26th Sep 2007 | 07:00
A little while ago in all the papers there was a story of a man in a Cambridge museum who accidentally fell down some stairs onto several priceless Chinese Qing vases. Was it a terrible accident? Was there a step that had been buffed into slipperiness and was bereft of a warning sign?
Or - who knows? - had someone who was a tiny bit mad succumbed to the desperate urge that you and I feel on a daily basis; that inexplicable urge to destroy valuable fragile objects simply because, for a split second, it feels good to break stuff?
Making things fall apart rocks - and it turns out that they fall apart even better when accompanied by slow motion, doves and a man with bulging eyes clutching his pierced throat and choking down the last few pints of blood his evil little gangster heart will ever pump. Ladies and gentlemen, please bid a warm, warm welcome to John Woo's Stranglehold - the game that lets those of a destructive ilk have their cake and jump up and down on it.
A solitary thought will be dancing in your head at this point, and it needs addressing. We have to face the issue of just how much Stranglehold fills the void left by Max Payne. Short answer: it doesn't. It's a very different game - Payne would have you keeping tabs on bullets, being totally aware of the exact position of your foes and using bullet-time to gain a vital edge. Its combat felt weighty and gritty, and was delicately paced to boot. Stranglehold, though... Well, Stranglehold doesn't give much of a shit about all that.
Many levels progress in a similar vein to those of Payne (moving through Hong Kong backstreets and dockside storage areas seemingly reserved purely for flammable liquids and easily dislodged heavy objects), but the true spirit of Stranglehold is made clearer elsewhere. Much of the game has you locked in various chambers housing
an entire collective noun of fragile objects, with bad guys running in from many and varied inaccessible adjacent rooms, while you run round and round in circles, killing whoever you come across in a fashion that's oddly reminiscent of playing Robotron 'back in the day'.
It isn't rocket science, but it's great fun. Tearing around a casino with coins tumbling from broken fruit machines, sliding down banisters in slow motion and shooting gangsters in the face, and watching a central sports car revolving on a pedestal slowly getting taken to pieces by stray shots - for pure daft enjoyment, this certainly takes some beating.
The game really comes into its own when you genuinely fear the bullets madly flying around you, which sadly isn't always the case - above all, in your bullet-absorbent spells in earlier levels. Later on, though, when you're cowering behind shattering pillars in a car park and watching Tequila's gnarled reactions (character design and animation is top-notch throughout) and working out your next act of violence, the blood really does get pumping.
Firing through the glass of car windows, using your magic cop powers to fuel sniper shots and having concrete turned to powder around you makes for some brilliantly atmospheric set pieces. It's great bullet-ridden nonsense - even if the slightly ropy cover system makes you wish that the developers had been a little more attentive to the tactical weight of a game like Gears Of War, and, indeed, realised that sometimes fewer (and more damaging) bullets can bring greater intensity.
A health-pack system with a logic not far advanced from that of Wolfenstein 3D and a smattering of old-school boss battles, meanwhile, flag up the fact that at its core, Stranglehold is of an extremely traditional blueprint.
Another area where the game veers from the Payne template is in its arcade stylings. At times it feels almost like a light-gun game, as glittering objects of note fairly beg for you to shoot them out - perhaps dropping a lighting rig on the head of an unfortunate, or loosening the restraints on some conveniently penned-in boulders just itching to feel the full force of gravity.
The controls too are a tad simplistic - Tequila will automatically slip and slide over tables, the spacebar serves for all interaction from taking cover behind a pillar to dangling from a chandelier, and the capacity to crouch is largely redundant in any but the hardest of difficulty settings. I may have resolutely played through with mouse and keyboard without much hassle, but right from the off you're very much aware that the game is more comfortable on a 360 - and is really intended for a widescreen format to boot.
In terms of cinematic overtones, the Woo influence is abundantly clear - aside from the obvious smoke, slow motion and guns a gogo, there are the sharp suits from A Better Tomorrow and oodles of nods to Hard Boiled, the game's spiritual forebear. Woo himself, for example, cameos again as a bartender, while the tea house shoot-out is replicated alongside a storyline featuring inter-gang conflict and a cop on the inside.
One massive problem that arises, though, is that the game seems desperate to take away a lot of the emotion and humanity of Woo's earlier movies and eschew character development for pure stereotype. In Hard Boiled, Tequila was a hard-drinking cop on the edge who played the clarinet when he was stressed and occasionally did a little detective work (even if it involved psychically discovering bloodied books in libraries); in Stranglehold he's little more than a stroppy, murderous child who should have faced an industrial tribunal long ago.
Woo's trademark themes of brotherhood and loyalty are here, but they're skin-deep - and clever stuff such as the famous image of a bandaged Tequila cradling a baby as he takes out hoodlums in a hospital is replaced 100 per cent by non-stop videogame inanity.
You may argue that this is a videogame, and as such the inanity is well placed - but had the developers borrowed a sense of pace and character growth from their director alongside his action smarts, the title would have been improved dramatically. It's as if the themes of Woo's films have simply been stretched paper-thin over an archaic game format of goons and bosses - owing just as much to Streets Of Rage as it does to Max Payne.
If the ringing cliché of 'all style, no substance' ever needs another airing, then perhaps this is where it's required.
But what style, though! As a 'bull in a china shop' simulation suite, there are few flies on Stranglehold; its sheer love of stylised murder and incessant destruction makes it
a creation that's impossible to dislike at its base level. It doesn't take very long to realise that you're playing the same burst of action again and again, but it's an enjoyable slice of violence, so perhaps we shouldn't judge too harshly.
Indeed, the game's lowest ebbs occur when it attempts to cover up this fact - for example, when it demands that you find and destroy a certain number of drugs labs before you're allowed to progress, and inevitably has you grudgingly backtrack through piles of bodies in a remote fishing village looking for telltale smoke signals.
A far more aggravating issue is, once again, the increasingly common plague that is a surprisingly short playing time - I probably whipped through it in seven hours or so.
A fun multiplayer mode in which six players can launch themselves around seven different arenas in teams or on their respective tods is worth a bash, though - not least because it borrows the ace slo-mo dynamic from deathmatch F.E.A.R.
Let us return, however, to that vase-destroying incident in Cambridge. Because it's that, and exactly that, I had in mind as I laid waste to the exhibition halls of the Chicago museum with more bullets than are currently available in a central African democratic republic.
I'd shot every bone of every skeleton, every ammonite, every painting and every dangling pterodactyl - only to turn a corner and be faced with a giant poster advertising (oh, happy day!) the entirely coincidental presence of a room full of priceless terracotta warriors shipped straight in from the motherland. I'm telling you -myself and Chow Yun-Fat, in unison, practically rubbed our hands with anticipation.
Sure, Stranglehold isn't a perfect game - in fact, in many areas it's a bit duff. But even if the stupidity and brevity gets you down, I guarantee you won't have played a better representation of such utter, needless carnage.