Why Stranglehold’s Hong Kong marketplace offers cinematic gaming at its most satisfying
Beneath the glass towers and megacorp logos that dominate Stranglehold’s take on the Hong Kong skyline, you’ll find the lanterns and birdcages of a marketplace. It’s an old world tucked inside a new one, and the perfect home for a game that delivers ancient pleasures through cutting-edge tech.
Cutting edge for 2007 anyway, the year of Stranglehold’s release. An interactive sequel to John Woo’s shoot ’em up flick Hard Boiled, the game was also the first current-gen action title from Midway Chicago, the studio behind Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy. With roots going all the way back to Robotron: 2084, this developer had always seemed to yearn to unleash messy chaos as bullets flew and environments shattered. With Stranglehold, thanks to a generational leap in physics, animation and particle systems, it finally could. Just look around the market: as ever, there are propane tanks to explode and wooden crates to smash, but there are also watermelons, TV sets, and ornate statues to rip apart with hot lead. Broken glass, splintered electronics, pulped fruit: of all the games ever made, Stranglehold is the one you’d least enjoy clearing up after.
As with Hard Boiled, it’s clear that Stranglehold’s entire world has been designed around the stylish figure of Inspector ‘Tequila’ Yuen. Each table is the perfect height for him to vault over, while each spawn point lurks beneath neon signs that he can shoot down to cleave foes in two. Tequila’s not the only star, however. The world has been designed around John Woo, too, which might explain why every alley is littered with cooing doves primed to take flight, and every buttress is employed not just for the cover it provides the supercop, but for the pleasure of watching the concrete and rebars give way as he dives back into the fray, twin guns blazing.
Woo is everywhere in Stranglehold, then, even before he pops up behind the counter at the unlock shop, and that poses an interesting question: how do you recreate his unique approach to cinema in a videogame? How do you balance the choreography and the carnage while leaving enough room for the player? Some solutions are obvious, such as set-piece gun fights that see you involved in comically overpopulated Mexican standoffs, and melodramatic cutscenes where the camera circles and probes while men chew matchsticks and talk about honour. Beneath that, though, there’s a far deeper understanding at work. Midway recognises that a John Woo videogame should feel like Burnout with guns. Stranglehold is a shooter with a racing line, in other words, and the market is its best circuit.
It’s also the only circuit you really need. The rest of the game might allow you to dismantle dinosaurs and bust up a gigantic casino, but this opening level showcases the action at its purest and least compromised. Here you’ll find an environment that consistently rewards stylish shooting, that you can tread in its entirety without wasting a single bullet. There are open plazas where the geometry can be employed to deadly effect as scaffolding falls and telegraph poles cut gangsters in half, and there are fences to destroy with buckshot blasts, which will send the creeps cowering behind them cartwheeling into trestle tables laden with roast pork.
Best of all, there are sequences where everything flows together, where a dash along a metal railing sees you landing air-con units on top of enemies before jumping onto a pushcart and rolling around the narrow streets as you shotgun the next wave of villains in the knees. As for the climax, the tea house waiting for you at the end of this dirty sprawl presents an open space that defies even the most timid of players to hunker down and proceed with caution. It’s an arena that only works if you approach with flair, swinging between lanterns, dancing over banisters, sliding across the floor and then rolling on your belly. This is a world itching to come apart: ceramic tiling turns to powder, cash registers spill Hong Kong dollars, and all the while a prompt repeats the Stranglehold mantra, ‘LT to dive, RT to shoot’.
It helps that most of the marketplace’s action unfolds before you’ve learned too many of the game’s showier tricks, which see you flinging precision-aimed bullets at enemies, or spinning on the spot and spitting lead while doves scatter into the air. These are decent specials if you’re ploughing through the later levels, perhaps, but stripping them away keeps Stranglehold’s opening scenes honest. It ensures that all the game has to rely on for its first hour or so is that sepia-tinged slow motion (borrowed, of course, from Max Payne), and a fearless hero who moves like a gymnast. Before the more elaborate set-pieces arrive, Stranglehold is almost as pure as the coin-op blasters Midway made its name with. From the smart drum roll that signifies an area’s been cleared to the bonuses that stack up as you settle into the carnage, it’s an adventure that values twitch skills above all else.
This twitchiness might outstrip Stranglehold’s storytelling ambitions, but that doesn’t mean it has forgotten its cinematic roots. If anything, it took the company behind cash-guzzlers such as Defender to realise how fitting it would be to combine an arcade sensibility with Woo’s balletic bloodletting. Like Hard Boiled, Stranglehold is brought to life by the battle between order and chaos. In the case of its greatest level, the fight’s not over until the entire landscape’s been consumed.