The Double-A Team is a newish feature series honouring the unpretentious, mid-budget, gimmicky commercial action games that no-one seems to make any more.
Last week, we rummaged through the rubble of Fracture. Today, we slow-mo dive into Stranglehold.
Check out our Double-A Team archive when you’re done – there are some forgotten gems in there!
John Woo and Tom Clancy are embroiled in a mexican standoff on top of a skyscraper in the heart of Chicago. A cold wind brushes John Woo’s cigarette, extinguishing it. He smirks, lets it fall out of his mouth and tumble to the ground, his guns still trained on Tom Clancy’s temple.
This is Tom Clancy’s turf as far as he’s concerned. He’s the one with his name plastered all over shooter game box-art. He’s been here the longest. How dare someone else bust into the industry with such gusto. God, the harness latched around his groin is doing his head in. Keeping his finger poised on the trigger, Tom Clancy raises his other arm, stuffs it quickly in his Kevlar vest and roots about.
Meanwhile, John Woo’s thinking that he really needs to get back, Midway must be wondering where he’s got to. Stranglehold is releasing next week, after all. Suddenly a rattle, followed by a bump at his feet. He lifts his shades, but all he sees is a wisp of Tom Clancy’s hair as he rappels away. He twirls his dual pistols, slots them back in their holsters, readjusts his suit jacket and picks up Clancy’s parting gift.
It’s a copy of Ghost Recon 2: Advanced Warfighter. There’s no disc, just a Waterstones voucher duct-taped in its place. John Woo promptly slides them into the darkness below with the tip of his oxfords.
I like to believe that somewhere, in someone’s attic, there’s a dusty CD containing this very scene. A dodgy marketing clip commissioned by Midway now sadly lost to time, but one which would’ve showcased people running scared of legendary action filmmaker, writer and actor John Woo making his dramatic video game debut with Stranglehold. It’s a third person shooter (naturally) – and a sequel to his ultra-violent film Hard Boiled – in which you take control of its protagonist Inspector “Tequila” Yuen and riddle Hong Kong with bullet holes in slow motion.
Quick question, have you ever seen a duck land on ice? No? That’s a coincidence, so let me smoothly segue into an explanation as to why it reminds me of Stranglehold. (And yes I am wholeheartedly committing to this teetering analogy.)
When a duck comes in for a landing on an icy strip, feathers fully clenched, it’s committed to the act. No matter the consequences, it’s going to do what it set out to do. Touchdown is calamitous by BA standards, and there’s an endless sliding sequence where momentum somehow isn’t lost. They revolve wildly and cover ground at blistering speeds, but amazingly they’re always in total control right up until completion.
This is Stranglehold. This is Inspector Tequila’s extraordinary ability to slide on any surface and yet shoot at the same time: floor, table, railing, food trolley, bar top, all ripe for a slide, all perfect vessels for Tequila Time’s slow-motion capabilities. You don’t need to flop your belly on anything, but you do it because it’s, well, innate. Standing upright becomes precious time wasted, time which could be better spent careering through a market on top of a trolley, pistols in hand, both barrels smoking, chunks of fruit splashing across the screen, dropping billboards on unsuspecting enemies.
All the while, Stranglehold does a superb job of making you feel like you’re a part of Woo’s movie set putting on a performance. Flashy kills net you extra points, so you constantly strive for bonkers environmental kills and look effortlessly cool while doing so. You can almost feel Woo’s presence as film director, standing off camera at each encounter, shouting stuff like “make it zing!” and “more diving!”
One of my favourite abilities is a bit Sniper Ghost Warrior. In carefully orchestrated sequences, you can line up a shot in first person and track your bullet as it whizzes straight into an enemy’s skull or, more amusingly, their Bobby Dazzler. They even react to where you’ve plugged them, which is a neat little touch too.
As is the Double-A curse, there are compromises and shortcomings to underrated genius, though. Stranglehold is home to a number of missions and ‘murky underworld’ plot which make up a five-hour campaign, but truthfully, you only need to play its legendary twenty minute Xbox 360 demo to experience everything it has to offer.
Hold on, though. Perhaps its repetitive nature, its greatest flaw, is actually what makes Stranglehold so delightful. Unofficially, the demo is a “Definitive Edition”, then, the very best of the game distilled into a digestible twenty minutes. A Petri dish of Woo, tipped into a beaker and pipetted straight into your eyeballs.
And with the sheer quality of games which released in 2007 – Halo 3, Mass Effect, Bioshock and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare to name just a few, all with their beefy campaigns, deep stories and plethora of modes – Stranglehold is so unapologetically wedged between them all. I love that anyone who has ever been lucky enough to pluck it from a shelf, whether back in the day, or even now, remembers its bombastic market romp with such an overwhelming fondness it surpasses everything else. This is better than all those other games, because it’s Stranglehold.
(Twelve years later, an armoured SUV pulls up outside a small jazz bar in the backstreets of Hong Kong. 50 Cent steps out, wrenches open the door and spots John Woo nursing a tequila. 50 Cent pulls up a chair beside him and as they both stare into space, he wordlessly slips a card across the table. It reads, “A new console generation is beginning. We need you back John, The Double-A Team x”.)