Sunday, 14 July 2013

This game was Made For Me: Sleeping Dogs

Let's start this out with a confession: I love martial arts action movies. Part of the reason The Matrix is one of the big film trilogies I adore is because of all the awesome kung fu. As silly as it was, I couldn't help adoring the gun-kata in Equilibrium. I recently sat down and watched Ong-Bak and had a great time.

But sadly, I've never had much opportunity to explore the legendary kung-fu cinema which inspired so many. I've never really had a chance to watch a ton of Hong Kong action movies.

And Sleeping Dogs made me realize how much I've missed out on.

Ambiguous title? Kind of, but at the same time, it does foreshadow the insane escalation of violence that occurs throughout the story. There's some murderous madmen running the show and dear god, they're terrifying once woken up.

The title is interesting because it refers to both elements of the protagonist and antagonist. Despite this being an open-world game, it has a very strong storyline which feels deeply involved in everything you do. Thus we come to an interesting element of the game: Everyone is, deep-down, a unique player in a complex game, and there are secret traits which only emerge under great pressure.

You play as an undercover cop, and as the game progresses we see how he has a really deep feeling of connection to the criminal underworld. He feels understood by them, and he understands them. He's not a bad guy, but neither are all of them. You start out on the lowest rungs and work your way up, and as expected the lowest rungs act like common thugs.

The cutscenes are actually very well acted, and they can have a ton of tension even when they're fairly peaceful.

There's an interesting point midway, when everything is going to hell and you've climbed the ladder to being a powerful member of one of the Triads. You're helping an older member protect the leader of the triad, who's in the hospital. He remarks how nobody these days has any honor. This ties into the main point of our protagonist, which is that he's a man of values.

The major theme of Sleeping Dogs, I would say, is that "good and bad" are not respectively equal to "cops and gangs". There is violence and awful people on both sides, but also good on both sides. The game addresses the theme of honor and reverence a lot; funerals and weddings are sacred, despite gang warfare. 

This is where the gameplay of Sleeping Dogs both clashes a bit with the themes and story, despite trying to fit in. The title calls back to the idea that we are all ruthless animals, that when pushed become beasts of destruction. As an undercover cop, this is shown countless times as you commit action-movie finishers on thugs by:
  1. Throwing them into dumpsters
  2. Shoving their heads into HVAC fans
  3. Dumping them into boxes
  4. Smashing their heads through fish tanks
  5. Pressing their heads into table saws
  6. Hanging them on meat hooks
  7. Ramming them into electrical transformers
  8. Dumping them into pools of electric eels
  9. Hanging them on meat hooks

I think they'll believe I'm not a cop, now.

 This feels a little weird, sometimes. Admittedly it's called for, sometimes, as a lot of these guys would outright kill you if you didn't do this, but it's still a little above and beyond the call of duty. That being said, whenever the really heavy beats hit in this game (and warning, this game is not for the feint of heart) it's understandable when you just go all out and attack a gang in a murderous revenge killing spree.

And it's not like it doesn't get addressed. They frequently bring up how out of control you are, and the cops constantly want to reel you back in. You're not even that bad compared to a lot of triads, who engage in torture and other heinous acts. (Again, warning, this game is really intense at parts.)

It also has one of the best climaxes, which I don't want to spoil, but involves, among other things:
  1. Surviving torture
  2. Near-death murder exercises
  3. Shirtlessly beating men to death
  4. Meat hooks
  5. A machete rampage
  6. Chase scenes in boats
  7. An ice chipper
Essentially, you're not gonna enjoy this game unless you love melee combat. The game alternates between three main modes, those being a beat-em-up, a cover-based shooter (with bullet-time abilities!) and driving.

The melee combat is fantastic, and aside from finishers mentioned above, it has a really simple combo system that adds a lot of depth to the game. Different types of hits, with different types of damage, allow you to pull off a ton of moves that really make you feel like the star of a kung-fu movie. As you level-up, you gain new moves, and the only problem I had is that it can get difficult to remember everything you're capable of pulling off. In fact, often on bosses you have to resort to guarding and countering anyways.

Some attacks can hit multiple opponents, which is really nice for those sweeping kicks.

The gunplay is surprisingly simple, but effective. The cover emphasis is very heavy, and you'll quickly get shot to death if you're out in the open. You have an ability to leap over your cover and enter bullet-time, which helps you place shots precisely without getting hit. It's great for taking down enemies right as they pop out of their cover, and again makes you feel like the star of an action movie.

The effects really add to the game. I swear the particle engineers must've had a blast.

And finally, driving. Oh wow, is driving satisfying. There's a lot of games which let you drive, and drive fast, but not as many that make it so darn fun. I would honestly put the driving in this game on par with FUEL. Both motorcycles and cars handle uniquely to their model, and all stats (aside from vehicle class) are hidden, so there's a lot of shopping around and experimentation involved. And when you get into chase scenes, it just feels incredible. When you enter aim mode in a vehicle, again you enter slow mo, and when you take out a vehicle, you get a brief slow-mo again. This just feels incredible, as you might be in your motorcycle, see the tailing car approaching, whip around and shoot out it's tires, just to see it slide, flip, and explode in a fantastic fireball.

Sometimes two. You can actually cause explosive chain reactions of vehicles if you're lucky.

As you're probably noticing, this game really tailors the gameplay towards making you feel like the star of an action movie. You also have some decent parkour abilities which are used for chasing people on foot. Running through the streets of Hong Kong really feels great because it's so busy. They really packed the locale with a ton of content, and it seems evident that a lot of love was really put into the locales. Buildings never look boring, and there's people and eye-candy everywhere that really makes the city feel lived in. Going down the back alleys, it feels so cramped and populated, with piles of boxes and debris, mixed with cramped buildings stringing power lines across he roads. The whole city feels so alive that you really end up feelings responsible for a lot of what you do.

And killing innocents in this game feels bad. My major problem is that it's too easy.

I get that they're going for realism, and they want you to be careful, but I think it takes away from the fun and engagement a bit. There's an interesting design note I noticed about the original Driver (the only one I played). Whenever you are gonna hit a person, they dive out of the way, and in such a way that it's actually impossible to hit them. This ends up freeing you a lot in what you can do, and makes you feel less horrible because you don't kill as many civillians.

People do dodge realistically, which is nice, but it's not enough sometimes, and almost feels too weighty and like it drags down the game.

I actually managed to do a fairly clean run of Sleeping Dogs, just by being careful about how I drove. Civilians didn't get in the way very often, but when they did, oh man it felt bad. And I could understand if this was to drive home the fact that you're a cop, but again, it just feels a little too moralistic when the other half of the game is recommending you use meat cleavers and spikes to impale people to death.

Despite this shakiness, once I got used to it I found myself getting into a great rhythm, and the story plays out great. I think this is the first open-world game where I really felt myself invested in the locale and story.

It also has a great ending. Unlike a lot of open-world games which try to leave things open so you can do whatever you want, the game does have an after-ending play mode, but the ending wraps up all the storylines, and simply finishes the game off with a simple question which is left for the player to answer. It gives a nice, clean ending, where you feel satisfied and happy you played. Compare this to something like Saints Row the Third, which despite a great climax, has a final mission which is really just goofing off, and then plops you down before the last mission for you to free-roam. There isn't really room for a sequel or DLC in Sleeping Dogs, at all, but I think that ultimately helps it feel like a more complete experience.

I noticed this game dropped a lot in used-game value pretty quickly. I think it's probably because of the finality of the ending. I couldn't blame anyone for wanting to sell the game after they beat it. I won't, but that's because I'm kind of a collector of memories and I really enjoyed my time with this game. It will sit on my shelf until I lend it to someone.

Ultimately, this was one of the most self-contained, thrilling, and enjoyable experiences I've had in this console generation. Not only was it a great story which really hooked me, but full of heart-pounding action and exciting adrenaline.


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