Gun Runner is the cancelled sequel to John Woo’s Stranglehold game from 2007; which was, in turn, a follow-up to the action movie, Hard Boiled. It was being developed by Midway’s Chicago studio and was slated to be released on the Xbox 360 and PS3 in late 2009.
The title entered pre-production in May 2008, shortly after Stranglehold’s release in September 2007. It was planned to continue the ongoing story of Hard Boiled and Stranglehold. Chow Yun-fat was down to reprise the lead role of the gung-ho Inspector “Tequila”, lending again both his likeness and voice to the character.
A New Identity
Gun Runner was proposed as the start of a campaign to rebrand Stranglehold, in order to increase its mass appeal. Despite taking place after the first game, its story was going to be completely self-contained, one developer told us.
A key aspect of this new direction for the series was the introduction of Vin Diesel. The actor would have voiced another character, alongside Tequila. A former member of the team we got in touch with described Midway’s idea for the two as “a buddy cop story“. Full multiplayer co-operative support was planned for the story mode, wherein players would have each controlled of one of them.
According to one artist we spoke to, who was formerly of Midway, their partnership with Vin Diesel came about as a result of their “good relationship” forged during work on Wheelman. On the subject of whether or not this enigmatic character was Milo Burik, the protagonist of that game, the same source told us that it had been “still up in the air” but “a possibility”.
Tequila Time No More
Despite the level of detail seen in the videos we have archived of Gun Runner, only very early prototypes of the game were ever made. This particular build was hastily put together in no more than a few months. The gameplay, as you can see, maintained only vague similarities to Stranglehold. Its art style and level design were very much alike, but it was, at its core, a completely different game.
Whereas Stranglehold was heavily inspired by the movie works of John Woo, incorporating a slow motion mechanic called ‘Tequila time’, Gun Runner was exploring a new avenue. This is most likely because, unlike its predecessor, Woo is not known to have been directly involved with it during its short time in development. The concept of ‘Tequila time’ was dropped, since the team wanted the two player co-operative mode to be “at the heart of the game” and a number of Stranglehold’s reviews spoke negatively of how the slow-mo was implemented during multiplayer.
Not all of the previously established mechanics were absent from the game, however; as there was a new spin on the ‘precision aim’ ability. ‘Precious aim’ was another of Tequila’s powers, which allowed you to slow time and accurately aim on the body of an enemy, before releasing a single, fatal shot. In Gun Runner, there were situations in which the player would have to decide where to aim on enemies to relinquish hostages from their grasp.
Gun Runner was set up to be a fairly straightforward duck and cover shooter with the over the top sensibilities of a big budget action film. The ability to sprint had been added, as well as a team revival mechanic a la Gears of War. Destructible environments had played a part in the previous game, which had various hazards Tequila could activate, such as signs he could collapse onto enemies by shooting them. Midway wanted their follow-up to take these ideas even further, to the point at which the player could cause entire building structures to crumble from mere gunfire.
The Opening Mission
The first prototype level of the title, which was the most complete example of what had been produced, took place in the Czech Republican capital of Prague. The duo storm a hotel crawling with gang members and a savage shootout erupts in the lower lobby. Players advance gradually up the floors of the facility, taking out any enemies in their path, weaving in and out of the tower on fire escapes.
At one point, the lights are cut and you’re required to carefully negotiate some dark corridors, remaining cautious of possible ambushes. One of the game’s aforementioned hostage situations breaks out and upon successfully freeing the individual, a female scientist, you escort her through the rest of the floor. Inevitably, the “professor”, as she is referred to as, is killed suddenly when a wrecking ball crashes into the room. Immediately prior to this, we hear the only examples of in-game dialogue, which we have transcribed for your reference.
Enemy: “Answer me, doctor! Where’s the fucking prototype?”
Professor (at gunpoint): “Let me go.”
Diesel: “Tell us about the prototype. You designed it, right?”
Professor: “Yeah… I was team leader on the project, the MG-106… I’m sorry, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”
Following the surprise onslaught from outside, the floor collapses beneath the two in a canned cinematic. They fall through and another fight breaks out before the pair find their path obscured by wreckage. They are required to utilise a window cleaning cradle to make their way up the side of the building, dispatching any further hostiles in the process. It all culminates with a rooftop showdown against a hoard of non-specific hostiles in riot gear, who arrive via helicopter.
In another big twist on the formula, Gun Runner was set to feature elaborate car chase sequences. During co-op, one player would be in control of a vehicle and the other would be tasked with firing at enemy pursuers through the window. Otherwise, these sections would be on-rails and the player would have to fend off the other cars by shooting them, while an AI steered. Although, in the prototype created, only an on-rails segment was ever implemented. Interactive cutscenes were planned, as well.
The Technical Side of Things
This build of the title was developed for the Xbox 360 and ran in a modified version of the Stranglehold engine, based around the framework of Unreal Engine 3. To speed up work on the prototype, Midway imported various other assets from their internal library, such as the driving infrastructure and Vin Diesel’s model from Wheelman. One developer told us that, had the game ever been put into full development, these would have been replaced and were “only for prototype purposes”.
The team had also intended to use motion capture tech for cinematics, although never got this far along. All of the voiceover seen in the prototype was recorded by members of the development crew, instead of professional actors, as placeholders. None of the voice cast lined up for Gun Runner ever got as far as recording lines for the game. Here is a test video of said mo-cap technology in action:
What Happened To It?
After Midway’s Chicago branch had worked on the project for several months, the prototype was, in the words of one developer, “early but very much playable“. However, the larger company, Midway Games, was rife with financial trouble. This lead to the higher ups cancelling this form of the game in December 2008 without any formal public announcement being about it. The title never made it out of the pre-production phase, but thanks to several anonymous sources who were involved with its development, we are able to preserve plenty of media and information from it.
Towards the end, Midway attempted to salvage the project by reworking it into a completely different game. Stepping back from the ambitions of having famous actors and huge action set pieces, the company was drawing plans for it to become an open-world experience; also under the name of “Gunrunner” (no spaces).
This version of the title was imagined as being set largely in Eastern Europe and was centred on two undercover agents working to dismantle the international gun trade. Like its forerunner, Gunrunner was going to be fully co-operative. One player would have been an up-and-coming rookie agent, and the other his older, bearded mentor.
Not even this reconfigured iteration of the game would ultimately survive, sadly, as Midway’s monetary issues were too great. The company was in debt by over $100,000,000 at this point, including $150,000,000 in loans owed to Wells Fargo. By the end of December, the project had been shut down in its entirety. They would later file for bankruptcy in February 2009.
The second Gunrunner game only got as far as having conceptual documents produced for it, including looks at its characters, menus and general visual stylings. Fortunately, we have been able to archive a good amount of what was created.
The existence of the first Gun Runner initially came to the attention of the wider gaming press in 2012, when former Midway dev, Sean Lantis, posted a video reel of his work on the prototype over on Vimeo. Lantis was the VFX lead on the project, in charge of such aspects as visual effects and rendering the destructible environments.
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