Gaming: First Impressions of “Sleeping Dogs”

I really like open-world games, but they have always seemed to me monstrously hard to pull off. You control this character who can run, jump, shoot, fight and drive. Many games tend to only focus on one of these things, but open-world games try to tackle all of them. It’s the difference between an athlete like Michael Phelps, who excels at swimming, but who would probably fail a triathlon.

The reigning king, and still champion of the genre is the Grand Theft Auto series, but recently, a new challenger emerged, and while it might never challenge for the crown, it can definitely carve out its own kingdom.

United Front Game’s Sleeping Dogs had a troubled gestation. It started out with a female protagonist, but when publisher Activison took an interest, they decided to enfold it into its True Crime series as True Crime: Hong Kong, and make the main character a man. Then, for some reason, Activision cancelled it, though it was rumoured to be almost done, and its fate remained uncertain until Square-Enix saw it, loved it, and picked it up, rebranding the whole thing as Sleeping Dogs.

HOW IT WORKS

Here’s the set-up: You play Wei Shen (interestingly, in Mandarin, his name sounds like the word for ‘danger’), an undercover cop who spent a long time in the States, but who’s recently come home to Hong Kong. Your buddies growing up now run in various triad gangs around the city and your job is to infiltrate them and take them down, while walking the fine line between cop and killer. The story itself is more than a little cliched, and it wears its Hong Kong hard-boiled action movie influences on its bloodied and ripped sleeve, but for an open-world videogame, it’s kind of refreshing.

Hong Kong itself is beautifully rendered. For years, gamers have been calling out for a Grand Theft Auto game set anywhere but the United States, and Sleeping Dogs goes a long way to delivering on that with its various temples, and night markets, and the palpable sense of living by the sea. Also, Wei Shen is probably one of the most likeable characters in a videogame I’ve ever met. He’s an easy-going everyman who just happens to be an undercover detective and kung-fu action hero, trying to do the right thing while having to portray himself as an inveterate psychopath.

“Sleeping Dogs” Preview

Possibly one of the things that makes him likeable is that guns are in such short supply in Sleeping Dogs. Most Grand Theft Auto games suffer from the cognitive dissonance of having to play an everyman caught in unusual circumstances who then kills literally hundreds of people during the course of the game. Sleeping Dogs sidesteps all that by making fighting and grappling the main event.

Lifted largely from the successful Batman games by Rocksteady, the fighting system uses the by-now much-imitated formula of X for hitting, Y for countering, and B for grabbing. In my experience with Sleeping Dogs, I found countering kind of finicky and not as fluid as the Batman games. You do get a warning however – the attacker glows red when he’s about to strike, but the window for countering is very small, and that can sometimes lead to frustrating fights, especially when someone stabs you from behind, and you are caught in an animation loop. The lack of the ability to adjust difficulty settings doesn’t help. That finickyness also applies to other things – like the particular place you have to stand when opening a suitcase collectible, for instance, or when the game is trying to decide whether you want to get on a motorcycle or talk to someone – Y being the same button to do both.

WHY IT WORKS

But for every finicky thing Sleeping Dogs does, it more than makes up for it with pure joy. For instance, any car you get into can lunge a short distance by pressing X, which is great for edging other cars off the road during races, or for ramming the hell out of cars in front. It actually never gets old. And while reversing is slow and tedious, the game compensates by giving you the option to handbrake and squeal a 180 degree turn instead. On a motorcycle, this is sometimes the sexiest thing in the world.

While some may dismiss Sleeping Dogs as just another GTA-clone, it is the little things that you’ll notice. Like the hilarious conversations of a mother and daughter just outside your first apartment. The first girl you take on a date will have on a pretty dress the next time you see her – a rarity in games where character models are used over and over. Indie record label Ninja Tune gets its own radio channel in the cars you drive.

Despite its troubled upbringing, Sleeping Dogs has matured into a fine and distinguished new franchise.

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Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle FictionsPedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.

Related on The Smoking Jacket:

Gaming: Ghost Recon, Interrupted
Game Review: Max Payne 3
Casual Gaming: Lego Batman
Alan Wake, American Nightmare
The State of Superhero Gaming

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