Saturday, February 16, 2013

Review: Sleeping Dogs

Although shooting games are more common than pocket lint, sandbox games aren't too far behind. Ever since Grand Theft Auto 3 entered the scene and popularised the open world sandbox genre, people have been wanting a piece of that pie. One of them was True Crime: Streets Of LA, which was an admirable little big game if not somewhat flawed in some bigger areas. It managed to spawn a sequel and then it nearly spawned another until some legal disputes not only pulled the plug, but chewed it in bits and buried the evidence outside. At least... it nearly did. Then Square Enix stepped in to give United Front a hand with the project and changed enough things to make it its own game so that they don't get in trouble. That game... is Sleeping Dogs, and honestly, thank *bleep* it got released because it's not only the single greatest game of 2012, but a really good *bleep*ing game on its own terms.

A lot of it is owed to its immersing qualities. For one thing, the story and the way that it's told sucks you right in. Wei Shen is a police officer who is deep undercover in the Sun On Yee, a triad gang based in Hong Kong. He has to find a way to bring them down without them realizing that he's a copper. At first, it seems like “oh they'll figure him out eventually” because there are heaps of stories like that - from A Bug's Life to The Road To El Dorado and Chicken Run, it's rife with potential to end up having that as some sort of halfway plot twist. But actually, the way this game does it is in a way that feels a refreshing twist on that kind of tale – it instead focuses on Wei's inner self. He's an undercover cop, but who knows for sure where his loyalties truly lie?

There are other elements to the story, like how it eventually turns into a full on internal and external war that Wei just so happened to be caught in the middle of, and all of this becomes a test of his loyalty. The gangs themselves get just enough time in the spotlight to establish themselves for the express purpose of developing Wei's character while having some presence of their own, all without being too intrusive. That's what bumps the story up from good to really fucking good – in reality, it's just as much about the gang that Wei eventually becomes loyal to as it is about Wei questioning how deep undercover he really is. It's a point that's driven home during certain parts of the story where it gets dramatic and intense, where the story takes twists and turns that makes you think “man, shit's going DOWN!!”. Because of this, the story is one that'll keep you on the edge of your seat and give you a hell of a ride while you're there.

A big part of triad wars involves each member getting their hands all bloodied up by either gunning each other down, or beating the everloving piss out of them. When it comes to a beatdown, Sleeping Dogs rules. Wei has access to a wide range of combo, throwing and counterattacks that allow you to take down anybody who dares to cross you. In that sense, the game is a tad on the easy side as if you have a decent set of reflexes, you can easily counterattack an enemy to set them up for one of your combo attacks. But difficulty is irrelevant when the feel of combat is so good that it eventually becomes second nature. See, after a while, you'll naturally be pressing triangle to break the kneecaps of kickers and holding X and square to deliver a kick of your own, ready to press triangle to elbow a pursuer from behind before you press square multiple times for a multiple punch+kick combo. It even becomes second nature to grab somebody and move towards a hazard so you can throw them into it and watch them die! It's like watching watching one of those 2D animated Dreamworks movies like Prince Of Egypt, that's how fluidly the animation flows from one attack to the next alongside how responsive each command is.

But then you get into the shooting, and it's.. alright, I guess. It's here that some cracks start to appear as, although the shooting works to the extent of which you can at least fucking shoot people in the head, it sure feels a bit crappy. Aiming is a bit stiff – I guess while mastering martial arts, Wei's arms don't move so well when he has to use a gun. To compensate, when you jump over cover, time will slow down. What's the matter United Front, can't fine tune your aiming controls so you engineer in some slow mo shit? Come on, I want to jump over chest high cover and shoot shit at big boy speed! That's not my biggest beef with the shooting, underfornately – for some bizarre reason, close quarters combat only seems to work when it wants to work. What I mean is that pistol whipping, disarming enemies and using said enemies as human shields seems to work completely at random, like I go to press the button... then I mash the button... then I just blast his head off with my stiff aiming pistol. Oh, I get less (and let's be honest here - arbitrary) experience points in the triad field, but at least I blew his head off and I get to live long enough to take down everybody else and see the next mission! To explain the experience points would be a complete waste of time, but basically, they lead to upgrades that hardly fucking matter as even at a low level on the triad, police and face sides of the fence, you're still a badass mofo! What's that, you get a Playstation Network trophy if you hit level 10 on all three accounts? Whoop-dee-fucking-doo!

Oh and given that this is an open world sandbox game, driving becomes an important part of the game. Whether you're cruising around to get to your next mission or you're racing against rubber banding AI drivers, there's plenty of driving to be done as Hong Kong is seperated into four areas. If I have to pick out any flaw, it's that when you drive fast, the camera has an odd habit of shaking like the cameraman has Parkinson's. Why? It doesn't feel extreme or intense – it's just irritating. But that's about it on the negative front, because driving feels absolutely fine otherwise. Accelerating, braking, turning, this thing where you can ram into other cars; it all works just finely and makes driving around a viable option without it getting frustrating. But that's really all it amounts to... until you're in the races when you have to navigate through a segment of Hong Kong and beat everybody else to the finish line! This is where not only the driving shines, but also the design of Hong Kong itself. It's designed in a way for a car to go around all of it with relative ease, except for parts that are designed to be on foot anyway, and thinking about each of the tracks that are derived from segments of Hong Kong, the corners either feel wide or tight enough to work not only within the confides of a tricky racetrack, but also as roads you'd expect for a city, and the straights and highways are in logical places, so really, there are no complaints about this... except for the shaky cam.

What open world sandbox game isn't complete with side missions? Well, I guess the more story driven ones like Mafia, but regardless, Sleeping Dogs has them and they're... actually a mixed bag. The aforementioned racing is pretty cool for reasons already explained. Going into a fight club to beat up a bunch of guys is also fun to do. Finding a small-ish gang of thugs to beat up is even more fun, especially since you'll have plenty of thugs to beat up and it might actually offer up a challenge! After those thugs are beaten up, you get to hack security cameras by entering a 4 digit code where each number is unique, and then you cruise back to one of four... safehouses, I guess, where you look at footage and bust whoever the icon pops up on top of. Okay, so far so good, but then there's the dating sim, which just has you going on missions like driving around or beating some guys up? Well, doing these deeds is fine – abruptly ending these like 3 or 4 missions later is laaaame because with something like this, you'd seriously expect something like... I don't know, living together or something, not just some bitch work for nothing! Karaoke is just fucking terrible. You tilt the analog stick up or down to two different degrees along with the thick bars and it is about as tedious as it sounds... oh, you're required to do that one during the story by the way. Twice. Fuck that. I'm surprised you don't have to do the other eight songs, that's how proud they were of this shitty ass fucking side mission!

But then I think about what brings me back to what makes this game go from good to really good – the immersion. Hong Kong not only looks brilliant for the most part (ehhh I've noticed a few spotty textures), but it's also legitimate. It's big, dirty and bright with incandescent lighting, but it has different locations like harbors, shipping piers and other places that are inspired by the real Hong Kong. Now, I wouldn't say it's even like going through a scaled down version of the real Hong Kong, but with plenty of cities full of things to do and shipping yards on some of the outskirts of this country, it does at least feel like a legit attempt at recreating Hong Kong at a smaller size for the sake of exploration within a video game. Even without that in mind, it still looks brilliant. The textures, for the most part, are really detailed and the animations, even the ones outside of combat, are very fluid, looking like a dream. The lighting is actually something that's quite impressive as all of the shadows and lights are in the right places from their light sources, and the amount of shadows and light look just right. No doubt, if this was just a generic city, it'd look pretty damn fine, but the fact that this is a faithful recreation of Hong Kong makes it stand out that much more.

Keeping up the immersion is the voice work. The actors are all Asian, meaning that they can inflict their dialect without it degenerating into Hong Kong Phooey. It really does sound like you're interacting with the locals of Hong Kong since their accents are authentic. That's not mentioning the fact that technically speaking, they do a fine job of voicing their respective characters as there's a lot of oomph behind their voices beyond their authenticity, with each bit of dialogue drawing you in that much more. Unfortunately, I can't quite say the same thing for the soundtrack. Oh, don't get me wrong, when there's more traditional Hong Kong style music, it fits with the setting, but when there's the usual sweeping epic symphony playing, it's like “oh yeah it's exciting”. Perhaps I'm just getting sick of that being used in like every fucking game under the sun and that it does incite excitement and all that? Maybe. To its credit, it does do just that. The licensed soundtrack is good. The actual radio is pretty boring, not much is really done with the adverts in them and you just listen to them for the music. Christ, even radio today is more exciting than this, but... at least the choice in to include Queen, Deep Purple, Squarepusher and more songs from other artists from a wide variety of genres (rock, metal, classical, rap and electronic, mostly) is nice for some driving music, particularly the more full on songs. Although driving like a maniac to classical music makes me think of A Clockwork Orange...

Games like this make me think that 2012 did hold a few gems. In a year full of sequels that pandered towards troglodytes with gamertags like xmasterchief420x and SephirothJuggalo6969, here's a game that's kind of a sequel but kind of an original IP and it's actually pretty fucking good! Game of the year 2012 does it very little justice – it's one of the best games in this generation! It deeply immerses you into the atmosphere through compelling themes and storytelling. It keeps you coming back for more with a fluid and intuituve martial arts system and various plot twists that, while somewhat predictable, are a hell of a ride to go through. Really, if you have a 360, PS3 or PC, you'd be doing yourself no favors by not playing this game.

9/10 (Fucking Excellent)

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