With all the wonder and entertainment video games provide us they basically allow us to go on vacation more or less. I’m not necessarily talking about how we can mentally go on vacation for a couple of hours and escape into a world devoid of worries like paying bills or dealing with other such grown-up issues, but how they allow us to see places we might never be able to visit. Video games may not give us a 1:1 accurate depiction of real locales, but every once in a while we receive a game that does a good enough of a job of representing something that it almost feels like we’re actually walking down the streets of a far off foreign land.
Three weeks ago gamers finally received their wish to explore the streets of Hong Kong thanks to Sleeping Dogs. The depiction of Hong Kong with it’s beauty and seedy underbelly may not be a 100% accurate depiction, but the team at United Front Games did a wonderful job at building a city that felt alive and was truly immersive - whether it was when we were merely driving around or walking down the streets to purchase a tea to boost our stats.
What gamers may not know is that Sleeping Dogs isn’t actually the first game to take us to Hong Kong and show us how brutal gangsters on the other side of the pacific can be. Many years ago the video game industry received a game which not only sought to achieve the same Hong Kong action film vibe but actually had the godfather if not a key legendary figure from that industry lend his services. I’m of course talking about Midway’s ill-fated and slightly entertaining action romp Stranglehold.
Released in 2007, Stranglehold had a lot of buzz, not only because it was early on in the HD generation but because of the talent it had. A certain level of interest in the game definitely stemmed from how it was being developed by Midway, despite the studio being troubled at the time, but the key draw were the two figures that were attached to the project. Stranglehold perhaps had its hype levels raised exceedingly high as served as the sequel to Hard Boiled, a film which is thought of as one of the best Hong Kong action films released in the last twenty-five years. Not only did Stranglehold have the mindshare amongst gamers and cinema fans for being a Hard Boiled sequel, but it was also anticipated since Hard Boiled Writer/Director John Woo was attached as was star Chow Yun-Fat.
Having the talent of John Woo attached to Stranglehold was a huge deal for the game. Seriously, having both Woo and Chow aboard the project would be like having Francis Ford Coppola and Al Pacino working on a Godfather game, not just because it would be an easy paycheck and give Pacino more money to produce Shakespeare plays, but because they value the material. Even with the slight decline in quality of Woo as a director thanks to duds such as “Windtalkers” and “Paycheck”, it was still exciting to see him not only go to his roots but return to the world and character that pushed him to legendary status. Sadly if only gamers knew what the final result would be once Stranglehold finally hit retail.
While it preceded Sleeping Dogs by five years and featured one of the godfathers of Hong Kong action cinema, Stranglehold was kind of a disappointment. Perhaps saying the game was a disappointment is an understatement as the combo of a story that felt like it was on autopilot and gameplay that wore out its welcome by the third level proved to be too much for fans to tolerate. Woo’s presence, or at least his influence, was felt in the game through some of the cutscenes which featured his trademark style of quick camera cuts and unorthodox movements, but that was basically all the game offered which tied it tonally to Hard Boiled or even Woo’s previous HK films.
The inclusion of Woo certainly helped Stranglehold in some ways but the story ended up being so dull and far from the source material, Hard Boiled, that it was like seeing a legendary athlete return to the sport way past his prime only to embarrass himself and then quietly walk away in shame as the fans stay silent. Maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic in my comments regarding Stranglehold as the plot was simple enough from an action movie perspective, albeit a very simplified and cliche action movie.
Set roughly fifteen years after Hard Boiled took place, Inspector Tequila (Chow Yun-Fat) finds himself chasing a gang of cop killers who in a grand plan have also kidnapped Tequila’s wife and daughter – who for some reason live in Chicago of all places. Besides the sudden shift in tone and character “growth” for Tequila, the inclusion of a wife and daughter essentially become nothing more than superfluous story tools as it doesn’t deepen Tequila as a character nor is anything new done to make the already tired action narrative trope any more interesting than what we’ve seen in the past.
Whereas Sleeping Dogs featured a relatively standard tale of Triad drama and action, the narrative itself felt like it could’ve been something we would see in an actual Hong Kong action/drama film. Stranglehold on the other hand felt extremely Westernized in every possible department. Characters are dumbed down to merely serve as plot tools and memorable dialog is near non-existent in Stranglehold. Whereas Hard Boiled isn’t a shining example of perfect writing, it did have memorable lines such as “You give a man a gun and he’s Superman, give him two and he’s God”; which again don’t reach David Mamet levels of genius but nonetheless stuck out in a way that made the movie unique on a corny sort of level.
The problems with the narrative, and the depiction of Tequila, didn’t necessarily fall on the shoulders of Chow Yun-Fat as the performance he delivered in the game is admirable. Certain moments of the game fall flat since Chow’s trademark energy and facial expressions sadly aren’t conveyed properly through the Unreal Engine 3 powered graphics and so-so inflection of certain dialog lines, but Chow is forever a boss and his one and only video game appearance thankfully isn’t as shameful or awkward compared to the efforts of other Hollywood actors such as Bruce Willis.
For those who haven’t seen Hard Boiled I really do recommend watching it as it’s an over the top yet dramatic movie which is enhanced by a collection of action scenes that have a Paul Verhoven level of bloody violence. There’s a ton of flash in Hard Boiled but despite being translated into a video game, Stranglehold sadly didn’t capture any of that. The action issues are one key problem, more on that later, but the big issue still of course lied in the narrative and direction of the game. In place of near invincible henchman wearing an eye patch, Stranglehold featured a series of villains that came across as if they were created out of a henchman generation machine in which three keywords were typed in – there’s just no character at all or things that hooked people into the experience.
Featuring a cliché collection of Chinese and Russian gangsters with gruff voices and facial scars, Stranglehold’s plot never really gets going despite the personal motivations that are driving Tequila. Ultimately it’s this collection of banal baddies which makes Stranglehold a disappointment, especially since the character of Tequila never really reaches the level of complex intensity as he did in Hard Boiled. Small character traits such as Tequila’s attitude and dedication to being a cop are nowhere to be seen as are more human elements such as his fondness of jazz music. The inclusion of a family certainly makes Tequila’s motivations more personal, but it can’t hold a candle to the dramatic elements Hard Boiled featured revolving around the character of Alan (Tony Leung), a cop undercover with the Triands. Perhaps it’s to be expected that Tequila wouldn’t be host to a cavern of deep emotional material since such things weren’t in Hard Boiled, but even the excuse of Stranglehold being a video game isn’t good enough to explain the lack of moments which highlight or heighten the character.
On top of the genre tired story, Stranglehold also served as a shining example of Midway’s constant mismanagement and how that ultimately made the game a less than stellar product. As a 3rd person shooter Stranglehold could’ve been amazing, but the game ended up feeling like nothing more than an extended tech demo while coming across as if someone reskinned Max Payne 2 with Hong Kong cinema visuals and in the process messed up the controls. Listing the amount of problems featured in Stranglehold would likely be enough to fill a book, but the major issues reside in how linear the game design is in every possible way.
With locales such as city streets, bars, small shanty houses by the ocean, and even a massive temple, the levels of the game evoked the proper feelings one would associate with the genre and the setting of Hong Kong but there’s just nothing fun to do in them. Trying to capture the frantic and somewhat crazy gun battles featured in John Woo’s films such as Hard Boiled, the team at Midway Chicago went forth allowing for near complete destruction of the environments. While not featuring complete environmental mayhem similar to Volition’s GeoMOD tech as made famous in the Red Faction series, Stranglehold nonetheless allowed gamers to shoot up columns, food market stands, and even the marble floors enemies would walk on. It may sound impressive in theory, but by the third stage in the game Stranglehold lost most of its luster as it becomes nothing more than repetitive action that at times is too distracting for its own good.
Stranglehold’s cavalcade of action and attempts at being spontaneous through things such as shooting watermelons or dropping air conditioners on top enemies simply became boring and worst of all felt like it was scripted. Far removed from having QTE sequences or an extremely guided direction that makes the experience feel like that of an on-rails game, Stranglehold was a game that essentially had one gameplay draw (shooting stuff up and seeing sparks/particle effects galore) but in the end even that wasn’t polished and thought out well enough to provide long term entertainment. The gun controls were responsive to a degree, but trying to perform special skills to achieve a high rank such as sliding down a rail and shooting four guys failed to capture an arcade feeling or even match the smoothness of other 3rd person action games.
The first stage of the game, which is an homage of sorts to the first sequence of Hard Boiled, plays almost perfectly in its flow and action scenarios, but after that everything goes downhill; instilling the sense that the first level was nothing more than a perfect vertical slice and everything else was hurried out the door after the constant delays and major content cuts (the game was once set to feature vehicle sections) that no doubt started to annoy both Midway upper brass, investors, and of course gamers.
As the first major game to attempt evoking the feeling and sense of action featured in Hong Kong cinema, Stranglehold fell short not only of the goals and hopes that games had for it but fans of action classics such as “A Better Tomorrow” and “Hard Boiled”. Even though the ingredients for a winning game were there, creative bravado and uninspired design prohibited Stranglehold from being the first game to faithfully represent the often complex yet entertaining world of Hong Kong cinema.
Though Midway marketed the game in every possible way, even going as far to make the official title of the game “John Woo Presents Stranglehold”, the game was almost a day one dud. Despite the market not being as saturated as it is now, Stranglehold failed to make a proper splash and such was proved through the lack of an online community for the multiplayer modes on the first day of release. A key example of why Midway was eventually sold to Warner Bros., Stranglehold was a game that was one of the first 3rd party HD games to have an exceedingly high budget which in the end wasn’t recouped as sales of the game were mediocre despite garnering a 77 score on Metacritic.
Stranglehold was an interesting experiment of sorts but its lack of success and disappointing game design was disheartening to fans and especially gamers looking for an authentic Hong Kong action experience. It may have taken five years, but gamers were finally given the bullet ballet they wanted via Max Payne 3 while receiving the authentic Hong Kong cinema experience thanks to Sleeping Dogs.