September 18, 2007

It’s sad to see a promising concept fall on its face and frustrate instead of invigorate a gamer, but Stranglehold does just that. Inspector Tequila’s second adventure starts out well–the romp through Hong Kong’s seedy marketplace features exploding propane tanks, signs falling on enemies’ heads, riding on conveniently placed roll carts, and entertaining movie-style shootouts. Unfortunately, Stranglehold then descends into a mess of terrible level design and overpowered boss characters (even on Casual difficulty).

The marketplace level was fun. Not only did it have explosions, gunplay, cart riding, and railing running, but it was difficult to get lost and there were no McGuffins to search and destroy. In the second level alone, Tequila destroys no fewer than 20 drug tables, and hitting them all is necessary to progress the story. After that he must sink four ships. Later still he needs to plant 14 C4 charges. These things aren’t fun, and they certainly aren’t cinematic. For a game that touts itself as an interactive John Woo movie I spent a lot of time shooting inanimate objects on purpose and searching for just one more table. And while I’m searching for that last drug table I’m constantly lost because of the poor level design. Every ramshackle hut looks the same, and their connections are so twisted as nonsensical that it’s nigh on impossible to get and maintain your bearings. More straight forward seeming levels aren’t immune either. One boss fight takes place in a penthouse with an open floor plan. Finally – a level in which I won’t get hopeless turned around. Wrong – there are laser traps everywhere creating a specific and linear path that must be followed if you hope to complete the level. And lasers – for no specific reason – explode on impact. They don’t trigger an explosion; the lasers themselves explode. Trip one in a set of five with a bit of the environment and it explodes leaving the other four intact.

Video games and movies are different things. With an arsenal of special moves at my disposal, completely destructible environments, and four difficultly levels I’d like some choice as to how I complete objectives. Yes, it is vitally important that the main character go from Hong Kong to Chicago, but does it really matter what path he takes through the marketplace? There is absolutely no reason for each level to contain only one route from A to B when many of the locales lend themselves to diverging paths. Why must I use the steps in the parking garage to up a flight when I could just as easily walk up the vehicle ramp? Why must I climb up to a zip line to board a ship when I know full well that Tequila can jump far enough to reach it from a platform?

When you have sufficient space Tequila does have an impressive set of special moves. Precision Aim is probably my favorite as it allows you to stop the action and snipe any opponent. Shoot him in the head and he’s instantly dead (unless he’s a boss which is inconsistent at best, people don’t just walk away from a headshot), but nick him in the arm and he’s just pissed off. Barrage allows the player to slow down time and unload on a crowded room while taking no damage, and the Spin Attack is a traditional John Woo bullet ballet in which Tequila spins in a circle, kills all his enemies, and goes on his way unharmed.

Multiplayer is uninspired and just not fun. Tequila’s special moves just don’t provide the same advantage when everybody has access to them. You’ll find yourself engaging Tequila Time (Max Payne’s Bullet Time rebranded) to even the playing field instead of to give yourself the upper hand. And you’ll only get to do that if you can manage to find a game; for a title this recent the lobbies are suspiciously empty.

Stranglehold is short, suffers from poor level design, and it’s just not entertaining to play levels one way and one way only. There’s a right way to win, and if you stray from it then you’ll most likely end up dead. This works in movies, but gamers don’t want to be told what to do, how to do it, and when exactly to do it. That’s not fun. That’s work.

Score: 2/5

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