a review of John Woo's Stranglehold
a videogame developed by tiger hill entertainment
and published by midway
for Microsoft Windows, the microsoft xbox 360 and the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by tim rogers
In addition to being mostly a great videogame, John Woo’s Stranglehold also proves why games are not art, especially when they’re not trying to be: Stranglehold is so sleek it’s slippery, and so slippery it’s psychotic, and when every tiny input on the controller seeks to tell the game to be a blockbuster, the facade falls away and idiocy seeps in the second you stop pressing buttons.
The main character, Inspector Tequila, played by Chow Yun-Fat’s polygonal twin, is hard-wired to slide over any surface he comes into contact with. It takes the majority of dyed-in-the-wool videogamers no more than ten seconds to realize how hilarious it is that he slides over countertops and tables with such ease. There, not ten seconds in, most sneering gamers will have broken Stranglehold over their knee. No
The thing some might shrug off, though, is that Stranglehold is trying, really, really hard. It’s trying to be an actual blockbuster, not just the “gaming equivalent”. (Yes, we pause to reflect how ironic it is that it bills itself as the “sequel” to the film “Hard Boiled”.) At its core are enough spiffy concepts and neat tricks to earn it four stars — though only if you’re willing to play along, to get into character.
Your character is a man who shoots lots of people, sometimes in slow-motion. He dives and slides a lot. Sometimes he shoots people in the face, other times in the chest, and sometimes — if he has enough power in his special meter — he can kill by shooting a man in the testicles. The story of the game has something to do with the main character’s wife and daughter being kidnapped, though the first stage puts to rest any doubts that we’re going to have to think: gangsters call the police, asking them to send one cop to a certain location, where they will tell him what happened to a cop who disappeared a few days earlier. The cop was killed, of course, and our hero can’t even make his way to the rendezvous point without being shot at literally a thousand times. The story isn’t trying to be a sweeping epic, it’s about giving our character somewhere to go, so that he can get shot at (and shoot people) along the way. There’s dialogue, and there are some dramatic sequences, and it’s kind of revealing that cheesy John Woo flick dialogue acted out by the same hammy voice actors used to actually dub John Woo flicks actually feels leagues closer to the Mona Lisa than any other dialogue in most other games. Though essentially, the joy of the game is in the shooting, and — most precisely — the way things are shot, the way objects explode. It’s violent, though it’s not depraved — it’s just idiotic.
Literally everything explodes in Stranglehold. Early on, there’s a gunfight in a marketplace where you can destroy everything — people, fruit, wooden crates, concrete pillars. Shoot “glints” to cause small-scale environmental disasters to crush the bad guys. The glints are actually more interesting than they seem at first: as you pan the camera around, objects glint for an instant and then return to normal. That’s how you know that object can be shot. Shoot a glinting sign and it might fall on a dude’s head. Repeat for air-conditioners, steel beams, bags of bricks, dinosaur bones, whatever.
Lately, there’s been this poisonous trend in videogame design: Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue termed it the “Quick-Timer Event”. In many “cinematic” games since Shenmue, occasionally you’ll see a button icon flash hugely on the screen. Press that button to perform a special “cinematic” action. In Shenmue II, there were plenty of extended sequences with branching paths and clever animations. Say, if you missed press the A button, your character might get punched by one guy, though that might give him an opportunity to spin around and punch the other guy instead. Shenmue II kind of lost its way in a Quick-Timer sequence in which your main character tried to keep his balance while walking across ten successive steel beams, though for the most part, it was cute, and it seldom felt cloying. Further games would expand and fetishize the idea of the Quick-Timer Event, and eventually, we’re playing God of War II, where pretty much everything is a Quick Timer Event, except there’s really only one button you ever have to press. Recently, Ninja Theory, the developers of Heavenly Sword, had to defend their game when Tomonobu Itagaki, producer of Ninja Gaiden, jeered it for having relied on such epic Quick-Timer sequences as “pound the X button to run across this chain”. They said that the Quick-Timer sequences existed to allow players to experience a new level of cinematic interactivity, which they otherwise couldn’t experience through, you know, playing the game.
Well, Stranglehold, as a videogame and as a trip from many point As to many point Bs, manages to be both more challenging to play than Heavenly Sword‘s action sequences and more cinematically enthralling than Heavenly Sword‘s cut-scenes — not to mention quick-timer events. As in God of War II, every button press of Stranglehold is a quick-timer event; every button press is an action scene, a heavy metal guitar riff; every button press is The Biggest Motion Picture of the Summer. Except in Stranglehold, the player is always joyfully in control of the context. We’re shooting glinting air-conditioners or dinosaur bones to crush dudes we could otherwise be just shooting in the face. We’re winning “Stylish Kill” points for doing so, we’re using those “Stylish Kill” points to activate special abilities like Precision Shot (zoom in in ultra slo-mo to perform a one-hit kill on any one of twenty-something instant-kill zones on an opponent’s body (yes, testicles included)) or Barrage Mode (which gives you unlimited ammo for a few seconds — a crafty nod to the climactic scenes in John Woo films where the idea of clips dropping out of the guns in slow-motion as the hero reloads becomes too much of a cinematic burden, and he just shoots hundreds of bullets without flinching).
And every once in a while, there’s a standoff. Usually, the standoffs’ reasons for existing are not very clear, to say the least. In the first stage, there’s a standoff where one of the gangsters you’re here to meet tells you to go to a certain bar and ask the bartender a question. Then he and his four friends start shooting at you. Never mind the setup — it’s the execution that shines. The game just seamlessly slips into the setup sequence, and the camera pans around the armed men John Woo style. Keep your eyes on the screen and you just might catch sight of a few glints. When the standoff starts, in super-slo-mo, you’ll face the opponents one at a time. Dodge to one side and then the other to trick your opponents into shooting the wrong way. Shoot the glints to send exploding propane tanks careening into unfashionable mens’ bodies so hard that when they slam into a concrete wall, the wall cracks and buckles. Kill one guy, and the camera spins around to the next.
The setups and the locations of the glints get progressively more tricky, and it hardly ever stops being entertaining when you catch a gunman in the face with a flying gas tank. In something like God of War, when you press the X button at just the right time to send your hero jumping onto the shoulders of a mythical beast, where he proceeds to plunge his swords into the beast’s neck, producing a geyser of blood, it feels like all business — we’re not aiming the blade at the neck; in Stranglehold, it’s me aiming my gun at that gas tank. It’s me pulling the trigger. The game is only offering me a tiny hint — in the form of a glint — that something will happen if I shoot the gas tank. The glint might represent a spark in the hero’s imagination: he’s a chance-taking, risk-breaking man, and he didn’t survive so long on the police force in this alternate universe where everyone owns a gun without sometimes shooting at the most tangentially related stuff. It’s like, one day, he got shot in the arm, cursed a lot, and then resolved to stop trying to shoot guys in the face all the time and, wherever necessary, start shooting at random objects. It’s never done him wrong since.
Compare and contrast this, once again, to Shenmue‘s lame storytelling, where the hero has to actually ask people, in his hometown renowned as one of the largest ports in Asia, where he can find some sailors. Shenmue wanted, very hard, to be a gangster-schlock action epic, only it was apparently written and designed by a couple of guys who literally felt chills the first time they submitted a draft to their creative writing teacher in which one guy threatens to hit another guy if he doesn’t “shut up”; with Shenmue, in which the hero rides a motorcycle at one point and someone eventually gets punched, they must have thought they were writing actual literature. This mealy-mouthed-ness permeates into the deepest layers of the game design, and to many other deep layers of many other games’ design. Who would have ever guessed that some actual John Woo was exactly what the game industry needed? Compare the barroom brawl early in Shenmue — press the A button to pick up that pool cue — to a scene exceedingly early in Stranglehold, in which our hardened cop runs along a railing down a staircase, and the game kicks into slow motion, and dudes start shooting at us, and we can either shoot them or stylishly pick off the glints, fatally crushing them with air-conditioners and neon signs, all in real-time, all under our control.
Some would say that Max Payne pioneered many of the concepts employed in Stranglehold — such as bullet-time — though it’s safe to say that Max Payne was only ever drawing its inspiration from John Woo’s movies, anyway. Besides, Max Payne is too cheeky: there’s really only one impression of it you’re allowed to get. Stranglehold is dead serious, which means that if you want to find it hilarious, that’s your choice.
There are a few nagging issues, like the “health pack” dynamic — you can use Stylish Kill points to refill some of your health, if you so choose, which makes no sense in the context of a gun battle — and the overall exhaustion you might feel after trying to play the whole game at once. It’s kind of like Smash TV, in a way — as much as I consider it a masterpiece of simplicity and design, there’s really only so much of it I can take. The ultimate disappointment of Stranglehold — and it’s a small one — is that, well-sketched as the characters are, if you’ve never voted Republican in your life, there’s a huge chance you’re not going to care who the real bad guy is, nor will there be any actual suspense about whether the hero survives or not. The setup is a string of dumb red herrings and one-liners that stand no chance of being memorable thanks to the (admittedly awesome) way everything in game sounds like it was translated from Cantonese to English. Again we come back to four angry gunmen, having an incomprehensible conversation as the camera pans around and we count up the glints. In this way, the story comes to resemble the Swedish speed metal Picasso listens to while painting his next masterpiece: if there were no words, he’d stop painting and feel depressed. If the angry men weren’t talking, there’d be no reason to shoot them, et cetera. At least they understand the reasons they’re screaming. And when the game is off, no one needs to be angry anymore. It’s therapeutic, really. It’s extraordinary.
Top Line: Stranglehold is “one of the year’s best games, whether or not you play more than ten minutes of it. Steps in the right direction all around. When it comes to merging story and game, no one does it better.“
Games magazine-style quote: “First the exemplary Psi-Ops, and now this. Developer Tiger Hill Entertainment is one to watch.”