Review: Sleeping Dogs
By Joseph Christ on August 25th, 2012 (15 comments)
I have to admit, I’ve been getting tired of open world crime games. The mystique of an open world where you can do anything - provided that it had been coded in by the developer - has waned significantly as the same ‘tried and true’ formula has been used ad nauseam for the better part of a decade. Different coats of paint, and different approaches to the subject matter did little to solve the one overwhelming issue that has plagued the genre from the very beginning: How to solve the problem of repetitive and/or distracting missions. You know the ones. The missions that you have to do...but don’t want to. The missions that get in the way of the main story, or do nothing more than stumble the player toward a main objective. And worse, story missions that feel the same.
Luckily Sleeping Dogs has solved this problem, and in one broad stroke rekindled a flame that had expired long ago...faded out sometime during the 20th side mission in GTA 4.
Title: Sleeping Dogs (Xbox 360 Reviewed)
Developer: United Front Games/Square Enix London Studios
Publisher: Square Enix / Namco Bandai Games (Aus)
Release Date: August 14, 2012 (North America)
The main story is dubiously cliche’ when put to paper. An undercover cop (Wei Shen) infiltrates some of Hong Kong’s most notorious gangs and then must cope with the internal pressure of swinging loyalty as his allegiance begins to shift from duty to newfound family. It’s one that's been done a thousand times in a thousand different ways, and I would be ready to denounce it myself if it wasn’t for the entertaining characters and fantastic voice acting throughout. Yes, the story premise may be stale but it’s rarely been done better than this. Watching the cutscenes devoid of gameplay would be worthy of the entertainment alone as they contain a motley crew of characters comprising a perfect balance of humanistic qualities and mirthful humor. And as shifting loyalties becomes a part of the storyline the player will find their attitude shifting with Wei’s, if only because Hong Kong’s criminal underground is just completely precious.
Story is one thing but gameplay is another, and as Sleeping Dogs mostly follows the Open World Crime Game Rule Book chapter for chapter there are some very important distinctions that allow it to rise above the ever-growing herd.
The city of Hong Kong is portrayed wonderfully here with the concrete underpinnings of the more loathsome markets shown in stark contrast to the neon infused city streets. Then beyond, to the shores and harbors located in the outskirts of the main drag. All of it easily accessible and traversable in a way that will eventually make the mini-map moot after about 10 hrs of play. The only other contemporary game which has given the Asian metropolis as much life would be Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which did a fantastic job of portraying a living world in a level-based structure. Sleeping Dogs, by contrast, does the same but explodes the concept outward 10 fold.
Sleeping Dogs has all the other tropes you would expect. Driving cars, boats, motorcycles, but these too feel better than in most other games. Vehicles are weighted extremely well for the player, allowing them to be versatile while still feeling like they have some gravity working against them. Drifting is handled easily in most cases and , yes, even motorcycles are not an insane - controller throwing - mess to ride around in. Shooting in vehicles is also handled the best way I’ve ever seen. This is done by pressing the left bumper to hang outside of the vehicle window and shooting with the right bumper while continuing to move forward the right trigger. “Wait a moment you fool! That sounds terrible!” I can hear you saying as you read this. And you would be correct if the game didn't implement auto-pilot and slow motion in order tighten the experience. It’s very close to the way Dead Eye works in Red Dead Redemption, but here you have the added benefit of watching cars EXPLODE and FLIP in slow motion when you’ve done something right.
Shooting on the streets of Hong Kong is done much like other third person shooters but tends to be a little less refined than the more ‘Epic’ games that have made their mark on that particular genre. That is no matter, however, since it’s the melee fighting that really shines in this game. Akin to Batman: Arkham Asylum (wow I’m really using a lot of game references in this review) it uses a combo and counter system that allows for fluid flights with multiple enemies. Though less refined than my previous reference, it still works very well here and is leagues ahead of what we’ve seen in other open world titles. The melee system makes heavy use of an environmental damage system which allows the player to use objects in the world to finish off his attackers. These finishers are as numerous as they are gruesome. Shove people’s faces into fans, throw them into boxes of broken glass, shove them into cars and drop engines on them. You’re an undercover cop, breaking from the stress...and they probably deserved it anyway. Right?
There is certainly some dissociation going on here. Though the game tries to explain your continual shooting, killing, crunching, and pureeing of Hong Kong’s underworld with the age-old line of “You’re a cop on the edge and OUT OF CONTROL!” It also doesn’t make a terrible amount of sense for your character to be doing these things so off the cuff. Of course, and luckily for both you -dear reader- and myself, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t take itself too seriously. It exists in a place somewhere between GTA IV and Saints Row that allows it to work for dramatic effect in one moment and then have you laughing at its characters and whimsical situations the next. And this leads to the one defining success of Sleeping Dogs which is also principal failure of other open world games. Namely that Sleeping Dogs remembers that it’s a video game.
I understand that’s not a terribly easy thing to do. Suda 51 has always done a good job of maintaining the video game-y qualities of his work as other developers have strived more and more to be ‘cinematic’ in their approach. Cinematic works at times, but games must also sometimes eschew dramatic sweeping camera angles and realism for things which can progress the player through the worlds. A carrot on a stick...a reason to be and to do. In Sleeping Dogs that reason is a fully incorporated XP and skills system which makes every mission -main story, side, radiant world- mean something...and useful to the player.
And I truly mean comprehensive. The XP and skill system incorporates three of Wei’s personas. Cop, which grants XP for things Wei does within the law. Triad, which rewards things of a more violent nature that Wei does during missions. And Face, which is a notoriety reward that Wei gets for helping people around town, and for most radiant world missions that increase his fame. Any of these XP rewards are given for every mission the player does in the game, no matter how insignificant. It’s a brilliantly incorporated system which ensures that no mission ever feels like filler and no action ever feels like a waste. Unlike other open world games, where side missions can be seen as more of a hassle, keeping you from the main story, in Sleeping Dogs you’ll be jumping at the chance to do them as it ensures that you’ll get ever closer to that next skill.
And the skills you earn are precious in a game where you’ll be finding yourself in a myriad of differing situations, from shooting, to melee, to shooting driving, and drive ramming. None of the skill trees really have any ‘wasted’ skills. They are all enticing....like candy droplets of blood on Peking Duck in the middle of the night.
So is there anything bad about Sleeping Dogs? The mini-map waypoints you set seem to disappear if something else in the world pops up, like a radiant mission, and the aforementioned melee combat system could certainly be tighter, but other than that it’s hard to point to one specific -and game breaking- problem I’ve had. Graphic whores will certainly be unhappy with the way the game looks on the 360, it does run at a fairly low resolution, but that's a small complaint in a world of positives.
Sleeping Dogs has done something that very few open world crime games have done for me in the past....made me addicted to playing it, and offering me something more than rewritten and retold story in a feeble attempt to hook me in. It has offered me something far more precious to the gamer soul within me. Precious like a fabled ring to offer power to the one who holds it. That lifeblood pumping in the veins of our most beloved franchises.
A reason to be. A reason to continue.
(90-99%: Phenomenal - A fantastic experience that surpasses almost all expectations.)
Joseph Christ is the Reviews Editor and a Podcast Personality at 4Player. Specializing in reviews, editorials, drinking, and saying inappropriate things about gaming franchises that are beloved by millions, his satirical and sometimes edgy style offsets a more serious and penetrating substance lurking below the surface. He is also the host of the Cocktail Time Podcast. You'll follow his Twitter if you know what's good for you.
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