Sleeping Dogs Review

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I literally choose everything I review by looking at something and saying, “That one’ll do for this week or given time period.”  And I decided that the best way to wash out the taste of a cold deconstruction of a genre I am unfamiliar with, is with an urban sandbox game!  One that I would’ve probably never cared about, if not for the fact that it was one of the handful of cancelled games to be revived completely, and it got an ill fitting name.  Really? There are no dogs in this tale of Sleeping Dogs!

Sleeping Dogs Review
Release Date: 14/8/2012
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC
Developers: United Front Games, Square Enix London
Publisher: Square Enix

First off, I think it is worth noting that the only urban sandbox titles that I’ve played were the Saints Row trilogy.  Mostly because some of my criticism with this game can be countered with, “But pretty much every urban sandbox does that”.  Assuming that the norm should always remain the norm, and never be questioned.

Sleeping Dogs centers around Wei Shen.  An undercover cop who left his crime riddled American past and went back to his hometown of Hong Kong in order to use his knowledge of gangs, persuasion, martial arts, gunplay, street racing, and time manipulation to good use.  Thus sparking a fairly confusing plot filled with unexplained factions, many characters but few important, with even less to empathize with.  Now, maybe I was just not the target audience for this mix between the genre and Hong Kong action flicks, but I have no clue what a Triad gang is, other than it would mean that there were three of them.  If Sun On Yee is an actual faction.  Or what exactly a Red Pole is.

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But it all amounts to a story that brings up the conflicting values between leading a double life, intermittent with grabbing and tossing women onto asphalt, because you liked their blouse.  Now, this has been a running gag since people tried making jokes about things being video games.  But at least as Link is tossing pots in order to get rupees, he is not talking about making a good impression on the people of this town.

When crafting the protagonist of your game, you need to primarily think less of what would be a good character and what would be a more fitting character.  Using my single example self imposed limitation, throughout the Saints Row series, the protagonist never really felt out of place doing anything they did.  The first title left the main character a mute except for about 4 lines, so you could impose your own character to fit the mold, and it would never feel “wrong”.  While the sequels both gave them a personality, that of someone who was pretty damn evil.  The first thing you do in Saints Row 2 is stab a doctor, the next thing you do is get naked and ride a motorcycle as the game sees how long you can keep it up.  Before throwing doo-doo across the business district.

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Here, you are shown Wei’s struggles as he tries to decide what is right, and feels bad about murder, even after you had him send a motorcyclist flying into the air because you rammed him.  And beyond that, the entire story has a sense of being too serious for its own good.  Betrayals, deaths, torture by a 100 kilo woman with a cleaver.  All interspersed with trying to shoot out cars to get the most points, or shoving a head into a fish tank.  It’s a shame, because I can see that they tried very hard to make a cinematic experience, but the set genre makes it almost impossible to do a completely straight faced serious story of any kind.  Or at least do it well.

However, if you removed the story bits and kept the straight gameplay, I have far fewer problems.  In the bits of marketing I heard around the game, I recall hearing one of the developers claim that they wanted this title to have the polish of three different titles, to which I can’t help but laugh.  In no order more complicated than beyond how they were introduced.  The on-foot sections where you lack a firearm are a mix between a parkour system that can be contextual, but how’d you climb up a skyscraper anyhow?  In itself, it manages to make traveling off foot enjoyable, but makes me tilt an eyebrow in terms of the button commands.  Hold A to run, press A to go over objects?  Your run dies down after A is let go, but it seems confusing as to why this is just one button.  Mind you, it is certainly fun and more than a bit empowering to be able to just climb a fence while running after some bozo who stole your health replenishing ice cream money, same with climbing on a car, but because you felt like it.

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While the game’s melee combat system has been compared to the Batman Arkham games, while I only see the mono attack buttons and flash based Y counters to be similar.  Most of the combat is devising combos of pressing X lightly and holding it, while grabbing enemies, stealing melee weapons, my favorite was the still breathing fish, and pressing Y whenever a man turns red.  I actually like it a bit more than the Arkham combat system, if only because it feel like you’re less powerful, and need to be impulsive by throwing a guy into a high voltage emitter.  Although, there are only about 12 different baddie models, so it does blend together very quickly.  But why are they all men?  In fact, why are there only two mainstay female characters, who both work in the background?  At least throw in a pink haired transexual with a whip!  Or maybe it was Transvestite, Poison’s weird like that.  That’s mix it up beyond the tree core enemy types of scrawny guys, defenders with mohawks, and fat guys who launch ill timed QTEs.

Seeing as the developer’s only other two titles were racing games, it is no surprise that the driving is both tight and controlled, but also smooth.  There’s no better way to put the basic driving other than it works, and it is fun to drive in about 75% of the vehicles in the game.  The city of Hong Kong apparently made sure that everything right down to the little smart cars controlled like a dream.  With the $300,000 vehicles controlling amazingly, even as you are crashing into walls every few seconds, because this is a sandbox game, you break stuff.

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Which can admittedly get annoying during missions where you are rewarded for not breaking stuff, but it is not too hard to concentrate on avoiding after you use the very much appreciated restart checkpoint option from the main menu.  However, because this game is nutters from the gameplay’s point of view, you are also able to hijack a vehicle by jumping out of your former one, and working your way to the driver’s seat via the roof.  Which is as fun as it sounds, and it sounds like a squee!

But moving onto the gunplay, I struggle to call it anything but average.  All I did in every firefight in this game was get behind the lovely chest high walls, and aimed for the head amidst the often grody backgrounds that seemed exclusive to these sections.  Sure, you can slow down time by leaping over cover, but why would you need that?  It might seem cool, but you only have roughly three seconds to line up and aim your crosshair over a target as the camera moves.  Which I indicated more by the reticle changing color than it actually being where the guy’s head actually was.

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Admittedly, the driving sections do incorporate gunplay much better, since whenever you shoot, time slows down.  And your goal is to get the tires so you can watch a car spiral out of control because it had a red arrow on its head.  Hell, even in the two or so boat sections, which the game kinda ignored despite how its set on an island.  Seem to incorporate the third person shooting mechanics better than the normal shooting.

Beyond the three core styles, there are also several little mini games you are prompted to perform, most of them breaking the flow substantially.  Lockpicking, location triangulation, phone pinpointing, PIN number hacking, bug sensitivity setting, and pointing at the man in a suit, or we’ll just tell you.  It all sounded like cool secret agent stuff, but following up a car chase where I shot a motorcycle until it exploded, with a trial and error math puzzle, feels jarring at best.  And why bother including so many, why is there a karaoke minigame that just involves vertical analog stick shifting to match the pitch?  I mean, you gave it eight songs that I presume you had to have rerecord with Wei Shen’s voice actor as well as license.

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On the subject of audio, after a good 25 hours with this game, I still can’t figure out what exactly every radio station is ideal for.  A simple diverse group of genres acting as stations normally fits the bill, but here I literally just picked things at random, because I couldn’t find the handful of tracks that I found fitting.  Meanwhile, the voice work is pretty solid all around, oddly including some bigger names for minor characters, namely some of the sporadically placed dates Wei can go on.  Although, many characters often shift into Chinese, or Cantonese as the subtitles say, to utter out a swear.  Although, I’m not sure as to why, maybe its just how people actually do talk, but it just feels like the creators are afraid of saying the F word one too many times.

But going back to the dates for a second, I actually want to give the developers a lot of praise not for the dates themselves, but how by going on them, the game’s map now displays the many secrets that the developers saw fit to hide everywhere.  Mostly just boxes full of money, health upgrades, and new ability tokens that are pretty much a need to make the combat give anything close to the same sense of empowerment.  Which is a godsend to me, because I make it my goal to get pretty much every collectible in my line of vision, and consider it to be one of the most enjoyable parts of any sandbox.  Despite how my love could pretty much be traced to to how I was horrified of Donkey Kong 64 as a child, because of how overwhelming it was to someone who only played Pokemon prior.  Yeah, my introduction into games was kinda weird.

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Where was I?  Oh, this game is very pretty, even while it attempts a more realistic look than I personally prefer.  Now, if I were in charge of a major game company and had a boatload of money, I would make as many games as I could Cel-Shaded.  With the best reason that I have to offer being things like Ni No Kuni.  Yet, owing a lot to the generally appealing look of Hong Kong, its citizens, and how its vehicles that look like Hot Wheels to me.  And just a lot of detail that was placed into this world, except for the nature but that is barely in the game.  The game manages to look nice, unless it is in a shootout, and you are aiming at heads against walls the blur together.  Or maybe I just get too excited over anything that has a visual representation of rain that affects the ground, while not slowing down a game’s remarkably smooth performance, assuming it doesn’t crash during a loading screen for the fifth time.  Or I am stuck in the underwater nexus again.

But, in short, is Sleeping Dogs good?  Well, that depends on what you expect it to be.  If you want something that is just fun to mess around with, explore, and do miscellaneous objectives in while betting in cockfights, it is actually one of the better examples of those in terms of core gameplay.  But if you want a constant and fun high action story with a bunch of colorful characters, not so much.  One can chalk a lot of this up to tone, but that’s the thing.  We have pretty much determined why people play this genre, and what they’ll do if you give them the ability to beat people to death with little to no consequence.  But I guess that dog was taking a nap during the main planning meeting, and didn’t wake up until the DLC, where you fight Chinese Vampires and the ghost of a man turned into cat food…  What?

Good! (14/20)
A solid title that may be lacking in an infinite amount of different ways, or just a few big and difficult to ignore issues.  Varies based on the medium.  But still worth giving it a go!

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