Friday, August 31, 2012

Inside Man: Sleeping Dogs Review

Sleeping Dogs has the distinction of possibly having the most convoluted journey to store shelves that has ever produced a quality game. Just this past year, we saw an example of what typically happens when a game with a troubled development cycle is finally released: the abysmal Duke Nukem Forever. Put that abomination out of your mind, though, as Sleeping Dogs rises from the ashes to reach amazing heights. United Front Games and Square Enix have given us one of the best open world experiences of this generation.

Beginning life as Black Lotus, a game featuring a female protagonist, and eventually morphing into True Crime: Hong Kong, Sleeping Dogs has had quite a few cooks in the kitchen over the years. Amazingly, the finished product is a largely coherent and easily enjoyed thrill ride. A sort-of Greatest Hits of Open World Games, Sleeping Dogs borrows liberally from several other franchises. The resulting mix is still somehow fresh feeling, and I never felt as though I was playing a patchwork of game systems.

Taking control of Wei Shen, the player is tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee triad and destroying it from the inside. Shen has returned to Hong Kong after several years in the States, and is on a quest to avenge his sister's death. The main plotline is borrowed liberally from The Departed, which itself was a remake of the Hong Kong film Internal Affairs. If you're a fan of either of those films, the major plot points will be somewhat expected, but the superb acting and writing of Sleeping Dogs allows it to stand on its own.

Wei Shen: Cool dude.

While the facial animations leave a lot to be desired, the voice work of the main cast is of an amazingly high level. Wei Shen, is particular, is an extremely likeable and well-acted character throughout his journey. This is a welcome departure from other open world protagonists, namely GTA IV's Niko Bellic, who is a terrible character with no redeeming qualities.

The world of Sleeping Dogs is extremely enjoyable to explore. While I cannot attest to how accurate a portrayal of Hong Kong it is, I truly felt as though I was in another country, entirely unique from the faux-New York often put forth in these types of games. A big part of that is the fact that traffic flows from the left-hand lane, which often lead to some serious car wrecks in my early hours with the game. It's startling how something this simple is taken for granted by gaming habits. I often found myself getting into the wrong door, parking in oncoming lanes, and generally taking turns far too wide.

At some moments, Sleeping Dog's Hong Kong looks downright next-gen. When rainstorms pound the neon-lit streets, reflections bounce off of every surface, characters clothes become visibly soaked, and NPCs carry umbrellas and taken cover from the storm. Draw distance is never a distraction, and texture work is solid throughout the environment. Animations are smooth, and the player never feels as though they are fighting against the game. This is especially amazing considering that Wei Shen possesses some measure of free-running skills, similar to Assassin's Creed. Shen is able to quickly hurdle over low barriers, and clamber up walls and buildings in order to quickly chase after escaping enemies or outrun pursuing cops.

Movement is quick, and awesome.

A particular low point in Grand Theft Auto IV, for me at least, was the odd changes Rockstar made to the driving portions of the game. The camera seemed constantly pitched too low, without enough visibility ahead of where the player was headed. Fortunately, Sleeping Dogs does not make this same mistake. Portions of the staff at United Front Games have experience with the Need For Speed franchise, and it comes through in the exciting, arcade-like driving. The sense of speed, particularly on motorcycles, is intense, and yet I never felt as though I was out of control.

A major departure in Sleeping Dogs from other open-world crime games is the lack of gunplay. It'll be several hours before Wei acquires a gun, and when it finally happens, the gunplay is fairly lackluster. Instead, a majority of the combat in Sleeping Dogs borrows heavily from the Batman: Arkham series. Hand-to-hand fights are intense, and Wei Shen is capable of learning several new maneuvers from a friendly dojo master. Counters are timing based, and throughout the game are essential to surviving in combat. Wei Shen is often outnumbered in these fights, and there are several classes of enemies, some of which have to be taken down in a specific manner.

This is all well and good, but the combat truly comes together with the brutal environmental takedowns afforded by the environment. Shen can grapple enemies, dragging them into dozens of different hazards, often with bloody results. Table saws, exhaust fans, dumpsters, and aquariums will become your best friend in fistfights, and the moment you first kill someone with a fish is truly magical.

There are some minor quibbles to be had with Sleeping Dogs. On PC, in particular, camera control can be a bit squirrely. This is mitigated to an extent on consoles, although I occasionally found myself incapable of bringing the camera to where I needed it to be in an efficient manner. There are also a few moments in which the odd development cycle appears to have taken a toll on the game. Throughout the game, there are a handful of "girlfriends" which Wei Shen can interact with. These plotlines are quickly discarded though, and there's never any real followup with any of the women. In particular, an oddly timed text message from "Not Ping" near the end of the campaigns feels as though it comes completely out of left field.

These are minor distractions, though. When taken as a complete package, Sleeping Dogs stands as an amazing feat in open world games. It is rare to get a game as surprisingly good as Sleeping Dogs this late in console cycles. The loss of the True Crime tag was possibly the best thing to ever happen to this game. Square Enix was incredibly fortunate to stumble into this game, and smartly afforded it the time needed to finish the development correctly. Sleeping Dogs is one of the best games of this generation, and is a strong frontrunner for 2012 Game of the Year.


Christopher Linendoll loves those Sleepy Dogs.  Advertise to him on Twitter.

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