California Literary Review

Video Game Review: Sleeping Dogs

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September 4th, 2012 at 11:41 am

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Sleeping Dogs

Release Date: August 14th (US) – 17th (AU/EU), 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix
Genre: Hong Kong Action Movie/GTA Clone
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: About 6-8 Hours (Story), 20-30 (Open World)

CLR Rating: ★★★★☆


Kung Fu Hustle and Bustle with Muscle

“A delayed game is eventually good; a bad game is bad forever.” — Shigeru Miyamoto

Wise words from gaming’s venerable high master of whimsy notwithstanding, exceedingly long development cycles are just as often gigantic neon warning signs as they are an indication that the game will be as polished as Andy Dufresne’s rock collection. For every long delayed game that becomes a curse breaking Batman: Arkham Asylum a transcendental Fez or a game-changer like Resident Evil 4, there’s just as much a chance that it could become a disappointing mess of conflicting ideas like L.A. Noire or Diablo 3. The sign burns brighter when major shifts in the IP rights hit mid-development, and when total publisher transfers start occurring, well, that that’s when you can hear the Robot from Lost In Space start screaming.

Such is the case with the long and rocky development of United Front Games Sleeping Dogs, an original title started by a bunch of industry vets that became a threequel in Activision’s troubled True Crime franchise, before rumors of dubious quality and lacking confidence from the ol’ Kotick exploitation machine left it dead-in-the-water canceled. Then, in a turn of events closer to a feel-good sports movie than reality, Square Enix tossed a life preserver in the form of a promise to publish and assistance from their London team to bring it in to the finish line. As underdog development stories go, it’s not a Duke Nukem Forever legend of terrible decision making, but it’s not exactly a sign that everything was going to turn out golden either.

But now, finally, Sleeping Dogs is out. The work is done, the code is locked, the discs have been printed and the only real question left is where it stands in Miyamoto’s best catechism; did the constant travails and subsequent delays ultimately lead to a quality adventure, or would it have been best to let this beast lie and stay bad forever?

Ah Hong Kong! Home to tall buildings, crowded streets, and a million bootleg DVD salesmen!

Taking massive cues from Hong Kong action cinema, especially “Heroic Bloodshed” classics like City on Fire and Infernal Affairs (better known in the U.S. for its remake The Departed), Sleeping Dogs has players step into the shoes of Wei Shen, a modern Chinese supercop who fights like Bruce Lee, flips over display cases like Jackie Chan, and shoots like Chow Yun Fat. Wei’s been tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee Triad by going deep undercover and bringing them down from the inside. It’s an already dangerous task made all the more complicated by an impending civil war between the Triad’s leaders, not to mention the corruption, lies, and self-doubt that undercover agents in action dramas always deal with; there are enough betrayals here to win a Revolver Ocelot Award.

Coming with the mistrustful territory are the many testosterone fueled confrontations that are sure to become slashfic. Perhaps one day they’ll serve as the basis of Fifty Shades of Wei?

More than the setting of a semi-exotic city rarely seen in gaming or an underworld culture where Kung-Fu fighting isn’t just a song, it’s the undercover angle of Sleeping Dogs that truly separates the experience from the many open-world Grand Theft Auto clones out there. Primarily the idea serves as an excuse for Wei to partake in the unbelievably dangerous and destructive mob jobs that make for exciting gameplay while still ostensibly remaining a “good guy” – the best you could say of the sociopathic GTA protagonists is that they’re “heroic by default” since they (mostly) kill men worse than themselves – but it also allows for some genuine pathos to emerge as Wei struggles with the duplicitous nature of his situation. Over the course of the game’s 6-30 hours (depending on how long you get sidetracked with the MANY side missions) Wei is forced to confront the fact that not all criminals are without honor, and not all cops are decent or without sin, himself included.

It’s a narrative arc that, while not always fresh – you’ll predict most of the major story beats well in advance – and not without faults – the angry conversations between Wei and his handler get Oscar baiting intensity before they’re built up enough to earn it – never loses sight of its purpose and delivers its beats well without falling prey to the common problems of videogame storytelling seen in the recent Deadlight: maudlin overacting and terrible dialogue. While this is in no small part due to an able script by Adam Foshko and Tyler Burton Smith along with Image-Metrics software providing decent facial expression, mention must be made of the impressive cast culled for the game. Stalwarts like James Hong, Tom Wilkinson, and Lucy Liu all prove reliable in their limited roles, but the game’s emotional core rests on the friendship between Wei Shen and his friend Jacki Ma, so it really comes down to the performances of their respective actors, Will Yun Lee and Edison Chen, to seal the deal and well, they completely nail it.

Thanks to a surprisingly good Karaoke mini-game, we discover that Will Yun Lee is quite the singer. I smell musical in the future! Sleeping Dogs: Turn off the Dim Mak anyone?

It’s a welcome enough surprise that the story is as solid as it is, but this is still a video game, and like Shakespeare once said, “the play’s the thing” (even if that’s obviously not what he meant), so how is that exactly?

As befitting any open world gangster game verisimilitude of gameplay is a key factor, though not necessarily original as most of Sleeping Dogs’s mission types have been seen before: car thefts, heists and hits with assorted criminal misfits, lots of outfits and cars to buy, and a bunch of mini-games including the now obligatory illegal street racing scene (and a surprisingly solid hacking game) all show up. There are some notable oddities and frustrations, like the buggy Cock Fight and Mahjong gambling games, and the palsy-like screen shake that occurs when you drive, which took as much time to get used to as driving on the left side of the road thanks to my American habits. But for the most part, all of these various game mechanics have a workmanlike competence even if none are likely to wow.

Far more likely to impress is the incompetence of whoever built the cars that explode like TNT-laced Pintos during chase sequences.

More notable mechanics over the other titles of this ilk lie with the combat systems, of which there are two: Martial Arts Melees and Gun Ballet Battles. As with the rest of the systems, neither is groundbreaking – the kung fu used to beat foes until they resemble Mark Hominick is heavily inspired by the Batman Arkham X system but with less impressive animation, and the gunplay (easily the weaker of the two mechanics), other than a simplistic and frankly overpowered slow motion effect that triggers whenever you vault over an object is pretty standard 3rd Person cover shooter fare. Without more insane stunts like bannister sliding or dive shooting it’s not up to the John Woo-tastic Inspector Tequila level you might expect (though that’s what Stranglehold was for), rather settling into a “gets the job done” Deputy Jager zone.

Whereas the shooting is a bit blasé, the fisticuffs include enough tweaks and improvements that they manage to carve a unique identity apart from its borrowed origin. Combination attacks, temporary weapons and improvised environmental kills create an aggressive and brutal mentality quite distinct from the more methodical Batman brawls, while rather solid grappling mechanics and enemy intimidation inject a flow to the street fighting more in line with the 70’s Kung-Fu flicks the system draws further inspiration from. Snapping a thug’s knee and giving him a Lance Armstrong’s chance at winning the next Tour de France for example, causes the combative crowd around to wince in sympathy and fear; such moments give these battles the much needed personality and gruesome satisfaction that the dull gunplay simply lacks.

Over the course of the game Wei learns many new fighting techniques, but the strongest by far ends up being the “Fragrance of the Blossoming Gym Sock Kick”

If there’s any truly problematic aspect to Sleeping Dogs, it’s the overall game balance, which is just wacky. For example, the aforementioned melee combat is rather challenging at the outset, yet if you spend any time exploring the city you’ll quickly find enough magical health increasing shrines to negate the threat of the enemies who never get stronger. This task gets made even easier if you go on the various dating side missions – mostly charming tromps that hammer home Wei’s masculinity and commitment phobia – as each ends with an incredibly powerful boon of highlighting one of the various collectible items (including the health shrines) on your mini-map, which clobbers the point of them being hidden collectibles.

This exact situation, boons that negate the purpose of other mechanics, occurs repeatedly. To further simulate the undercover cop angle, Wei gains Police and Triad experience points on two separate gauges as you complete missions; a solid concept. However the very first Cop upgrade is either useless because it’s for guns (which don’t appear till a third of the way through the game) or it’s a Slim Jim used instantly steal parked cars, thus eliminating any risk of stealing one! This can also be seen with the other XP gauge measuring your reputation, Face, which continually gives advantages that eliminate costs in what are otherwise solid risk/reward situations (like midfight health regeneration when you normally need to consume an item).

As these often too helpful upgrades increasingly make a mostly easy game a challenge akin to a tutorial on tying your shoes, and the missions end up becoming more and more rote as a result, the metagame distribution of Cop, Triad, and Face points becomes noticeably misproportioned. While it’s difficult to gain Cop points on story missions as it requires you to minimize collateral damage (unlikely with so many pedestrians and parking meters in your way), you can gain a plethora of them doing simplistic drug busts or the subplot-like series of investigation missions, while Face points are handed out like candy for the endless “Favors” you do for the citizenry. The result is that your Triad points noticeably lag behind the other two which can max out very early in the game, further reinforcing the imbalance!

Also, it’s just odd that you can’t be truly penalized for Cop XP for the rampant destruction you cause during all of this. Lord knows the Hong Kong PD is going to get dissolved once the resultant lawsuits come pouring in.

So yeah, there are some issues with the overall structure to put it mildly. This is especially the case with the later missions. With a notable exception of a level solely about pulling pranks to screw with a character’s Feng Shui, you’ve done everything there is to do by the halfway point, and everything starts to repeat and remix in increasingly familiar iterations which again, due to the poor balance, aren’t challenging enough to warrant much excitement despite all the explosions.

While the narrative meanders a bit with the missions in its second half, Sleeping Dogs is comparatively short to what it apes (actual GTA games are notoriously long), and can be completed quickly enough to allow Wei’s mostly decent story to come to a satisfying conclusion, and while none of the multitudinous gameplay mechanics are particularly inspired (aside from the close quarters combat), neither are they noticeably bad. In the end, Sleeping Dogs is a decent to even occasionally great adventure for most of the time you’ll spend with it, as long as you don’t expect much out of it. It beats the odds of its legacy not because it’s original, nor because it’s that well-crafted, but mostly because it never screws up enough to make you forget the enjoyable bits.

Like most of the goods you’ll find for sale on a Hong Kong street corner, Sleeping Dogs is a knock-off. But like every lady who just happened to find an “insane deal” on a Prada Handbag there, you’ll still be able to enjoy it.

(Just don’t look too closely at the stitching.)

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Sleeping Dogs Trailer

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