Monday, September 10, 2012

Sleeping Dogs review

    Sleeping Dogs is a Grand Theft Auto clone which manages to transcend the formula, becoming arguably better than both the recent Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row: The Third by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, being 'better than both' is high praise but the game could have been even better than semi-legendary Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas if it had taken a few more risks and not truncated so many of its plots to the level it did.

    Part of this is due to the fact the video game had a rather infamously spotty development cycle. It was originally supposed to be an original game series called Black Lotus and was eventually bought out, getting retitled True Crime: Hong Kong. Then people noticed the True Crime series wasn’t really doing so well and cancelled the game despite it being more or less complete. Square Enix and United Front Games rescued the game from oblivion and released it under a new IP.
    What a smart decision that was.

    The gameplay is pretty much you’d expect from a Grand Theft Auto game in many respects. You can steal any car and drive like mad in an open-world sandbox version of Hong Kong. It has the Saints Row-style side-missions of fight clubs, cock fighting, street races, and oddball favors you can do for your character’s various associates.
    The game further enhances itself by cribbing Arkham Asylum's melee fighting style, Just Cause 2's vehicular combat, Assassin Creed 2's free-running system, and a gun-fighting system straight out of Max Payne. It doesn't do any of these things as well as the games centered around them but it manages to copy an eclectic mix of play styles in a way that's both humorous and original.
    I also am deeply fond of the Hong Kong setting. While not a direct copy of the real life location, there’s enough similarities you can be persuaded you’re on at least one part of the island. The lead can travel from back alley markets to beautiful skyscrapers with everything in-between. The meeting of East and West culture which embodies the region is something spectacular to behold.
    What separates Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row from Sleeping Dogs, however, is a simple but effective element. Specifically, the protagonist is not a horrible douchebag. I don't mind playing a sociopathic criminal every now and then but sometimes it becomes difficult to care about their personal narratives. Carl Johnson was the last Grand Theft Auto character I cared about and even then it was only due to the fact I ignored the construction worker mission.
Everybody was kung-fu fighting. Those kicks were fast as lightning.
    The main character of Wei Shen is an undercover police officer who has the somewhat flimsy excuse of maintaining his gangster appearance to justify all the wacky GTA-esque hijinks he gets up to. Still, alongside the criminal activities are missions to stop White Slaving rings and taking down serial killers. Wei Shen has a character arc based around balancing his undercover identity as a Triad foot soldier with his true loyalties as a police officer. I imagine a lot of players will be torn themselves with the police being morally upright but cold while the Triads are psychotic but fun.
    The idea of an undercover police officer getting too deep is an overused story device but works surprisingly well here. The cast of characters is varied and entertaining with excellent voice acting all around. Some of my favorite actors make a guest appearance here with Kelly Hu, Emma Stone, Will Yun Lee, Robin Shou, and others. Sadly, some of them are distinctly underused and the underdeveloped storylines of several NPCs lacking a proper denouement.
    Sadly the lack of development in certain areas is the one thing that keeps Sleeping Dogs from greatness. After an exceptionally strong lead-in during the first Act, introducing an excellent mix of low-level Triad gangsters and suspicious cops, the second Act is muddled with numerous characters introduced who seem like they should have plot lines but don't, and the Third Act bounces back only to have the ending feel unsatisfying. Yeah, there are no loose ends to wrap but I expected something a little more spectacular.

    For an example of the storytelling flaws in action, let's take the 'dating' mechanic. I don't have a big "thing" about dating simulation in video games. Still, it's part of the storytelling that romances can and do happen. It's no different from tragedies or comedies. In Sleeping Dogs, Wei Shen can go on dates with half-a-dozen women but each date ends with a 'fade-to-black' scene with no further encounters with the characters. For me, this seems wasteful. If you're going to introduce a love interest, have them do something. Even San Andreas offered some fun options like drive-bys for characters to enjoy.

    Still, the game manages to capture a lot of the feeling of Hong Kong cinema in action. There's numerous homages to Bruce Lee movies (including three of his outfits), John Woo's Heroic Bloodshed films (particularly Hardboiled), and the entire premise is not that far removed from Internal Affairs (remade in America as The Departed). I particularly liked how dynamic and fluid the combat system became once I unlocked all of the special moves at Wei Shen's dojo.

    In conclusion, Sleeping Dogs is the best purchase I've made since Skyrim or Fallout: New Vegas. I encourage people to buy this game or rent it. I don't think it's quite as good as those two but it's damn close and it's a pity it could have been even better but didn't quite reach those heights. Whatever the case, I'm eagerly awaiting Sleeping Dogs 2: Even more Kicking.


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