Tuesday, September 4, 2012

REVIEW - Sleeping Dogs.

Sleeping Dogs was a great idea.  There's a wonderful concept behind this game, and a rich love of its subject matter permeates every nook and cranny.  

I'm thrilled to report that if you dig the idea of Sleeping Dogs - of a playable Hong Kong crime epic - you'll have a lot of fun with this one. 

Best.  Box art.  Ever.

Sleeping Dogs is a more articulate and well-executed game than one would expect, given its unusual gestation. After changing names three times and publishers twice, you'd think things would get a bit muddled, somewhere.  You'd anticipate the quality control may not be up to snuff, keeping your eyes out for half-cooked core gameplay elements, or at least a crappy script - but Sleeping Dogs doesn't have any of that.

It's solid - and much of it is excellent.  Take the soundtrack - oh my God, the soundtrack.  Check out this song from The Budos Band.



That is driving-down-the-road-on-your-way-to-kung-fu-some-ass music.  Can't dig the funky jazz?  Check out Jewels & Gems or Whatuknowabout from Two Fingers or Sleepwalking by Photek or Emika's Drop The Other or... well, I could just keep going.

The music is so good it makes you wish you never had to get out of the game's cars.  While playing, I was constantly reaching for a pen to jot down song names, made all the easier by a radio system that always tells you what song is playing - and allows you to switch tracks, a'la GTA.

Yes, Sleeping Dogs clearly owes a debt to the grand daddy of sandbox games.  You start off as a low-level thug on a crumby bike, accept missions from various folks around the city and work your way up to swanky apartments and million-dollar sports cars - old hat, really - but Sleeping Dogs does its part, here and there, to move the genre forward and pleasantly surprise you.

For example, no GTA clone, or even GTA itself, ever had combat like this.


Shades of Batman: Arkham Asylum appear here as the combat system is designed for multiple opponents,  weighed heavily towards countering your enemy and taking advantage of the ensuing opening, and Sleeping Dogs' system similarly grows more complicated as the move list deepens and more options open up to put the smackdown on your foes.

It rarely feels as supple as the combat of a dedicated brawler, but its design is considered enough to leave a very satisfying impression.  You can always cancel out of an attack animation into a counter, for example, and while it's not particularly fast-paced, it's tactical enough to remain interesting throughout the campaign.

Similarly, the game's free-running element is no Assassin's Creed, but it once again beats the crap out of the GTA standard.  Player character Wei Shen books it up walls and over obstacles with a well-timed button tap (a late press results in Shen fumbling his way around, and a penalty to experience points), and both the combat and platforming are fully mo-capped to the point that the player is regularly able to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the virtual athleticism on display.

The lovely motion capture comes at the expense of really sharp controls, but given that the game is bent to the purpose of recreating the vibe of forty years worth of Hong Kong crime cinema, it never feels like we're getting the short end of the stick.


The driving and shooting are also just a tad better than good enough.  Once you get a handle on drifting, blasting around the game's miniature Hong Kong is an easy-going pleasure.  When you place a waypoint, markers appear in the game world reminding you to turn this corner, or take that lane off the freeway.

A nice touch - and one I hope Rockstar is paying attention to.

When shooting from a vehicle (aim for the tires - blowouts are spectacular in Sleeping Dogs), or while leaping from cover, time dilates for a moment.  If the player can kill an enemy during that time, the time dilation will continue - potentially setting up a half-minute of glorious slow-mo bodies-and-particle-effects-flying-everywhere carnage.

Another nice touch.


The game's writing and narrative presentation, similarly, fail to disappoint.  Voice work is great across the board.

Sure, everyone in Hong Kong speaks accented English punctuated by Cantonese phrases, but it's a trade in favor of the player's immersion.  As Shen ass-kicks his way through the town's criminal underbelly, he meets a well-defined cast of interesting characters who regularly reveal more depth than one expects.  It's very cool to accept missions from the calculating, remorseless Mrs. Chu, for example.


More games need to have chubby, middle-aged Asian chefs bent on bloody vengeance, and - in the same way it was cool in Alice: Madness Returns or Lollipop Chainsaw or Prototype 2 or Shank - it's cool to play a nice big game where you're not just another white dude.

The plot takes a few uneven turns.  Shen's police handler is a broken record in the early stages of the game, pretty much dismissing anything you say as an indication "you're getting too close," and it would be nice if any of the ladies you date over the course of the game actually had storylines. It seems Shen is more of a love 'em and leave 'em kind of fellow - and there's a side mission where you stalk one of the girls and confront her for "cheating" on you, which comes across as totally out of character for the suave badass - but such strange blips are the exception, rather than the rule.

Sleeping Dogs does an excellent job of involving the player in its plot - of allowing you to grow attached to this character before yanking them away, or of building one expectation before delivering another.  It works really well - but not everything is so refined.


While it's nice to include guns as one of the title's pillars, they appear so rarely that you'll often forget the controls for a bit until you get back into the swing of things.  Minigames make regular appearances, and few of them are very successful.  The code-breaking game is instantly masterable, and never becomes a greater challenge, while the lock-cracking and drug-dealer-fingering (less dirty than it sounds) are just tedious - but those are merely the strange white flecks of who-knows-what at the corner of a lover's mouth; the rest of the package more than makes up for it.

There's just very little to complain about here.  Some of the minigames are boring and the ending is slightly abrupt - those are the worst things I can say.

Sleeping Dogs is a game that knows exactly what it's trying to be, and has no severely weak link to damage the experience.  It's like The Saboteur without all the missed steps. No single aspect of it (save, perhaps, the soundtrack) approaches perfect, but it's far more successful in its ambition than I had any right to hope.  If you ever enjoyed a Hong Kong action-crime epic, if you ever took pleasure a modern-set kung-fu movie, if you like the early work of Jackie Chan and Chow-Yun Fat, you will glean a lot of enjoyment from Sleeping Dogs.  


THE GOOD
  • a successful, playable Hong Kong crime epic
  • if it's a GTA clone, it's the best GTA clone I've ever played
  • a frickin' incredible soundtrack
  • fun, beautiful kung-fu combat
  • functional, good-looking traversal mechanics
  • the melee and traversal are worlds better than any other GTA-style game
  • the mocap really pays off in suspension of disbelief
  • the shooting and driving are entirely good enough, and very stylish
  • often very good writing
  • great characters and a very involving story
  • a cool setting
  • there are a good half-dozen delicious little touches (like the waypoint lane markers) that I hope to see picked up in other games
  • box art of the year, right here
  • calling a lackey to bring me my Lamborghini never gets old
THE BAD
  • Why does Shen just date a girl, sleep with her once and move on?  That feels kinda' douchey.  ...although, none of them call him later asking for a date.  Is it supposed to be a comment on his... prowess?
  • When I start up the game, it auto-selects "new game" and "continue game" takes like fifteen seconds to load and become available.  That's not cool.
  • The minigames are pretty boring.  Oh, and that karaoke minigame sucks
  • Feels a touch short. 
THE VERDICT
Sleeping Dogs is an ambitious, successful attempt to deliver a playable Hong Kong crime epic with a bare minimum of missed steps.  Check it out.

4 comments:

  1. damnit. . . if only i wasn't saving myself for borderlands 2.

    She promised she'd be back after two years, i can't let that kind of honesty go unrewarded.

    I dance with the one who brought me

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  2. Borderlands 2 assuredly has a lot more replayability.

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  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  4. I'm... going to call that corporate shilling and delete that comment. Sorry, Bob.

    ReplyDelete