Sunday, 23 September 2012

Sleeping Dogs

If anyone needs proof of the on-going power of traditional advertising in today’s society then the fact that I bought Sleeping Dogs on release should do the trick. I didn’t buy this because it’s a sequel to a series that I buy every sequel of out of habit, in the same way you order a coffee whenever you’re in Starbucks even if you consciously know you don’t want one, and I certainly didn’t buy it because the developers released a few pictures of vehicles and gave extensive bullshit packed interviews about how “expansive” and “engaging” their game would be without showing us any of the fucking content. No, a brand new IP released some cool trailers and adverts that gave me a massive raging hard-on for the game and I couldn’t throw my money at the poor acne-afflicted Game employee fast enough. Little lesson there for the games industry, there: Instead of complaining about piracy, maybe, y’know, make your games look appealing and people might buy them, maybe.

Part of the reason for my sexual arousal over this game is the fact that it’s a sandbox game set in Asia, namely Hong Kong; something I’ve been hoping, nay praying for, for quite some time. You play as Wei Shen, a hardened undercover cop sent to join a Triad gang with the hopes of taking it down from the inside, following the “How to be like GTA: 101” structure of doing odd jobs for increasingly powerful members of your gang, inexplicably gaining their trust almost immediately and somehow causing all of them to value you over their lifelong friends and gradually increasing your rank within the organisation, with your wealth and quality of housing increasing in proportion to your position within the gang. The game’s story elements are similarly generic, consisting of power struggles within the gang, battles with other gangs over protection rackets, drugs, everything you’d expect. The fact that you play as an undercover police officer is somewhat refreshing, the clash between Wei’s duties as an officer and his growing attachment to his gang members offering a new twist on the “kill and steal until I’m the most powerful” formula so prevalent in the Grand Theft Autos and Saints Rows of the world.

The city of Hong Kong presented in Sleeping Dogs is worthy of some praise. Although it’s not as expansive as Liberty City in GTA4, for example, the city still feels enormous, the high rise buildings and complex road system and heavy traffic giving the player the impression that the city is perhaps much larger than it really is. Plus, with the reduced size comes an increased focus on detail, even the smallest of back alleys and pathways look like they’ve been given close attention and the detail in pedestrian and traffic behaviour for example gives the feeling, vital to a sandbox game more than any other, that the city is alive and real. Sure, you’ll never see anything as convincing as a giant and a dragon fighting each other in Skyrim but it doesn’t really need anything so obvious, Sleeping Dogs has slightly more subtle ways to make the city come alive. The night market right at the start of the game is a perfect example, people are walking around and talking to each other and trading and the feeling that this city would carry on fine without you shines through strongly. I’ve noted before that impressive graphics are kind of expected these days so I won’t make too much of a point about them but they did stand out to me more in Sleeping Dogs than any other title I’ve played recently. The water effects are particularly stunning; if you can find me a more wondrous sight than weaving through traffic on a Hong Kong motorway during a torrential downpour then I’d love to see it, although it’d have to be Yoshiki playing a drum solo with an orchestra on Godzilla’s face while it smashes through a Coldplay concert to impress me any more than the water effects in Sleeping Dogs.

I didn’t go into this game expecting much originality in terms of mission structure and the game obliged my pessimism handsomely. Most of the missions consist of fetch quests, giving people lifts, engaging in melee combat and gunfights, little puzzles and chase sequences ripped wholesale from the Yakuza games. They’re generally very unchallenging and there’s a little more busywork than I’m comfortable with in a game like this, picking up girlfriends from shopping trips and taking guests to karaoke doesn’t do much to satisfy the whole “gangster fantasy” the game builds up with its more exciting missions. Many of the missions also don’t make use of the expansive city the game takes place in. I’d have thought the first thing to do when you’ve created an awesome city would be incorporate it into missions as often as possible but far too often the missions take place in buildings and enclosed areas and the city itself is relegated to a commuting zone. There was certainly potential to make use of the city; one particularly memorable motorway car chase was absolutely exhilarating and I would have loved to have seen the city itself used more often to create a similar experience.

Melee combat has always been somewhat clunky and difficult in sandbox games and this is a problem that Sleeping Dogs tackles admirably. The combat system lies somewhere between Yakuza and the Batman Arkham games, one button to attack, one to counter and one to grapple. It’s very possible to win every fight using just these most basic of attacks but there’s a vast array of combos and special moves on offer as upgrades, as well as occasional weapons and environmental attacks more suited to The Punisher than a fun little action game. These fights are great examples of what’s known as “dynamic difficulty;” in that you can make these sections as hard or as easy as you like: You can take every enemy one-on-one with bare knuckles if you’re one of those house brick eating “hardcore gamers” or just throw them all onto meat hooks if you’ve got somewhere else to be. Shooting sections are far less common than in equivalent games set in America, seeing as how Hong Kong is a slightly more sensible place that doesn’t serve assault rifles with their Big Mac and fries, but when they do show up they’re entirely generic cover based “we’ve all been here before far too often” deals. It would have been refreshing to see a big budget action game without shooting sections; the melee combat is probably strong enough the carry the combat requirements alone, but I guess action games just don’t sell these days if they don’t meet the gun porn quota.

The driving sections are similarly mediocre. The controls are functional but somewhat clunky, which isn’t a problem during the commuting sections, due to the simple fact that the city is fun to travel around, but during the many mandatory chase sections and races they can become a tad irritating. This problem is less prevalent during chases on large open roads than it is during races along smaller and narrower streets, during which it’s entirely possible to lead for 90% of the race and then have one crash, made impossible to recover from by the fact that it takes about 4 hours to do a 3 point turn due to the awkward control scheme, cost you the race. That said, as long as you don’t mind replaying a couple of the races a few times it shouldn’t be a big problem, for most people. The missions also feature several stealth and puzzles sections that I feel were severely underutilised in this game. For the most part, the stealth sections suffer from the COD problem of being impossible to fail but one towards the end, during which you must sneak out of a popstar’s apartment after bugging all of her equipment, just leaves you to it and it’s actually fairly tense for a couple of minutes, more of that would have been nice. The puzzles are, for the most part, just a matter of waggling an analog stick around but the number puzzle was actually kind of challenging and fun at first, until they repeated the same one over and over. Maybe include a couple more in the sequel, guys?

One normally vital aspect of sandbox games that Sleeping Dogs falters on harder than any of my recent attempts to get laid is in its sidequests. Good sidequests should be both fun and worthwhile. The fun aspect is woefully missing from singing karaoke, white-knighting women and doing infinite drug busts and the only reward is money and ‘face,’ the only privilege of which is apparent respect and being able to wear nicer clothes. This leads to the bizarre situation in which you can be Supreme King of the City but if you haven’t pulled enough insurance scams for minor acquaintances then you’re not allowed to wear a fucking blazer without being laughed at by pedestrians, which tends to somewhat undermine the feeling of omnipotence that progressing through a sandbox crime game is fundamentally built on. In fact there’s very little to spend your money on at all. You can buy clothes that you can’t wear and cars, which is a bit like selling pens with pictures of semi-naked women on them in a Newcastle nightclub. The lack of motivation of actually do the sidequests, coupled with the somewhat pedestrian story, leaves the game with very little replay value, the exact opposite of what sidequests are supposed to achieve.

Ever since having my life changed for the better by GTA Vice City’s immense collection of 80’s gems, one of the most important aspects of any sandbox game to me personally is the soundtrack. This is another area in which Sleeping Dogs falls somewhat flat, with a metal station consisting of a bland inconsistent selection of tracks, 2 good Opeth tunes and that Trivium song that was on Saints Row that everyone was sick of 3 years ago, a Kerrang! station that might as well be renamed “Hipster’s Paradise” and a classic rock station with awesome Queen and Thin Lizzy tracks and very little else worthy of note. This may have been a budget issue, and as much as the lack of great music disappoints me if you can’t understand a game designer’s choice to put all of their funds into developing a good game instead of wasting them on music then stop playing games and buy an iPod.

My usual tendency when dealing with wholly unoriginal games is to crucify them, see that overlong hate letter I wrote to Modern Warfare 3, but what Sleeping Dogs lacks in innovation it makes up for in sheer fun. Just don’t expect much in terms of replay value; it’s the kind of thing to blast through in one sitting during a long weekend or a summer spent entirely indoors. If that’s the kind of thing you’re after then you’ll very much enjoy Sleeping Dogs, as I did.

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