Not content to let it lie Hax Monster takes a look at Sleeping Dogs

Posted by: Jason Silverain / Category: , ,

So yeah, the internet is going nuts about Fallout 4, Halo number 200 or such and a remake of a ten year old Star Wars game, so guess what I’m going to talk about? I’m going to talk about a game that most people have only heard of because of that they mixed it up with something that wasn’t really better but was simply hyped up more. About the bombastic carnival of new releases of old IP, I can only say that I probably won’t be reviewing any of that anytime soon. My excuse for that is that I want to create some ‘ historical distance’ for the sake of fair and objective judgement, but really I can’t be bothered to play that quickly or buy three games for 60 euros each. The hype for the current parade of mommy-says-I’m-pretty generic AAA titles reminds me a bit of Watch Dogs in 2012. With it’s trailer, shinier than a mirror in the silverware shop, it presented itself as the new video-game messiah that would lead us to the promised land. When the damned thing finally showed it’s bloody face more than two years later it was played by everyone and forgotten by everyone in a matter of weeks. It wasn’t crucified for it’s horrible quality or anything similar, but people simply forgot it. The current excitement for new instalments and the memory of Watch Dogs remind me once again that the shiniest silverware is probably so shiny because it’s just made out of tin foil. 
Therefore it’s worth looking a few metres further and if you did so in 2012 you would come across Sleeping Dogs. Most likely a fair number of people will only have heard of this game because of that they mixed it up with Watch Dogs and when they realised their mistake they just let the sleeping dogs lie. That is really a shame in my opinion, because although Sleeping Dogs may very well have been the under appreciated underdog (teeheehee) of the two and was never destined for greatness, I enjoyed it a lot more than Ubisoft’s faux messiah. 

Sleeping Dogs is a sandbox set in Hong Kong starring Wei Chen, a Chinese American sent by the police to infiltrate the organized crime network of the triads. He then builds up his career in the triads while also doing some actual police work to solve a few crimes, whenever he isn’t busy committing them. So essentially this sounds like a far-east Grand Theft Auto that can’t decide if it’s about being a cop or a criminal, but in terms of feeling and gameplay the two differ a bit. Where Grand Theft Auto is the predictable cocktail of shooting and driving, Sleeping Dogs tries to be eastern in more than just setting and brings extensive martial-arts style melee combat to the fray. The entire system isn’t that complicated with nothing more than a lock-on system, a few basic attacks and combo’s and counters, but since it’s all so smooth it gets really satisfying if you manage to fight off a big horde of baddies. It’s just a shame that that doesn’t stop the fighting from being a bit repetitive most of the time. Besides the punch-ups the game also employs an assassins-creed style free-running mechanic during some missions.

 There is only three of them, this will be easy.

Setting also sets the game apart from other sandboxes in that you will hear your fair share of Cantonese and have to drive on the left side of the road suddenly, which is a surprise that I guarantee will cost you the first car you drive. This might seem trivial but this kind of stuff does very well immerse you in the setting and if the game succeeds at immersing you in any other setting than your generic old American city, that really contributes to the game’s uniqueness. 

 Absolutely beautiful and as usual bikes are the best way to explore it.
With fighting and setting being the smooth butter that Sleeping Dogs wisely decided to spread over the dry boring cracker that is the GTA formula, that cracker is still the same old cracker but even a bit dryer than normally. Driving and gunplay are very much inferior to that of other sandboxes. As far as driving is concerned, you can switch to any connected Xbox-controllers at any time but even then the acceleration and braking of cars feels very rather clumsy and plasticky. Then there’s the gunplay, which doesn’t feel the slightest bit real with nearly no recoil and laser-pointer accuracy. This makes shooting sections so easy that they don’t feel like gameplay, but more like a formality, placing it in the same category as pressing the ‘next’ key in a dialogue. Guns also are very powerful, especially against melee enemies. Because of their power you can’t have free access to guns in free roam so the game’s (very limited) collection of boomsticks is practically only available in fenced-off sections which I think is a shame because I could use such an easy way to let the pork bun salesman know what I think of his constant nagging. With their enormous damage, having guns lying around at any corner in the world would not work very well (which, looking at the US gun policy, also applies to real life) because you could erase any threat from the game world faster than you could by dragging the character out of the game into the recycle bin on your desktop. However, the gun sections are already begging for balancing measures, so that’s no reason to not give us free guns. 

 A left, then a right then go straight for five minutes..
In other departments too things are not quite that organic. With this being one of those sandboxes that just consists of a lot of intertwining pathways instead of just one big world of which every square centimetre is accessible, feeling free to make your way straight across the tropical island of Hong Kong is out of the question. The free-running has a similar problem in that it isn’t quite ‘free’. When you are actually in the world driving is really the only way to get somewhere because of that, outside of a few linear paths used during missions, there is nothing you can climb over which really wastes the potential. The other problem with the running is that it also isn’t quite like running. It shares the Assassin’s Creed problem in that you can just hold a button to automatically move over every obstacle. Pressing one single button when you encounter an obstacle only makes you go a little bit faster. That doesn’t at all feel like climbing, but more like a hidden quick time event. So with free-running that is not free and is not like running, all we are left with is a button mashing event. 

Then there’s a severe lack of sandbox activities that the player can engage in at any time. I know that this is one of those sandbox games that really revolve around the missions and where the world is only for the sake of immersion and commuting between missions, but when I get bored I also want to have the freedom to do a bunch of arbitrary side activities. Grand Theft Auto lets me do taxi missions, Just Cause 3 lets me staple civilians to my car using the hookshot, but in Sleeping Dogs there is nothing like that, except for a few identical fight clubs, cock fights and hijackable (yes, that’s a word) security trucks. 

 Lets not forget Street Racing!
Now you might ask: ‘Then what are we here for? Sandboxes are about freedom and gameplay, and if both are lacking here then we might as well go back to playing Grand Theft Auto V’. Note that if you are so quickly deterred by the unknown that you run back to GTA five’s warm embrace at the first sight of something new, I sincerely hope we don’t meet. After all, there are more things in life than guns and cars. As to why we are here, I answer: because Snoozing Hounds has feelings in it. Sleeping Dogs must be the first modern-day set crime sandbox that actually made me feel a bit of the emotions that the main character must be experiencing. Whenever a game makes me feel like I actually have some emotions left in that empty husk that is my soul I am willing to shake it’s hand until I erode it to dust.

With Wei working full-time for a criminal organisation, he is torn between his loyalty to the law and his ties to his new family. This central plot element would be no more than another chewed-out cliché if I hadn’t felt a thing for either side, but the game very nicely manages to make you bond with these ruthless murderers, depicting them as your family in a very convincing way. This is played out by having you do more activities with them than going on murder sprees. There are literally missions that involve you going shopping with some people in the triads. This seems completely pointless, but stuff like this can, if the writing is good enough, really get you to bond with these characters. That way you, as a player, forget that you are still an undercover rozzer and think of these criminals as your friends. Consequently, whenever you see one poor bastard get cleaved to death in a butcher’s shop by your new ‘family’, you come down from that feeling like a derailed rollercoaster and when a game achieves shock like this I think it has reached a pretty high goal as far as storytelling is concerned. 

 Believe it or not you will grow to like these guys.
Sometimes the most seemingly useless parts of a game can make it shine and Napping Canines is a good example of this. When you are in your own house, you are able to pee in the toilet and wash your hands. Pointlessness again? In the literal sense of the word it is indeed pointless, because moving the camera during the peeing animation showed me that Wei has no penis, but in a more figurative sense there is indeed a point to this. Letting the player do ancillary nonsense like this can really make the game world feel like a real place and in combination with the aforementioned left-hand driving and Cantonese, Hong Kong sucks you in like a starved sarlac. 
In spite of that there are a few weird things sometimes going on. The game has the tendency to be quite buggy. Cars quite often sink into the world geometry, which causes a sea of sparks that would almost make you think someone is celebrating the Chinese new year. Also, three NPC’s that were supposed to be running from the police on one occasion ran into a traffic barrier and just kept running into the wall like they were practising their stationary moonwalk. Also, much to my personal amusement, in one mission where you are chased by enemy cars, the NPC driving my car got stuck while exiting the freeway. Meanwhile, enemy cars kept spawning in which were immediately shot to bits by me. Soon I had created a collection of destroyed cars that could rival that of the Top Gear set after a busy recording day. One thing that is not a bug but just plain weird is a recurring side mission that involves, among other things, looking at security camera footage and finding a drug dealer who is within your view. That guy is always the only guy standing by himself, wildly gesturing with always the same suit. What is even more weird is that, if you don’t select him within literally 10 seconds or so the game points him out for you. That is so ridiculously easy that I don’t understand that they went through the effort to make this an entire series of side missions. 

 Top Gear: Sleeping Dogs Edition.
I just want to zoom in on one aspect of the immersive story to exemplify a more general theme. Games and sexuality are an interesting topic. They can be a good combination but don’t always mix. As a general rule of thumb, sexuality can be a great tool to show character development, but if it does not add anything, is oversexualized or is not quite gender-equal it takes you out of the experience like a bucket of cold water because then the developers only put it there because they thought that the audience, and then primarily the male half, would enjoy watching it. But in reality, it has the same effect as, say, making a horror movie which is suddenly intercut with a slideshow that shows pretty landscapes. When there is no connection it may be as pretty as you like but that won’t lead to a better movie or game.

Sleeping Dogs is a good example of a proper execution in this area. Wei has a few sexual moments after a bunch of dating missions with some women. It isn’t much; just some suggestive noises and a camera that looks away. Come to think of it, since we have established that Wei has no penis and since we don’t see one thing of what’s going on it could just as well be that he and his girlfriend are getting rather excited about an engaging game of Scrabble. This helps show how much Wei considers the triads to be his family, as he is even getting into relationships with people in the criminal society. Also, this for once depicts a human side of the normally almost robotic, all-powerful protagonist. Another example of proper execution is Far Cry 3, where (spoiler) Citra’s seduction is an influence in the decision the player has to make at the last moment. Then there are games like Ride to Hell: Retribution or The Witcher 2 that don’t give context, meaning or personality to the nudity or the people involved in it. That is really a design decision that I despise. 
Sleeping Dogs isn’t new IP, since it’s a continuation of the ‘True Crime’ series, which makes it so surprising that it took a relatively fresh approach to sandbox games with it’s own mix of gameplay types and special setting. Where Watch Dogs and maybe even Grand Theft Auto V were the metaphorical tin foil vases in the silverware shop, Sleeping Dogs is the beautiful Ming vase hidden beneath the floorboards. It just goes to show that looking further is rewarding.
Next time around I’ll (sky)dive into Just Cause 3.

Silverain here I have to agree with most of Hax Momsters review here but there were a few little details I wanted to expand upon. First of the the excellent melee combat system is combined with a brutal environment use mechanic which can see you outright murdering your attackers by ramming their faces into whatever is nearby such as various signs, stalls or (the one that made me flinch the first time I saw it) into ventilation fans. Your fighting style also expands over the course of the game resulting in attacks that can one shot most basic thugs however like most games that involve a fluid fighting system such as this there are particular enemies that are immune to certain attacks and frustratingly as the game progresses in sections these become the norm rather than the exception making many of the attacks you have somewhat useless and dragging out combat.  Likewise the gun combat is somewhat sudden and frustrating with death coming out of nowhere at first but when guns are involved you know the stakes are suddenly all that much higher, with the decent enemy disarming and cover system it actually becomes rather fluid to combine tackling a guy to steal his shotgun shoot him dead before taking cover firing a few shots before tacking the next gun wielding thug.

 You should see there reaction after you really mess someone up.
The city itself was a delight to explore and experience with it been generally more beautiful and alive than many other sandboxes but the shallow level of interaction made me wish there was more I could do, that said there are numerous cheap DLC's for the game that were released sometime afterwards that added several additional aspects for the game but just as many were simply extra costumes.

Story line wise Sleeping Dogs made me feel like I was playing every old cop film at once and I loved it, if I had any issue is that in points of the game there are time skips that are not exactly clear at first and I often felt that it would have been more appropriate to add a additional mission or two to explain just how Wei gained the trust of the triad so quickly, that said much like the city itself the game had me immersed and wanting more and I was a bit sad once it was all over.


Post a Comment