The more things change, the more they stay the same. For most of gaming’s history, licensed games have tended to be substandard releases, made on the cheap in order to cash in on the latest hot properties. This rule was so typical, for so many generations, that you could almost set it in stone. But the current generation has done a lot to improve the situation. Licensed games are often quite playable, and in some cases can be exemplary of their genre. This trend is due to several factors. Perhaps the most important are the tremendous costs of making a high definition game. This has forced publishers to rely more and more on safe, traditional IP, rather than gambling on something new and original. While most gamers lament this, the flip side to such a decision is that licensed games must now be approached with greater care. Additionally, the increasing use of middle ware graphics and physics engines have helped to create an increased level of baseline quality.
These advancements, however, are also the reason why hardcore gamers don’t regard licensed games much better than they used to. Using the Unreal Engine may ensure a stable and familiar looking game, but Gears of War uses it to its fullest advantage. If it came time to pick something to play, the choice is clear. On that same token, when every Unreal powered release looks the same, and every shooter has a physics engine and cover system, it is easy to assume that they all play the same. Whereas a clever, innovative licensed game would stand out like a sore thumb in the past, today it runs the risk of slipping through the cracks.
Such is the case with John Woo’s Stranglehold, the video game “sequel” to the cult classic film “Hard Boiled”. Like most games, it left our collective consciousness as quickly as it entered. There’s a reason for this – upon first glance, and throughout most of the game, there’s nothing about Stranglehold that makes it stand out. In fact, a particularly lazy/busy journalist could write a review based on only the demo and probably get away with it. It has physics, a cover mechanic, a combo based scoring system, as well as the Bullet Time feature that “Hard Boiled” inspired all along. It features any number of stylish stunts, such as running up banisters and rolling through a room on dining carts. With the press of a button, you can cause Inspector Tequila to spin around, firing wildly at everything in the room while doves fly across the screen at random. Depending on how you play, thirty percent of the game may be in slow motion. It is everything you would expect from the genre, and everything you would expect from this license.
What it doesn’t do, however, is put it all together in a way you would expect. There is a pattern when it comes to action games; a talented developer learns to master a feature or concept that was only previously dabbled in, and everyone else is forced to include it in future projects so as to keep up. Sometimes this is as simple as mimicking the “Progenitor Game”, but some devs take it one step further, trying to find some way in which to one-up the competition and make the next big thing that everyone talks about. Usually this is accomplished by taking the Concept of the Month and shoving it down our throats, using it constantly rather than responsibly.
Take cover as an example. Gears of War wasn’t the first game to do it, but it was one of the first to justify it. It added an interesting new element to combat, yet it still tried to find ways to flush out the player and make them move around the level. Ever since, there have been several games (including Gears 2) that believed that the best way to make a cover system better is to simply add more cover. They tend to have environments that look incredibly unrealistic, because every wall and object has been designed to make it easier for you to hide behind them. Another option is to make your cover system mandatory, in the sense that even a few seconds out in the open will lead to a game over. In this situation, the player is forced to obey a rule that is both arbitrary and unnecessary. It feels a bit egotistical, and it makes you wonder how the game would have turned out if its features served it, rather than the other way around.
Stranglehold isn’t quite the proper counterpoint, but it’s close. The overall impression I got from it is that it often ends up being brilliant by virtue of being stupid. It blatantly tosses every feature, every bullet point, and every cool idea into the mix. In this regard, it is far worse than the competition. But the most important thing that keeps Stranglehold from falling apart is the fact that it does very little to tweak these features, instead preferring to let them coexist naturally. For example, it doesn’t worry about fitting its cover system to work in a game with highly destructible environments. Instead, about 90% of the objects you can take cover behind can simply be destroyed, which fundamentally changes the way you can use it . Nor is there any worry about whether Tequila’s numerous special moves (such as the aforementioned Spin Attack) are integrated seamlessly into the experience. Both the film and this game are already over the top; for Stranglehold, it is better to let the player summon spectacle on command than to impose restrictions, especially when proper use of these moves is often the key to surviving the hardest battles.
The other element that helps to keep it all together is the fact that at it’s core, Stranglehold is basic to the point of being archaic. This is a game where several consecutive levels consist of advancing from one room to another, killing the enemies that spawn out of monster closets until they run dry, and fighting an end boss with stupid amounts of health. It is old school to the core, which means that if you want, you can rely on old school strategies as well. While Stranglehold does reward you for using all its numerous acrobatic tricks to pull off stylish kills, you never have to force them upon yourself. Once you can reliably pull off headshots, you can play most of the game by moving carefully and manually triggering Bullet Time when needed. I found that this was an effective approach on Hard difficulty, since incoming fire is so strong that running into the middle of the action is a surefire way to die. On the other hand, I was able to duck, dive, and flip around to great success on Easy, where I could stop worrying about death and start trying to get big combos.
Stranglehold reminds us that taking simple ideas and letting them play off each other can lead to great results. When you combine the random nature of enemy spawns, the semi dynamic way in which objects break, and the decisions you make in any given situation, you end up having a “monster closet” game wherein every encounter plays out a little differently every time, and every death is a chance to break more shit. At its best, it makes you forget about story, progress and high scores, until you live in the action, however it comes.
On the other hand, the few times in which Stranglehold does try to exert some control end up failing miserably. For example, you can activate Bullet Time at will, but it will also trigger automatically if you are in the middle of a style move and an enemy comes into rage. While this can be used to great advantage, it can also distract and confuse, while wasting your BT meter. Tying the two features together makes sense from a cinematic standpoint, but there’s no reason that one has to involve the other. Furthermore, not every level consists of square rooms and enemies behind doors. Chapter 1 features more tchotchkes and tables to slide on than the rest of the game put together, in turn giving players a bad impression of the game. Chapter 2 is wide open outdoor environment with an on rails chopper section that feels entirely out of place. There’s also a mid-game boss battle that takes place in an apartment full of explosive trip lasers. There were several times in which lasers would trigger early, preventing me from advancing and convincing me that the game was purposefully blocking my advance. These instances in which the developer tries to play around with the standard level design tend to do far more harm than good. The apartment battle in particular reeks of someone who cares about being clever over making sure their game works.
And the scariest thing? These levels make me think that Strangelhold’s simple, shootout based levels were an accident caused by lack of time. That perhaps the entire game was meant to be more scripted and riddled with gimmicks. I hope there isn’t any truth to this theory, because it would also mean that the ingredients to a good game are exactly the things that are being squashed by current genre trends. All I do know is that I’ll take what I got. Stranglehold isn’t at the top of the action game heap, but it is the rare game that remembers that the best way to appear cinematic is to let the player make the movie themselves.