Hands-on: Stranglehold

I was a pretty big fan of the highly-underrated (and often overlooked) Psi-Ops, Midway’s 2005 psychokenetic based third-person shooter. So when I heard that the same team that brought Psi-Ops to life was working on John Woo’s Stranglehold, it had me pretty excited. With the promise of things breaking; people dying; and white doves, how can your interest not be piqued?

Yesterday, Midway invited me to their Gamer’s Day in New York City, where I had a chance to sit down and have some hands-on time with an unfinished build of the frantic shooter. 423 dead thugs and one trashed dinosaur museum later, I’m back with some impressions.

 The game features the likeness of Chow Yun Fat, reprising his role as Detective Tequila from John Woo’s classic, Hard Boiled. The details of the story weren’t really important in my short time with the game, and I’m not sure they’ll be too important when the game ships this summer, either.

Stranglehold is, for lack of a more fitting term, a guy’s shooter. It attempts to cram all of the testosterone-pumping action cliches you’ve come to know and love into one, sweet little package. The end result is a non-stop barrage of bullets, shattered glass, and limp corpses. This is Spike TV’s weekend movie line-up; an adrenaline-fest come to life in the form of a video game.

One of the huge things the team has been touting since it had been announced are the games destructible and interactive environments. Glass shatters, walls crumble, and the pillows on seats spit feathers as bullets whiz by. In the heat of battle, with enemies on all sides, things can get pretty hairy. You can make Tequila slide across a table, firing his guns at opposing thugs without missing a beat. Want to run up a stair case? Sure, why not — just don’t stop firing your guns. What once was a quiet museum turns into a war zone, with bullets tearing through bodies and environmental objects at a pace that’s nearly impossible to keep up with.

The game’s controls couldn’t be more simple. The right trigger fires your weapon, which by default are dual-wielded pistols. Now standard in most shooter games, this style was made classic by this particular game’s source material, so it’s only fitting that the digital Tequila packs double the heat. The Y button allows you to switch between weapons on the fly, so if you felt so inclined to nail a dude in the leg with a shotgun at close range, you could (the character models have limbs that react to such carnage accordingly, of course). If any of the other face buttons did anything other than select things in the menu, I couldn’t tell you — I never had to use them in my time with the game.

Simply walking up to some objects will trigger context sensitive actions, like sliding on tables or knocking over a chair, but the left trigger is just as important in triggering some of these events. Various objects in the environment flash, indicating that the object is interactive. In these cases, if you’re close enough, pressing L will cause tequila to interact with the object in a number of ways. For example, swinging on a chandelier or running up the spine of dinosaur bones.

Pulling the L trigger while running will also put you into something the team calls “Tequila Time,” a fancy way of saying “the slow motion stuff you might remember from games such as Max Payne or F.E.A.R.” When in Tequila Time, you predictably have a leg up on your opponents; with more time to aim, it’s possible to take out five or six enemies in one leap. It is also possible to activate Tequila Time on the fly using the right bumper, but I didn’t find myself using it at all, since the game liberally throws you into slow motion whenever you do something even remotely “cool.”

Adding to Tequila’s arsenal are a series of special moves, all mapped to the D-pad. One direction triggered a room clearing maneuver that included (surprise!) slow motion; flying doves; and firing in all directions. My favorite, however, was a sniper-like zoom shot. Once a bullet is fired, the camera tracks it to the target, giving you a close-up of the damage done to its mark. Once I discovered this special move, I went on a crotch shooting spree, only for a moment stopping to fire the head off what appeared to be a stuffed lion cub. That bastard deserved it.

While much of the game seems to be completely focused on the offensive, there is an opportunity to take cover. Using the L bumper, you can have Tequila take cover behind objects throughout the environment. But in all honesty, not only is cover for pussies, but it didn’t seem necessary in Stranglehold. Simply running into crowds of enemies (whose AI used cover more effectively than I did) seemed to work just fine.

Which leads me to my main problem with the short demo I played — what else is there? I played for about a half an hour, the entire time not letting up on the trigger. While much can be said about non-stop action, it’s hard to see it sustaining that same kind of rush after a few hours of gameplay. I’m hoping the full game is more fleshed out. Midway also promises a multiplayer component, which could add replay value, but wasn’t forthcoming with any significant information.

While I did hame some issues with context sensitive actions not triggering properly and finding myself unavoidably sliding onto objects, there’s plenty of time for the team to correct these issues before the game ships. Ultimately, the game does deliver what it promises — non-stop, hardcore action with lots of stuff getting broken along the way. If that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well pre-order the game today.

Stranglehold will ship this Summer for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC.

Nick Chester