Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Sleeping Dogs: A Review

I finished Sleeping Dogs today, and I'm here to tell you that you should probably go out and buy it.

If you ever wondered how Shenmue 3 would pan out, this is pretty much it assuming Ryo turned into Jackie Chan: Supercop and started mashing heads into freezers. As someone who has spent a reasonable amount of time wandering around Hong Kong (and also wrote an altogether too long dissertation on the politics and symbolic imagery of 90s HK cinema back in Uni) I was dying to see how this would pan out.

After an hour or so of playtime, I was close to being overwhelmed at how damned Hong Kongy everything was. That first walk around the market? INCREDIBLE. I think the devs went for trips to HK to record the sound and capture general observations, and it shows - everything from the ding ding the shops make when you walk in / out to the perfectly replicated noise of the pedestrian crossings is all here. My opening game highpoint was jumping up onto some rooftops and suddenly hearing a class of kids singing a song from off inside one of the buildings, complete with instruments. I just stood around for ten minutes soaking it all in.

The scene setting here is phenomenal, and the moment a downpour hits with those neon signs on either side of you (and passers-by covering their heads with their newspapers), there can be no doubt you're in Hong Kong. I even heard ringtones on phones that were blazing away when I was over there last. Or how about the way your guy nods his head while walking around in a club. Or how clubs will be empty save for the odd floor sweeper at morning time. Or how secluded spots may have a hobo sleeping rough if you venture there at night. Or how I winged a pedestrian in my car only to find passers by had whipped out their phones and started filming me. Or the time I escaped a car chase by popping a wheelie and driving over the top of an oncoming car which smashed into my pursuer.

Or. Or. Or.

I could go on, but it's better to discover a lot of this stuff for yourself.

The Gameworld

It isn't huge, divided up into four chunks that try to give a flavour of various zones of Hong Kong - this isn't a replica, because that would be crazy. However, it's a little bit of a let down to find that parts I was dying to see in the game were pretty much AWOL.

There is no Kowloon. There is, amazingly, no Tsim Sha Tsui. You won't find the famous waterfront with the Star Ferry, the walk of fame or Chungking Mansions.

These are all 100% iconic chunks of Hong Kong cinema and it's jarring to find them absent. There was also nMTR. As an additional method of transportation and also a place to have some dubious antics happening, it's a shame this wasn't included.

I also need to mention the crushing blow that was Victoria Peak. When I saw it was on the map, I was practically salivating at going up on the tram, maybe walking around up there at the top and basking in the view.

What you get, is a series of ugly high gates made up of bars with a little gated door to walk through. You go through about two of these, and find the view, the money shot, the show stopper is a poorly drawn skybox (hidden behind more bars!) that doesn't even appear to be fully finished down on the bottom right hand side. You can read a bunch of people similarly crushed here, along with a video that shows the peak minus the hideous railings - so much better.

At one point I heard the ding ding of the tram and got my hopes up, only to find it went chugging past inbetween the two sets of fences. So that was crappy.

Other than that, this is the closest virtual reproduction of Hong Kong that you'll see for quite some time. Even accounting for the (required) differences, you'll be running through a slice of street or driving past an area and think holy crap, I know that bit! It's a lot of fun.

The Characters

Special mention to the voicework and script here - the lead character, Wei Shen, is brilliantly acted and the majority of the supporting cast are very well done. You can even go on a date with Emma Stone, and Lucy Liu puts in an appearance at one point. I can't recall anybody major flubbing their lines, or anbody else for that matter. Even the random people on the street are well done (with one "invisible" exception - more on that later), and most of the places you live in usually have a few characters hanging around who have their own little stories acted out as the game goes on. Another nice touch.

The Story

You're an undercover cop looking to rise in the ranks of the Triads and take them down from the inside. What this means in practice is a story that picks up a lot of the main beats from the best HK action films around and makes them its own. The Big Brother / Little Brother dynamic is quite important in this one, and any number of memorable scenes set in hospitals and docks to cemetaries and tea houses are all in here. It covered most of the things I'd want to do myself from my HK action movie checklist, so I'm entirely satisfied with that.

It's tight, it's focused and it gets to the point. I found myself blitzing the main missions just because I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen to Wei next. Well played.

The Gameplay

Everything is tied into your character's skillset, from dating to finding in-game objects to selecting clothing to wear (which gives bonuses, but can only be worn if your "face" level is high enough).

The fighting is great fun, slamming a dude's head in a car door or a spinning fan never gets old and the bullet time triggered by leaping over an object while shooting is THE BEST THING EVER (tm). They also develop the "find an item" gimmick from open worlds, making you return them to a Dojo where you can (again) select moves to learn. Makes things a bit more interesting. There's also car racing, gambling, debt collection and a heap of random "help me please" missions along with various in-world happenings.

Rounding that off is a set of multi-tiered undercover cop missions that loosely skirt around the main story. Drug busts don't end well - after beating the goons and hacking CCTV, you're supposed to mark the dealer and have him arrested. What this means in practice is you wait for a shield to appear over a guy's head and press the button. Bit of a waste, guys.

The Music

Oh man, the music. I already mentioned it here, but there's a definite 70s vibe to a lot of the OST. I've come across so many musicians I wasn't familiar with. To name a few, Burn Out by Cinematic Orchestra, Emika, System by Terry Lynn, Art of Xen by Jay Price....amazing, amazing stuff.

The Bad Things

There's always some. Here's my list of "could have done better":

1) Camera issues. This tends to be a problem in open world games, but there's somethng....not quite.....right about the viewing angle when driving. It seems rather low, and a common solution seems to be holding up on the thumbstick a little to gain a better view of your surroundings.

2) YMMV on this, but the first selectable option is "new game", with "continue" below it. I'm willing to bet cash money that someone, somewhere accidentally did this at least once. I've no idea if that would wipe your saves or not.

3) When leaving a clothing shop, the immersion is suddenly broken by a terrible disembodied voice that for all the world sounds like someone in the Wu Tang clan yelling "TAKES GUTS TO WEAR THAT".

What the Hell?

4) Characters in the game world will just straight up vanish if you turn your back and walk away a little bit. This seems to mostly affect "story" characters, ranging from main missions to smaller favour jobs but it's annoying all the same.

5) Police. I like that the game is built with the notion that you're an undercover cop in mind; no GTA style rampage here, if you go gun crazy (assuming you can find one) or just start running people over your ass will be grass in no time at all. The problem is that the cops teleport in right behind you (and in some cases in front of you!) and start letting rip with a volley of handgun and shotgun fire.

If they're chasing you on foot, they'll never....ever....stop or grow tired or lose the scent. It doesn't seem to matter if you bust some parkour moves or not. The buggers are just...there, somehow. Car chases are much the same. Other open world games at least have the cops roll in around a corner or come in waves to give you the chance to escape; what's in the game here is silly, but it's another YMMV moment.

In Conclusion

I've put about 20 something hours into the game, and that's allowed me to complete the main storyline and a chunk of side content. I'm still only about 60 to 65% towards total game completion though, and it'd be interesting to play through again as an actual undercover cop instead of "oh well, nobody will miss the ten pedestrians I bundled into my car boot and drove off the pier when nobody was looking".

Despite being shunted from one publisher to another, this is absolutely a game you should play if you're even remotely interested in martial arts, Hong Kong and stabbing a dude with a fish while dressed up in the yellow Game of Death jumpsuit.

Seriously.

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