Written by: Rik
Date posted: March 20, 2016
Max Payne. Maxy Max Payne. Maxy Max Max. There, we’ve mentioned him now, just to get it out of the way. Let us judge each game on its own merits and all that, but, for some – including me – the basis of Stranglehold’s appeal (and I’m just going to call it Stranglehold, if that’s ok) will be that it’s a bit like Remedy’s slow motion bullet-dodger. At the time of release it seemed uncertain that we were ever going to get a Max Payne 3, and with the films of director John Woo clearly an inspiration for Max’s adventures, it probably seemed like a good opportunity to put out an officially-sanctioned action title without having to face accusations of ripping anything off.
The standard difficulty level in Max Payne was named after Woo’s film Hard Boiled, and Stranglehold serves as a sequel, with Chow Yun Fat returning as Inspector “Tequila” Yuen. My own knowledge of Woo’s work is sadly limited to extremely dim and dusty memories of Face Off and the second Mission Impossible movie (you know, the one where everyone rips their face…off? Hey, hang on…) so I’m not the best person to judge, but I’m sure that Hard Boiled must have had a more substantial storyline than Stranglehold, which stretches the cop-on-the-edge trope to the borderline of parody (more so than even Max Payne, which was viewed by some as a deliberate pastiche).
Events early on conspire to make Tequila extremely angry and go on a bit of a rampage, which causes his angry policy chief to get even more angry. Meanwhile, the baddies are all extremely calm, and conduct all their discussions in a slow, but-don’t-you-see-Mr-Bond type manner. There’s also a character called Jerry, which is possibly the most un-cop name imaginable, unless you count the full name of Jeremy, by which Tequila addresses his colleague in the opening cut-scene (I’m afraid to say, the line, “You used to be that crazy guy, Jeremy” did make me laugh out loud). It’s all in English, too, which may disappoint fans of the movie (and of convincing, fluent performances from their leading man). I’m sure it would have worked better to have Cantonese and subtitles, which isn’t exactly the zaniest idea, given the source material, although perhaps market research suggested otherwise.
On the surface, Stranglehold’s mechanics are indeed similar to those of Max Payne. Bullet Time has been renamed “Tequila Time”, enabling you to shoot guys in slow motion. On top of that, there’s an additional meter that fills up when you shoot people in a particularly stylish way, allowing you to activate additional special moves (known as Tequila Bombs). So, combos, dives, shooting scenery, running along ledges, sliding across tables or on a trolley and jumping backwards off a wall are all the order of the day, and Stranglehold helpfully engages slo-mo Tequila Time automatically if a bad guy comes into view while performing these crazy moves. There’s little reward for simply shooting bad guys dead with minimal panache.
There are four Tequila Bombs, unlocked in the following order: Health Boost, Precision Aim (allowing you to perform an accurate aimed shot from a distance), Barrage Attack (become invulnerable with unlimited ammo for a short time, allowing you to basically go nuts), and Spin Attack (Tequila spins round and kills all enemies in an area). Deploying these moves requires a certain amount of juice in the Tequila Bomb Gauge in the bottom-left of the screen, with Health Boost requiring the least and Spin Attack the most.
Another innovation is Standoff, in which Tequila is shown to be surrounded by baddies pointing their guns at his head, leading to a series of slow-motion duels with each – dodging their shots by moving left and right with the keys while aiming your shot with the mouse. There’s also an option to use cover – which was a bit of a staple of third-person action-shooters around this point – so you can hide next to walls and pop out to fire shots if needed.
So far, so good, then. Unfortunately, Stranglehold didn’t all quite click for me. While everything seems geared up for a choreographed action set piece, it never seems to flow that well – and in my version of the story, it was like the FX guys had screwed up and none of the mayhem happened on cue. I did eventually find the scenery I was meant to destroy, the bannister I was supposed to slide down, and the ledges I was supposed to run across, but usually after dispatching my foes, leading to vaguely comical scenes as Tequila belly flopped onto a trolley and slid across a room full of corpses.
Occasionally, this inability to cause carnage proved to be a barrier to progress: I hadn’t shot at the right things to create my path through the level, and there was a bit of a running theme of getting a bit lost and dashing around in a slightly confused manner, which sort of killed the momentum at crucial moments. (One of the early levels, involving destroying some drugs labs, was a particular culprit). The camera is a little bit too close to Tequila, too, obstructing your view and making it more difficult to navigate the levels and work out who is shooting at you.
Enemies arrive in a fairly relentless stream, so it’s rarely a case of clearing a room and then moving on. Even after what you might consider a fairly lengthy gunfight, more random doors open to reveal yet more gun-toting henchmen. Tense moments from Max Payne, in which you might leap through an entrance, needing to take down four or five guys, are in short supply, and have been replaced in Stranglehold by destructive, over-the-top shootouts with ludicrous body counts that occasionally seem to last forever.
I suppose there is a level of tension in feeling that there’s a never-ending supply of enemies, but it’s still relatively easy to progress, with plentiful health kits and steady deployment of Tequila Bombs balancing things out. As such, it all feels a little cheap in places, particularly as you engage Barrage Attack once again to get through a particularly tricky room. While standoffs are pretty cool at first, and using slow-motion trickery to dodge bullets and get past three guys is pretty plausible, the novelty wears off as you progress. When it gets to having six or seven guys virtually standing next to you, even allowing for the fact you have the ability to slow down time, it seems rather ridiculous that you’re not immediately killed. There’s a definite bullet sponge element to proceedings, which makes the action feel rather laboured at times.
On the positive side, it all looks very nice, aside from some slightly grainy video bits, and the environment damage is pretty well handled (the way bits of wall and stone are shot away when you take cover is particularly impressive). When you manage to pull off a slick move, it does feel rather awesome, and you do get into the habit of looking out for ledges and bannisters and loose bits of scenery (I really found myself having to force myself to look for them, but they are highlighted in-game, so it could just be me). I guess it might also be argued that repeated plays and increased familiarity with the levels could bring a level of mastery that might make the whole thing altogether more satisfying.
However, even though Stranglehold is pretty short, I’m not sure it’s quite got enough to sustain multiple playthroughs. Certainly the story is nothing worth repeating, and much of it passed me by, with even the most significant developments being entirely unsurprising. It looks good, and has some nice moments, but it’s as shallow an action experience as you’re likely to get, and even those not expecting subtlety might be surprised at how little there is on offer. Worth playing once, then forgetting about.