs,” in which the camera revolves around Tequila’s head as he shoots at five or six bad guys surrounding him while avoiding their bullets.
The first time they are encountered, all of these features are spectacular both in appearance and ease of control. But as players eventually get used to them, they’ll come to realize that “Stranglehold” is the same action game they have played a million times before. Enemies stand still next to explosive canisters; many environments are virtually identical save for a few cosmetic changes; end-of-level bosses inexplicably take 20 or 30 bullets to kill; and first-aid kits are conveniently located where they don’t belong. At under 10 hours of gameplay, “Stranglehold” is also unconscionably short, even with its limited multiplayer capabilities.
Game’s biggest problem is that the levels are rarely designed to make Woo-esque theatrics necessary. They’re just a fun way to rack up style points. Particularly in later levels as the number of enemies increases exponentially, it’s hard to concentrate on stylishly swinging on a chandelier when the easiest way to proceed is to just run around like an idiot with guns blazing.
Graphics are solid, though not eye-popping. Most of “Stranglehold’s” processing power seems to have gone into making almost every item destructible, rather than beautiful. The Asian-influenced score and the sound effects are worthy of a Woo film.