(Midway, Xbox 360, Mature)
John Woo may have finally found a new medium. Not so long ago, the Hong Kong director gained acclaim for practically redefining the action movie genre with a string of deliriously bloody classics including The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, and Hard Boiled. Since moving to Hollywood, however, his projects have been fewer and far between — with none even approaching the dazzling heights of his Hong Kong masterpieces. But if this game is any indication, Woo has discovered a canvas perfectly suited to his sprawling vision and contempt for the laws of physics.
Which is to say that with Stranglehold, Woo has crafted an experience that functions as a worthy sequel to 1990’s Hard Boiled. The game also reunites the director with the impossibly cool Chow Yun-Fat, reprising his role as the maverick detective Tequila. Things are set in motion when the Triads (Hong Kong’s infamous gangster organizations) kill a cop and begin kidnapping women dear to Tequila’s booze-filled heart. As Tequila continues his dogged pursuit of these mobsters, the action moves from Hong Kong to Chicago, allowing gamers the opportunity to shoot up museums and high-class joints on two continents.
No matter where the gunfights take place, the destructible environments are always a factor. Shoot at a (helpfully highlighted) giant neon sign and watch it crush a group of skulls. Players can also make Tequila pull off the kinds of stunts that even an in-his-prime Chow might’ve declined to do. And that’s where Woo’s contributions really shine: When your guns are blazing — while sliding down a stair rail or diving onto a push cart or rolling across the cobblestones of a marketplace — the game’s overcooked dialogue and hackneyed plot don’t seem to matter so much.
But Stranglehold’s biggest thrills come from witnessing Woo’s signature cinematic quirks neatly transformed into gameplay elements and character abilities. Using the Precision Aim feature, for example, allows you to bust a cap anywhere on a bad guy’s body with near surgical precision. Tequila Time lets you slow the clock to dodge bullets (and pull off dramatic headshots). Using these features in tandem turns ordinary gunfights into elaborate bob-and-weave and shoot-and-dodge dances of death.
The game does have some flaws. The difficulty ramps up relentlessly and it can be confusing trying to figure out the location of certain mission objectives. A more liberal sprinkling of checkpoints would’ve been appreciated, too: Die in the wrong place and you’ll find yourself having to repeat already completed tasks. And while playing online is a hoot — up to six Tequila-wannabes can battle for badass supremacy — the slo-mo feature often becomes weird and buggy.
Those minor deficiencies notwithstanding, Stranglehold demonstrates how Woo’s vision of ”reality” is ideally suited to the videogame universe: Guns never need to be reloaded, bullets don’t hurt (that much), and doves equal great drama. A- —Evan Narcisse
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