Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Sleeping Dogs for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Sleeping Dogs had a very troubled development cycle, and was in fact cancelled for several months last year. Originally intended as part of Activision’s GTA clone ‘True Crime’ series, originally known as ‘True Crime: Hong Kong’, the lack of success for the previous game in the series and concerns about how a single player focused game would perform (this is Activision after all) led to its cancellation. Although I’d had absolutely no interest in the series before, the prospect of an open world crime game set outside of America intrigued me, and the free running aspect shown in trailers looked appealing too. I was therefore rather saddened to hear of its cancellation, and equally pleased to hear of its revival by Square Enix as ‘Sleeping Dogs.’ The answer to the question as to whether Square Enix should have bothered rescuing this game is a resounding yes, as Sleeping Dogs delivers possibly the definitive open world crime game experience so far, although it also exposes the need for further innovations in the genre.

The real star of the game is the city itself, Hong Kong. It is so incredibly refreshing to be playing in somewhere outside of the US, and Hong Kong makes an excellent location for a sandbox game, being an island which such games naturally favour. Hong Kong looks best at night, with the neon glow creating a wonderfully seedy atmosphere. Although Hong Kong is a great setting visually, other aspects somewhat let down the immersion. Nothing quite breaks immersion like bad voice acting, and although the voice work for the main characters is excellent throughout, that of the random pedestrians more often than not devolve into ridiculous stereotyping. Rather than opting for the pedestrians to speak in Cantonese with the odd bit of English thrown in, as is apparently the norm of Hong Kong, we are instead get broken English in a silly accent. It feels uncomfortably like pandering to a Western audience, and I wish that the developers had been slightly braver and trusted us with subtitles. Overall though, although Hong Kong may not feel as organic and lived in as Liberty City did back in GTA4, it is still an excellent location for a sandbox game and a lot of fun to explore.

The main deviation from GTA that the True Crime series had is that the protagonist is an undercover cop rather than merely a gangster. Although I’m unaware how well this was played in the True Crime games, it is very well handled here. You are Wei Shen, a Chinese-American man who grew up in Hong Kong but worked in the US for most of his adult life. Due to his somewhat brutal and violent nature, Wei is recruited by Superintendent Pendrew  of the Hong Kong police department to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, one of the leading criminal Triads in the city. Wei has contacts with the organisation from his previous life growing up in Hong Kong, and soon makes contact with an old friend to bring himself into the organisation, working in classic GTA style all the way to the top. Although the story doesn’t really offer much that hasn’t been done before, what Sleeping Dogs does really well is to convey the difficulties that Wei has in reconciling his conflicting loyalties. Wei, and by extension the player, forms close friendships within members of the Sun On Yee, fully in the knowledge that he must one day betray them. Wei is one of that most rare breed; a badass who is also capable of being emotionally engaging. A lot of credit must go to Wei’s voice actor, Will Yun Lee, for his excellent work in helping to create the best protagonist of an open world game since Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston.

Purely in terms of its mechanics, Sleeping Dogs puts other games in the genre to shame. Of particular note is the hand to hand combat, arguably the weakest aspect of GTA4, which fits into the Arkham Asylum/Assassins Creed mould. The player is encouraged to use the environment to their advantage, with often brutally violent context sensitive attacks giving the combat a real sense of flow and dynamism until now lacking in the genre. The driving mechanics have a pleasantly arcade-y feel to them, which make the inevitable races genuinely exciting affairs. Gun crime isn’t nearly as prevalent in Hong Kong as it is in the US, and the game matches this. The shooting aspect is very clearly secondary to the hand to hand combat, and never manages to be as entertaining as grabbing your foe and wrestling them off a roof. That said, the shooting mechanics are very much competent, and also has a well implemented bullet time mechanic. The cover system isn’t truly awful, but isn’t any better than 2008’s GTA4’s. Wei handles much more naturally than Niko Bellic, with a rather fun free running aspect giving the world a rather more tangible feeling than is the norm for the genre. It never approaches Assassin’s Creed levels of freedom, and it is mostly useful in linear chase scenes, but  at least it’s something.

There’s a lot to do in this game, with the main missions split between cop missions and Triad missions. Triad missions tend to be a bit more action packed and entertaining, and sadly the cop missions are something of a letdown. They often take a slower pace and require investigation, but these largely involve following a series of objective markers, requiring absolutely no critical thought of your own. Perhaps a little bit of LA Noire and a little less GTA should have gone into this game; the game does a great job of making you feel like a Triad with a secret, but Wei never feels convincing as a cop, perhaps due to the incredibly hand holding nature of these missions. There are your standard open world crime game side missions around, such as stealing particular cars and debt collection, as well as an incredibly repetitive series of missions which involve beating up a load of thugs, hacking a camera, going back to your house, and spying on a drug deal. It’s mostly fun enough, but there’s nothing that leaps out as particularly amazing, especially coming fairly recently from the unabashed craziness of Saints Row: The Third.

Sleeping Dogs is a good looking game by and large, although the textures aren’t incredibly detailed. There’s a specific time in Sleeping Dogs which looks utterly beautiful, and that is at night in the rain. The reflection of the neon lights in the puddles on the ground is stunning, and created a wonderful sense of immersion like nothing else in the game. Like many games releasing lately, Sleeping Dogs really pushes what current generation consoles can do. Although I played on Xbox myself, I’ve heard that the PC version is much better looking. The faces of the characters are expressive, whilst not reaching LA Noire levels of detail. Still, there is no uncanny valley effect here and it’s easy to tell what people are feeling just by looking at their face, a seeming basic which is absent in so many otherwise great games (I’m looking at you Skyrim). The voice acting for the main characters is excellent, with most characters weaving English and Cantonese throughout their speech, although there’s an unsurprising focus upon English. I can’t help but feel that perhaps this game would have been more immersive if more of it had been in Cantonese, but I suppose I can understand why a major game company wouldn’t want to fund a game primarily in a language unspoken by their main target audience. For what it is however, the voice acting is engaging and avoids stereotypes (with the exception of the random pedestrians as mentioned earlier).

Although Sleeping Dogs is very much the apex of the genre, it exposes the need for true innovation. With each new GTA game, Rockstar change the entire landscape. After GTA3, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA3, and after GTA4, all open world crime games tried to be like GTA4. There are therefore two distinct phases in the genre, and I feel that Sleeping Dogs represents the end of the ‘GTA4’ phase. Although the game is a lot of fun, there is a strong feeling that something more needs to be done with the concept of the open world crime game. With the release of GTA5 next year, I’m fully confident that this will happen. As it stands, Sleeping Dogs is a very polished and incredibly fun game. Will I still be thinking about it in six months? Unlikely, but not every game needs to be chock full of innovation and creativity. Sometimes it’s ok to just create an incredibly polished experience that builds upon the shoulders of giants. With Sleeping Dogs as the last game of the ‘GTA4’ phase, I’m pleased to report that this period of open world crime games goes out on a high.  

 

 

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