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Delayed Reactions – Stranglehold: It’ll loosen up

By Dave "Boris" Orosz | 25 April 2010 | Delayed Reactions, Editorial, Featured, Reviews | | 5 Comments   

For people who like:
Hard Boiled, Hong Kong Action Cinema, Uncharted, Max Payne, Wet

  
  
Pros:

+Well told story
+Great cutscenes
+Great destruction and explosions
+Classic John Woo Direction
+Solid gunplay

Cons:

-Inconsistent responsiveness
-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.

That guy looks pissed.

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.

Just hope there's nothing behind you.

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.

My bad.

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.

Cat like reflexes.

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.

Must go faster. Must go faster!

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.

5 Comments

  1. Posted by awesomo316 on 28 April 10 at 7:28am

    I enjoyed Stranglehold – I think it’s a great action game and like you said – it has its flaws. I still can’t get past your first sentence though where you said you went on record saying it was a below average action game just because it was released with lackluster excitement. I read that as you wrote it off without even playing it…

    I’m pretty sure there is a demo on Xbox Live and PSN so people can also check it out there too

  2. Posted by Dave "Boris" Orosz on 28 April 10 at 1:09pm

    I actually had played the demo and just thought it was ok. It’s a habit of mine to ascribe judgement to a game just by reading other peoples reviews or looking at the numbers, something I’ve been trying to get away from. When asked to comment on a game, I sometimes use that judgement as though it’s actual opinion.

    When Rob and I saw Wet for the first time at E3 last year, we both said it looked to be “what Stranglehold should have been”. Neither of us had played it and it was completely unfair to use it in comparison. I have no idea if Wet is better or worse, even after playing both demos.

    The fact is that even after playing a demo there’s no way to tell how the sheer entertainment value will change as the game progresses. I intend to play Wet as soon as I can as well so I can compare the two games and come up with an actual opinion of my own rather than perscribing to the opinions on the interwebs.

    Then again, I do have to somewhat judge a game before playing it so I can gauge if it’s worth my time, to see if it fits my interests. I’ve most certainly overlooked entertaining games because of this. I’ve been enjoying going back now and playing so-called “mediocre” games just to be able to deduce what’s just par, and what’s legitimately good. I recommend others do the same. This is why I include a “For people who like:” list at the top. If you like the themed content, then you will find entertainment, and that’s the whole point of video games.

  3. Posted by awesomo316 on 28 April 10 at 8:14pm

    Wet is worth checking out. I enjoyed the demo but am waiting for the price to come down – I think it’s about $AUD80 last time I checked. It seems to play similar to Stranglehold but with more of a Grindhouse look and feel – which is what I loved about House of the Dead Overkill.

    I think we all judge games before we play it to see if its worth our time – but to “go on record” and say its a below average action game is what I didn’t agree with – but you said you’re working on that and that’s cool. Plus at least you played the demo so you did technically try it out. I know of some reviewers who write a game off but haven’t even played it – now that is just wrong.

  4. Posted by Dave "Boris" Orosz on 28 April 10 at 9:41pm

    There is a very odd balance between what you know and what you think you know. There’s one article on Kotaku where Will Wright discusses how those who goes out to buy a game have already played the game in their head, a low res imaginary version. It’s this imaginary playthrough that makes us want to either by the game or pass on it.

    Anytime you see a game in a store and think “this is a piece of crap” and put it down, even though you’ve never played it, it’s because the game you played in your head was awful. You’ll never really know why until you give it a shot. But, as the Gamepocalypse will show you, some are indeed as bad as you think they are. Gaming commenters will frequently take a hunch of a game and state it as opinion because, odds are, they’re right; beit based on reviews, screen shots, videos, etc. If I went on record to say that “Legendary” was awful, I don’t think anyone would tell me otherwise. Eventually Sean will play it and we’ll all find out.

    As for “average” games, a lot is based on taste, and therefore first hand opinion is key. I’ve really been enjoying going through and seeing which got unfairly brushed aside and which really have merit. Psychonauts is one of my favorite flawed games of all time, if not one of the most rawly entertaining games I’ve played despite its issues. I’ve just thrown Brutal Legend, Bourne Conspiracy, Eat Lead and Bionic Commando onto my list of things to check out because I want to see if they’ve been under appreciated or if they are truly middling. My guess is that Brutal Legend shouldn’t be on this list, but I’ve heard such little excitement on it that I don’t know what to make of it.

    The demo of Stranglehold wasn’t enough to indicate the true qualities this game had. Clearly I thought I knew more than I did and spoke on my hunch, betting on the odds. Regardless of what I said, I had a secondary hunch that it was better than I thought it was, so I picked it up. This was probably 6 or more months ago and I just now got around to it.

    I can say for certain from playing what I have of Wet (the demo) is that the issues with level design restricting use of acrobatics is less. In Wet, the player can do numerous moves without using anything in the environment as a trigger. Both Wet and Stranglehold were supposed to allow the player to freely be acrobatic, but Wet’s inclusion of more various independent moves makes the on paper design better in my mind. In Stranglehold, if you don’t have a trigger, all you can do is dive. It was constantly making me wish for something more.

    Stranglehold on the other hand had some non-acrobatic moves you could trigger, i.e. precise aim, temporary invincibility, and kill everyone in sight. I don’t know what Wet has in terms of additional moves, nor do I know if this will adversely affect the game’s feeling of variety. My hunch is that Wet will feel better in combat, but will it be as satisfying as Stranglehold? No idea. My guess is no. The mood was so solid in Stranglehold, I doubt Wet will fill the same void. I’m partial to John Woo cinematic style though, so that’s probably part of why I think that for now.

    Wet, like Stranglehold, was released with less praise than I had been hoping it would receive. We’ll see what I find when I play it, if its Tarantino-esque charm will please me. I love the soundtrack, and if there’s a weakness of mine, it’s a game with an awesome soundtrack. I won’t be getting to Wet for a little while though. I have too many games here I need to finish.

  5. Posted by R.James on 05 May 10 at 4:53am

    Just to make a quick comment in here, I ascribe to the “Kotaku” policy of reviewing a game: only review it if you’ve beaten it. And if you can’t beat it, or the game sucks to much to be beaten, at least disclose the fact that you did not beat it in your review. I’ve tried to make that the rule-of-thumb here at Gamecrashers. Also, I don’t review demos, betas, or preview copies of games. Even though I’ll label my reactions to such things as “Delayed Reactions” I do my best to make it clear that however I respond to that content is not the same as reviewing a finished product. But if something isn’t good in a preview or beta, I think I have the right as a critic/writer to make an honest statement of the facts.

    As for the “comparison” game: it’s so easy to think that a game has this or that in common with another game, even when you haven’t played either. I never played Wet beyond the 15 minute E3 2009 demo…and all I could think of was Stranglehold with a chick. Not to mention I never played Stranglehold either. In a world of video playthroughs and metacritic and media overload it’s easy to assume you know more than you think you do about something. In the future, I need to make a more concerted effort to focus my comments on what I’ve dealt with directly rather than what I “think” I know of a certain game.

    It’s all about being professional in the end.

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