Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Headcase: Sleeping Dogs

Sure, Luchalma already reviewed it, but since he pays me in vague acknowledgment and crappy Spelunky competition, I'll post whatever the hell I want. Now sit back and watch me deconstruct that game that you almost thought about playing until you got distracted by lunch or cartoons.

I’m gonna be pretty honest, I didn’t give a shit about Sleeping Dogs when it dropped. To be fair, I’m like that for a lot of games, I tend to swim in the backlog deep end, and the game was crowded by what it released around in terms of my priorities. Even when the price declines began I wasn’t too concerned about picking it up, but one lucky night I happened to glance at Steam right in the middle of what must have been some intern’s discount knob turning fuckup, because:
Suddenly I became interested in Sleeping Dogs.

So now I’m saddled with this game I’m mildly interested in, and I realize that I’m falling right in line with a common attitude towards the game - that being, “Holy shit, it’s actually pretty good.” Folks familiar with the title’s zombie-like shuffle through development undeath might understand the skepticism that continues to surround the title today. For those of you out of the know, Sleeping Dogs started out as an entry in Open World skid-mark series True Crime, before it was cancelled because True Crime is bullshit. Then United Front Games started working on an open world game, which publisher Activision thought would sell better if it was called True Crime: Hong Kong. This lasted for a while until Activision remembered that they were idiots, and also that True Crime was still bullshit, so they cancelled it again. Square-Enix picked up the reworked game and called it Sleeping Dogs. This whole thing played out to a bunch of Activision executives saying that the game wasn’t that great, and wouldn’t make much money. Surrounded by a CW Network level of trash talk and drama, it was hard not to be concerned about quality when the game released. All of those concerns fall out as soon as you boot this thing up and find out that it’s not a half-assed attempt to make something out of a shitty leftover IP. First things first, the game looks pretty good, even running just about medium setting on my mid range laptop. Real PC goose-steppers can get their eyes massaged by downloading the free high-res texture pack, but even if you don’t have a doomsday machine the game performs and looks great, especially wet. 
The game that is, the laptop that captured this image was not wet.

Sleeping Dogs puts you in the kung-fu slippers of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong cop out to kick some gangland ass. You’ll find yourself either smirking and nodding or rolling your eyes at Sleeping Dog’s storyline. Like everything else in the game it exceeds expectations, but your enjoyment of the plot is going to be directly tied to how much you can appreciate the game’s dedication to the clich├ęd undercover cop arc. Yes, you’ve probably heard this story before, Wei Shen, cocky martial arts badass cop must infiltrate the Triad and tear it down from the inside, but as he gets more involved in his cover, where do his loyalties lie?! I wanted to dislike this from the setup, but I found myself really enjoying the love United Front poured into the typical gangster banter, and watching the “You’re in too deep!” shouting matches between Wei and his police handler is genuinely charming. The thing is, Sleeping Dog’s loves movies. It never comes across lazy, like someone is just hitting the major notes in order to get something out the door. Instead, the game comes just shy of shouting “See? Just like in a gangster flick!” at you enthusiastically while you play. This is evidenced in everything from the bombastic Dick Tracy like rogue’s gallery of scumbags you’ll meet throughout the game to Wei’s closet full of movie memorabilia outfits to help out the fantasy. Everything from Bruce Lee’s banana suit to the awkward black tank top and jeans combo Jackie Chan rocked in Rumble in the Bronx is there for you to wear. And as Luchalma deftly pointed out, James Hong has again been pressed into his unholy Devil’s Pact to be a part of every piece of campy Asian fiction made before the end times. The characters will generally hold your interest, and the voice acting is pretty good. Characters like Edison Chen’s Jackie Ma and Will Yun Lee’s Wei are consistently bright spot performances, and there’s some actually star power in here too with readings from Hollywood starlets like Lucy Liu and Emma Stone, which brings me to one of the story’s glaring weak spots.
Even  Hong Kong's bright lights won't stop people from noticing how much a fedora makes you look like a potent douche.

I’m usually the last guy to parrot the tired complaints about sexism or misogyny in games, but holy shit Sleeping Dogs is not doing itself any favors with its female cast. Let’s do a little math here. There are nine female characters with lines in this game. All but four of them define a shirt as a bra with sleeves, all but three of them touch Wei’s dick inside of two meetings, and two of the leftovers are over 40. That leaves one female character that isn’t like, a superhuman skank. I don’t really need dating minigames in my open world stuff, but that doesn’t mean you can shorten that up by having Wei bone down on the first date every time. Seriously, Wei Shen gets fucked for supersizing his date’s fries in this game. It gets weird after a while. Why don’t any of these girls own a fucking sweater? Do you sleep with every man that beats you in a footrace? There’s one girl who looks like she’s about to go inside her apartment alone after the first date, but then Wei says – I’m not paraphrasing here – “Hey, wait, get back here.” And then they have sex. It’s a little too fantastical, and at times it feels like the game is talking down to me. Why is Emma Stone in this game? She voices a spunky megaslut for literally four minutes before it’s time for rushed fade away fucking and then that character is gone. She got pretty high billing as far as the voice talent in the game, and she’s barely a footnote character. It starts to add up after a bit, and it’s hard not to feel like the developers are kind of making fun of me. “Hey, game playing man child! This attractive woman is in our game for no reason, but you’ll buy it anyway because fake sleeping with a fake woman through a fake character is as close as you know you’ll get.” Pandery female characters aside, the story is definitely worth a playthrough, offering enough original and imaginative moments to the standard formula to keep it engaging. 
"You're right, it does look like a coupon for free sex. Is that your handwriting? Oh well, it does say "no questions asked" get over here and help me peel out of my child's shirt."

Of course, that entire story doesn’t really matter if the game plays like shit. If you’ve noticed a theme in my opinion on the game it’s that Sleeping Dogs is an above average if not wildly special entry into the open world genre, and the gameplay is no different. You’ve got all the standards, hijacking cars, chasing, beating and shooting people, but they’ve all got a little extra flourish that tends largely to enhance the game. Most notable would be the hand to hand combat, which makes up the bulk of the fighting in game. Invariably, you’ll be surrounded by a large group of dudes determined to beat you up, and you’ll be tasked with beating them up first. The hand to hand stuff is mostly timing based combos, directional commands towards different enemies in the group will take you to them. They’ll flash as they wind up to hit you and a timed button press will allow you to pull off a flashy counter. You can also grapple your opponents and toss them into all manner of nasty traps from ceiling hooks to table saws. This kind of combat has been done before, and I’m apparently bound by internet fucking law to mention that it’s not as good as Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham games, but it’s still a competent system, one that manages to shine when you invest in upgrading your abilities by finding collectibles throughout the world. It’s a good thing that most of the combat in game is hand to hand, because the gunplay isn’t nearly as exiting. You’ve got your basic cover based third person stuff, but the idea is that every time you slide over your cover you get some slow-mo. When you score a headshot, you get more slow-mo. So the idea is that you vault over some cover and then chain your slow-mo with as big a chain of headshots as possible while running right at the bad guys. Too bad the areas the shootouts take place in don’t lend themselves to this linear kind of shooting, because it totally blows to shoot five or six thugs in slow motion before you realize that you’ve implanted yourself right inside the rest of their crew’s spread out line of fire. It’s kind of a neat idea, but if you’re too good at it you’ll end up flanking yourself, and it doesn’t seem like that should be possible.
"Whoa whoa time out! Just lemme put like a waist high card table between us first so I can slide around in slow motion."

Another huge area of genre improvement shows up in the car combat. Gunfights on the highway are handled a lot more easily here; the game will automatically slow down when you’re aiming out of your car, so you don’t have to sacrifice your camera and directional control as much when aiming for enemies at high speeds. Apparently in China tires are filled with fucking dynamite, because every time a single bullet hits a tire in this game the cars launch like they’re on a damn Hotwheels slingshot ramp. At first I was a little suspect of this after blasting no less than forty vehicles off the road in as many bullets, but frankly I prefer it compared to the tried and true “shoot this car until it catches fire in the front” standard. Being behind the wheel without a gun is just as fun, you’re a button press away from a controlled ramming to any direction, which really helps get the cops off your tail. You can also hijack vehicles while driving using the games “action hijack” feature, which lets you line up your vehicle to anything ahead of you and dramatically jump out of your car to the one ahead, physics be damned. You can wrap up the suite of improvements with the free-running, chasing people and getting around the city on foot is actually kind of fun and fast with a basic single button free-running mechanic. It adds a nice layer of verticality to your on foot sections, and while simple, it’s certainly welcome.
Pictured: Chinese Prius

There’s a weird thing with open world games, they tend to get compared to their peers a lot more than other genres. I’ll try not to get into a blow by blow of how this game stacks up to other “break stuff in the city” titles out there, but I will say that it does do something that almost every other open worlder can’t seem to manage, and it does so with its setting. It’s not just Hong Kong, sure, it’s pretty cool to sail down those neon soaked streets, and United Front went out of their way to inject as much exotic easternism in the game as they could get away with, but it’s the feel of that environment that really sets it apart. This Hong Kong feels lived in. The tight back alleys, overpasses and little shortcuts are full of just as much detail as the main streets and heavy traffic areas. The polish is uniform all over the map, and it lends to the feeling that you’re visiting a place that moves whether you’re there or not. This feeling a mark most often missed by other attempts, either you get big pretty but empty playgrounds like Just Cause’s Panau and The Saboteur’s Paris, or your get environments that feel a little too much like a theme park ride, all of the detail is packed within a cluster of areas that you’ll be visiting the most. Even Rockstar, a house that usually butters its bread making believable worlds can’t always hit this atmosphere, and it’s understandably a tough one to nail. Sleeping Dogs manages to fill the people you’re passing on the street with life in a way that doesn’t make it to obvious that your proximity is the only reason this life is going on. Being constantly distracted from storyline content in order to wander aimlessly around the city is a good barometer for feeling out the quality of the environment, and Sleeping Dogs turned in a doozy. 
Also, someone shouts "It takes guts to wear that!" every time you walk out of a clothing store. Like in most arguments, the best response is a karate lung-punch.

Come for the setting (or the price) but stay for the polished gameplay and the fun story. When you're done with all that there's still a host of side stuff to get to, flight clubs and stealing cars round out a host of other activities like races and betting... on... cockfights? Hidden package fans rejoice, there's a ton of stuff to collect, and it's done pretty decently. Speed dating the girls I was talking about puts hidden packages on your mini-map, and if you're the type of completionist who wants to use a guide to pick up stragglers, you can pick up packages without impunity, the open boxes or shrines stay where you collected them so you'll know if you've hit that spot already. You can sink a good 30 hours into Sleeping Dogs, less if you're just going to blow through the story but to do that means missing out on a fun explorable city and bunch of mostly fun side stuff. So if you were on the fence about Sleeping Dogs, consider Kung-fu flipping on to the side that lets you play this thing.

I figure this screen-capped bow is would be the most racist way I could close this out. Enjoy!


  1. Great review of Wet! I'm glad you mentioned the Tarantino similarities!

  2. Gorilla Throwing Rotten PeachJanuary 29, 2013 at 12:41 PM

    You guys check out Machete yet? That movie was fucking awesome.

    Not a fan of this game, but was still a good read though.