PS3 Fanboy review: Stranglehold: Collector's Edition


Though Midway's Stranglehold has been out on the Xbox 360 and PC for quite some time, due to the well publicized problems with adapting the Unreal Engine to the PlayStation 3, our version has only just come out. And while it is frustrating to have such a long delay between releases, it's not all bad for once. Midway has used the time to tighten up the performance of Stranglehold on the PS3 to a very solid framerate as well as add on one of the coolest video game bonuses of all time -- a high-def re-mastering of Hard Boiled, the fantastic John Woo Hong Kong shoot-em-up that serves as the primary inspiration to the game itself.

While only the Collector's Edition of Stranglehold includes an HD copy of Hardboiled, this is one of those unusual bonuses that actually makes the game itself better. Taken on its own, Stranglehold is "just" another shooter with a story of revenge and the ability to blow the hell out of pretty much everything in the environment. Taken with the movie as well, you see a continuation of one of the greatest stories to come out of the Hong Kong action genre from the early 90s, as well as a continuation of the style and cinematography of the movie. Characters that seem flat or unnecessary suddenly become interesting and special effects that seem like simple next-gen window dressing gain added meaning.

Movies like Hard Boiled are what started the whole concept of tough guys with dual Berettas who can dive through the air backwards while taking out half a platoon of villains. It's hard to remember sometimes, but the action in games like Max Payne (as well as the bullet time in The Matrix) are direct homages to John Woo's early movies. Slow motion shooting, dive-shots, and heavily stylized combat were all traits of movies like Hard Boiled, Bullet in the Head, and The Killer, so in some ways it's surprising that it's taken this long for John Woo to just come out and make his own video game.

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When it comes to making a John Woo video game though, the stumbling block may have been technology itself. Midway's amazing Massive D system, which allows for the environment to get ripped to shreds, is an absolute marvel to behold and is something that would not even vaguely be able to be done on the PS2. And while it may seem like deformable environments are nothing more than cool effects, the truth of it is that it allows a game that mimics John Woo's style. Just watching the first 10 minutes of Hard Boiled will show you striking similarities between the Massive D environmental damage system and the special effects Woo used. In the movie, a restaurant almost explodes in gun fire -- tables are ripped to shreds, bullets are flying everywhere, bird cages and decor are torn to pieces, and you can practically smell the gun powder in the air. It's like the Massive D system was developed with John Woo in mind, it fits that perfectly into his game.

It's that kind of chaos that epitomizes Stranglehold. When you leave a room after a major gunfight, it looks nothing like when you first came into it. Pillars are torn asunder, statues break apart realistically, and whatever dishes in the room are now tiny bits of ceramic powder. During the fights, you'll be frantically dodging from behind cover, shooting people in slow-mo, grabbing health and ammo and generally do your best to keep alive when a dozen different thugs are shooting you at once.



Helping you stay alive is one of the key aspects of Stranglehold's gameplay, the Tequila bomb. While not actually a bomb (or drink), Tequila bombs are special moves that let you heal yourself, do special sniper shots, or generally kill every single person within site of you. To build up your Tequila bomb meter, you need to do stylish kills and chain them together to earn greater and greater numbers of style points. For example, you could just shoot that thug in the head (and earn 1 style point), or you swing off a lantern, slide down a banister and jump onto a serving cart and blast the guy in the chest with a shotgun from point blank range (earning 3-5 style points). Sure, you could do either and achieve the same effect, but later levels will require you to keep your Tequila bomb meter full, making it important to dance around like a psychotic ballerina with a machine gun.

Unfortunately, the game's attempts to make the stylized combat very free-form (EVERY railing can be ran on, even the ones that go nowhere), means that sometimes your character will just do random things. You may be trying to do a wall jump, but instead the game will think you wanted to run up a banister instead. Or you will actually want to run up the banister, but won't be quite lined up correctly and will instead just run into it like an idiot. While it's not a huge deal, it breaks up the fluidity of combat and can lead to frustrating deaths. I can appreciate the sand-boxy approach to combat that Midway took, but in the end it felt like it could have used some more tuning. 75% of the time you feel like a movie bad-ass, and 25% of the time you feel like the world's worst stunt man. It's a shame, because it *almost* works perfectly -- just not quite.



There's also a problem with repetition in Stranglehold. While only about 6-8 hours long, in general you will be moving from room to room and engaging in set-piece shoot-outs. The set-pieces look absolutely fantastic (particularly a Chinese Casino) but the gameplay gets too familiar. Run into a room, get ready, fight waves of bad guys until the door to the next room opens. Rinse, repeat. Things are broken up by some solid boss fights and the occasional unique level, but overall the combat gets a little too similar for its own good. It's a great game to play for 15-30 minutes, but playing it for a couple hours just gets boring -- a bad trait in a game that is filled with more guns and destruction than a Tarantino flick.

Graphically, Stranglehold is a bit of a mix bag. Chow Yun Fat looks recognizable, as well as the other characters in the game based on real people (keep an eye out for John Woo in a cameo), but they don't quite have that next-gen shine to them. It's clear that the real focus of the graphics is the Massive D engine and the ensuing destruction that happens as soon as anybody fires off a gun. Never has a game had this much onscreen destruction going on, and it is a sight to see. Boards, statues, tables, and marble pillars all break apart with startling realism and makes you feel like you're actually wielding powerful weapons. When you shoot a pillar with a military grade shotgun, it SHOULD rip chunks out of it. It's hard going back to games without environmental destruction after playing Stranglehold, because you miss the realistic effects of your weapon on the level.

Framerate-wise, the delay definitely did a lot of good. While not perfect by any means (at least one boss fight brought it to an almost stand-still as two huge statues exploded), it is very solid overall and never gets in the way of combat. The game can handle half a dozen enemies all blasting away at you as you dodge around and the level erupts into debris with nary a hitch in the framerate, which is pretty impressive. Though in case you're wondering, the Xbox 360 version definitely has a more solid framerate (though it was not perfect either).



The Collector's Edition of Stranglehold is clearly the best option for PlayStation 3 fans. Though it costs an additional 10 dollars, Hard Boiled itself adds a lot to the game itself and also prolongs the whole Stranglehold experience by 20-30% (2 hour movie combined with a 6-8 hour game). The movie itself is also an absolute classic, and is widely considered the best of John Woo's work. Unfortunately, like many Hong Kong movies from the early 90s, it has had a poor release record. There was a solid Criterion release in 1998, and a couple cheap releases throughout the years -- but there's never been a solid re-mastering and translations have been very hit and miss.

Luckily, there is finally the solid transfer that fans have been clamoring about for years. While not as pristine as a modern day digital-to-digital, the 1080p re-mastering it is nicest that Hard Boiled has ever looked and may very well be the best it ever will. Compared side-by-side to the 1998 Criterion release, it is noticeably sharper, has considerably better sound quality and colors are much more vivid. Also, the sub-titles have been redone and now actually make sense throughout the movie. I wasn't able to detect any 'Engrish' or misspelling which greatly helps in keeping you engaged in the movie. And yes, for the Philistines out there, there is also an English dub -- which sounds about as good as any English dub out there. This, like any foreign flick, should really be watched in the original language though.



The addition of an HD re-mastering of Hard Boiled makes Stranglehold a much more attractive game. Held on its own merits, it's a solid shooter with some fantastic environmental destruction that ends up a little too repetitious for its own good. Adding Hard Boiled into the package though makes the entire game better in a way that's hard to describe. It really fleshes out the style and story behind Stranglehold and makes it better than the sum of its parts. Highly recommended for any hard-core action fan or any old school Hong Kong action flick aficionados.

PS3 Fanboy score: 8.0

Second Opinion: Andrew

The Collector's Edition of Stranglehold is a terrific deal, especially for serious action movie fans like myself. However, there a number of flaws that simply can't be ignored. The game itself is a lot of fun, and does a fantastic job of recreating the way movement works in the John Woo universe. However, the game is repetitive, and actually features less interesting environmental attacks as the game progresses through its very short run. This transfer of Hard Boiled is the best yet for the film, but it's not without serious video issues. What hurts the video playback the most, however, is the use of a proprietary in-game movie playback UI. Instead of using the traditional PS3 playback system, the game assigns rather arbitrary buttons for basic functions, and removes useful ones such as "fast forward" and "rewind." Most likely, this was to prevent cannabilization of the upcoming DVD release, but it certainly makes the whole package seem a little cheap. Tying movies and games is something we hope continues in the PS3 lifetime ... albeit with better execution.
7.5

This article was originally published on Joystiq.