Delayed Reactions – Stranglehold: It’ll loosen up
For people who like:
Hard Boiled, Hong Kong Action Cinema, Uncharted, Max Payne, Wet
+Well told story
+Great destruction and explosions
+Classic John Woo Direction
-Level design can limit acrobatics
-Little replay value
-Camera proximity makes it difficult to see sometimes
I’ve gone on record numerous times saying that Stranglehold is a below average action game. I came to this conclusion because it was released with lack luster excitement, and described as a rip off done better before in games like Max Payne. What I’ve learned in playing it however is that this is not necessarily true for all. Stranglehold has the potential to be better than Max Payne depending on your interests. Where Max Payne is moody in its themes, Stranglehold is a Hong Kong action movie in its themes. I now know that it’s not really a below average action game, but rather a great game with certain flaws.
You are Inspector Tequila, played by Chow Yun-Fat, attempting to uncover the truth behind the triad group, Dragon Claw. John Woo’s talent in cinema direction is evident in this game. The cutscenes feel exactly at home with his brand of movie and they are acted very well. I was completely charmed by the storytelling in this game and would definitely play it again just for the sake of re-watching them. I enjoyed this game as much as any other solid Hong Kong action movie, which says a lot for it right there. I was so engaged that none of the game’s flaws really killed the fun I was having. So, what went wrong?
The gunplay works fine and though there aren’t a large number of weapons, I was content with the variety each level provided. It never felt like I was stuck with the same weapons over and over and none of them felt too weak. The real fun of the gunplay was supposed to come with the player’s acrobatic interactions with the environment in conjunction with the Tequila Time slow down, but both left something to be desired.
The Tequila Time slow down triggers automatically when you point the crosshair at an enemy. Sometimes this was ok, other times it was disorienting or unwelcomed. Amidst this, the player can take a foot off a wall, run up and down banisters, take a ride on a rolling cart, dive in most any direction, swing from hanging lanterns or slide down ziplines. Doing as many of these actions in a row while shooting enemies awards the player with style points. In theory these points are used to unlock things like additional Multiplayer characters, or videos and art galleries. For the most part it’s just there to allow the player to see how much ass they’re kicking. This is fine on paper, but it felt very inconsistent when actually playing.
The player can only dive where they will not hit an impassible collision or jump off a cliff. I’m sure this was supposed to be an aid to the player, but it ended up feeling like unresponsive controls and got me killed in a few instances, standing there wondering why I wasn’t diving. The player can become so easily unaware of their surrounds because the camera makes the area behind and beside your character hard to see.
The camera is rather close to the character to begin with, and when space is tight, the camera will be directly on top of translucent you, preventing you from seeing where your feet are. In order to initiate most moves, the camera has to be pointing at the object you want to interact with. When the camera is zoomed in too far like this, it becomes very difficult to trigger the moves and impossible to get an idea of where you are back peddling. The player cannot initiate a wall run off a wall behind them. You also cannot fire behind you while running up or down a banister, nor turn around. The best acrobatic games I’ve played do everything they can to disconnect the camera from the move set, games like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, and even Uncharted. A game like Stranglehold feels very unresponsive and unintuitive because it locks the camera to what you’re doing. Turning to look at a wall behind you takes your crosshairs off of the guy your shooting, so most of the time you’re just going to end up shooting from standing or performing the same dive over and over.
When the acrobatic moves depend on set pieces in the environment, naturally their ease of execution depends on the level design. Ideally the level design would have set up a playground making transitions from wall run to banister slide, to lantern swing as easy as possible while still facing your attackers, but it didn’t. The level design towards the beginning and end of the game was set up in a much better way, allowing more and clearer places to use the acrobatic move set, but towards the middle of the game the uniqueness of Stranglehold’s gameplay waned. I really wish the level designers had taken more time to ensure that a streamline setup for smooth acrobatic movement was in place; strategically place a rolling cart at the end of a banister, or have a room full of tables directly in front of a hanging lantern. It’s odd to say, but the actions scene wanted to be more linear rather than open rooms in order to compensate for the control restrictions. Without easy moves to perform, Stranglehold inadvertently becomes almost a basic shooter. I say “almost” only because the direction and mood of the game was so solid, it always allowed me to forgive the short comings.
A lot of thought and love went into the game and it shows, not only shows but rubs off on the player a bit. It’s unfortunate that so many of the ideas were bogged down by execution. The “Stand-off” segments however I thought were very interesting and fitting. Periodically Tequila would walk into a room and end up in a Mexican Stand-off, guns drawn from all around. The player is fixed to their position and must use one stick to dodge low velocity bullets while attempting to quickly aim and fire with the other stick. The character models, facial animations and presentation were solid enough that these moments never felt out of place, nor did it feel like these moments were used too often. It felt like a different style of gunplay that was unique and welcomed.
It’s sad that the game’s potential didn’t blossom as the game progressed. In fact it felt like a bunch of little details and polish suffered as the game went on. Towards the beginning of the game, there are some really great explosions, and the game doesn’t penalize you too much for getting too close to something before blowing it up. This allowed me to have more intense, up close and personal moments of destruction versus other games of its type. The sound and bass of the explosions quite literally filled the room making it incredibly satisfying to watch. Then the explosions became more and more infrequent. Then when I did get explosions, the sound was far less full, like they used up all the awesome at the beginning.
The look of the levels however did improve as the game went on. The destruction in the environment was always plentiful and varied; giant destructible dragons made of Jade, then dinosaur skeletons in a museum. The problem was that, frequently, the more interesting the level looked, the less convenient the acrobatic moves were to perform. It took me a while to realize that I wasn’t using half of the moves because I was distracted by the pretties. At times, the destruction became so crazy it was hard to see what I was even shooting at.
Overall I would definitely recommend giving this game a shot. Nothing a review can say will give you a good idea of what the mood of this game is like. The story is told well and is entertaining, and that’s the whole point of picking up a game isn’t it? I want to be entertained. So despite the flaws, I considered this game a success in entertaining me and providing an interactive experience that feels exactly like a Hong Kong action movie. I can’t wait to watch Hard Boiled now.