John Woo In Gaming Form
Those who are fans of Hong Kong action cinema likely know director John Woo. Famous for his “gun-ballet” movies filled with tons of action, Mexican standoffs, and slow motion cinematography, many of Woo’s pictures are among the best action films ever made. Movies like The Killer, Bullet in the Head, and Hard Target are some prime examples of Woo’s work, but none shine brighter than Hard Boiled, the 1992 film starring Chinese actor Chow Yun-Fat as inspector “Tequila” Yeun.
It is one of the quintessential actions movies of the 1990s, a blood-soaked soliloquy in a stunning gun ballet that is relentless to the viewers. The film's climax, a massive shootout in a hospital, is still praised to this day by action aficionados, and it is arguably Woo’s masterpiece in terms of filmmaking. Sadly, there would not be a continuation of inspector Tequila’s adventures … until Stranglehold was released in 2007.
Stranglehold is an interesting game to say the least. A movie-based title that acts as an official sequel to Hard Boiled, the game is unique in a lot of ways due to the perfect storm of collaboration between Woo, Chow Yun-Fat, and developer and producer Midway. Midway games have a long and sordid history, so much so an article can be done on them solely. In the mid-2000s, Midway was beginning to struggle as a producer and began over-spending money on unique but ultimately failed projects. This mostly stems from a deal made in March of 2007, where Midway entered a new credit agreement with National Amusements for a total of $90 million, only to have CEO of National Amusements, Sumner Redstone, sell 87% of his shares to other investors, leaving Midway without any choice but to face bankruptcy.
Stranglehold would be released, but it would be one of the last games to be developed by Midway before its eventual closure in early 2009. Out of its final crop of titles, it was perhaps the most solid overall, faithfully attempting to mimic the kinetic style of Hard Boiled and using updated engines to showcase a degree of realism in the product. Stranglehold would be the first Midway title to use the Unreal Engine 3, and part of the in-game development of a new physics engine, Massive Destruction.
Massive Destruction was a new physics engine that gave players the ability to destroy nearly every inanimate object in a given environment. The engine allowed for the world to be shot up and destroyed by inspector Tequila and a horde of triad enemies. The engine also included a hit-detection system that saw enemies react to different body parts when they are shot. The game's AI also responds to these different hotspots, including attempting to recover from non-fatal gunshot wounds and getting back into the fight if they weren’t finished off.
To recreate the gun ballets of Hard Boiled, Midway attempted to create a kinetic action system and use a modified version of bullet time mechanics to pull it off. This “Tequila time” would be a facsimile of Woo’s style, right down to a filter to differentiate it from other games. While in Tequila time, inspector Tequila can utilize his environment to slide across tabletops and swing from the ceiling, all the while continuing to shoot up any enemies in his way.
The mechanics are similar to the Max Payne series, but Max Payne also borrowed the same concepts from Hard Boiled and other action-titles. By 2007, “bullet time” had become a synonymous gameplay mechanic that for many consumers was becoming overused. Stranglehold attempted to change up that perception, but with mixed results overall.
One way Midway tried to mix it up was to add an incentive to interact with the destructible environment. The developers added a point system, represented by stars, to Stranglehold that allowed players to gain bonuses, such as increased damage or defense, in a level. To earn these stars, the player has to kill enemies in quick succession or use the environment to stylishly shoot enemies down. Earn enough points and you can even activate a close up kill-shot—one that follows the bullet as it travels to the target. These point systems would also add to the recreation of Hard Boiled, essentially encouraging players to use their environment through gameplay.
In truth, much of the design of Stranglehold was to create the action-movie experience. The collaboration with Woo and hiring Chow Yun-Fat to reprise his role as Tequila (albeit in voice over) only added to this direction. As such, Stranglehold as a game is rather short, roughly eight to ten hours to get through every level, so Midway included a multiplayer mode to add extra incentive for consumers. The PlayStation 3 collector’s edition also included a Blu-Ray copy of Hard Boiled itself, a bonus that was notably absent for the 360 collector’s edition.
Stranglehold was a mild success upon release and would net Midway over $1 million in sales. Reviews noted the faithful adaptation of the game world to an action movie, but also criticized the repetitive gameplay and lackluster multiplayer. Another issue, however, was a glut of stylized shooters with a larger impact in 2007, notably Halo 3 on the Xbox 360. In comparison to those games, Stranglehold did not stand out, ultimately becoming more of a niche title versus a full-blown, AAA production.
Despite this, Midway had big plans for Stranglehold. For one, a film adaptation was being planned as an official prequel for Hard Boiled, featuring a younger inspector Tequila. Reports in 2010 noted that director Stephen Fung was attached to the project, and would sport a $20 million budget. A sequel to Stranglehold was also beginning production, titled Gun Runner. However, after the closure of Midway in 2009 and the acquisition of several Midway titles by Warner Brothers Interactive, Gun Runner was ultimately cancelled and the Stranglehold movie hasn’t seen the light of day.
The financial woes of Midway cannot be understated, but Stranglehold also contributed to it. Despite making $1 million, Stranglehold costed an estimated $30 million to develop, which at the time was among the most expensive games in production. Stranglehold would not fully recoup those losses, and despite positive reviews would fail to make a major impact as a AAA title, much to the chagrin of Midway itself. This would ultimately contribute to an eventual loss of an estimated $700 million by the end of 2008, forcing Midway to file for bankruptcy in early 2009.
The financial mismanagement of Midway would ultimately lead to the demise of a future for inspector Tequila in video game form. Stranglehold in the end remains a curious game, because it serves as a sort of unique project that combines Hollywood ideas into interactive format. It is proof that you can make a video game like a movie, but also shows the limitations of it as well—creating a title that served a powerful niche, but not a wide audience. Fortunately, that niche has transformed Stanglehold into a cult classic among video games, an action title that is slowly gaining more recognition over time.
Thank you for checking out this instalment of Games You Never Heard Of. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below or contact me on twitter @LinksOcarina.