Imagine only having one game for the rest of your life. Your ‘desert island game’; you play this one or you play nothing, forever. Put that in your head a minute.
I know, right? It’s hard! Every time you think you’ve got it, you think oh shit, there’s no, I don’t know, no driving in that one. Or there’s no mining, or resource management, or RTS of FPS or MOBA or whatever; you get my point? No game does it all.
That’s how games work; they’re a sum of their parts. That’s true of most things, but games are the form of media to which this phrase applies best. Yes, movies and TV are discretely yayed or nayed for disparate elements like writing and sound design; gamers go one step further with this logic. If I asked you to name not the best FPS game but the best first-person shooting in a game, dollars to dimes says that the answers to those two questions are two different games. That’s how we think about games: we break them down into their separate gameplay mechanics. You take some otherwise five-star game but with a fucked up, broken cover system, that’s what people are are gonna remember. Or conversely, I bet you can name some crappy game that had a great user interface, or hacking mini-game or whatever, and despite the crappiness, your memories of that title are fond ones.
If I had to come up with my ‘desert island game’, one title that had to last me for the rest of my life, my first one to pop into my head would be imaginary. It would be a Frankengame, a pastiche that only exists in a theoretical, modular wonderland where the rules of programming languages and IP law don’t exist, where you can yank the driving physics out of one game and jam it into the sandbox of another, and sprinkle it with the the procedural content of this one, and the shooting mechanics of that, but using the guns of the other, blablablablablah.
Games either try to do a lot of things passing well, or just a few things very well indeed. GTA-style sandbox games are a good example of the former: the most infamous ones are the ones that try to spread themselves too thin, that attempt to do too many things to get any one element ‘right’. Back in 2003, True Crime: Streets of LA became the poster boy for this. It tried so hard to jam content into every nook and cranny of like 250 square miles of Los Angeles County, but every single element in terms of actual gameplay just felt loose and sloppy, if not outright broken. I remember thinking that the only things the game had going for it were a pretty good soundtrack, and Gary Oldman chewing up digital scenery like it was made out of borscht. Activision tried again with True Crime: NYC a couple of years later. The mechanics were tighter (especially the hand-to-hand combat), and the main character was waaaaay less of a douche, but it still felt like there was too much soup, not enought salt.
True Crime: Hong Kong was hyped all to shit, then cancelled. THEN Square Enix of all people picked it up. It came out this week, with a new title probably meant to distance itself from its older, still-living-in-their-mom’s-basement brothers.
In Sleeping Dogs, you are Wei Shen, an deep-cover cop sent back to his native Hong Kong to infiltrate a Triad gang. You will out-drive, out-gun, and out-asskick every thug in the city on your bloody way to the top of the organization. The irony here is that the original title is fitting: as Wei makes his way (hah!) through the labrynthine story of ever-changing loyalties and betrayals, he is constantly challenged to question his definition of right and wrong. The game’s story borrows heavily from Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs (or its inferior but still decent American remake, The Depaaaaaaahted), in that one is never sure who the real villians are, the cops or the “criminals”.
Wei is back in Hong Kong after years in the U.S., and it takes a while for him (and us) to get his bearings. But in an open-world action game, that’s part of the fun. The city feels exactly as big and dangerous as it should be: my first walk around the neighborhood included a chasing a purse-snatcher, a kung fu battle in a thug-infested back alley, a street race and a con-artist. And as I discovered, I would come to consider that a slow fucking night.
Wei is an adept street fighter, equally proficient with fists, blades, guns and any particularly pain-shaped things sticking out of the architecture. At least for the first half of the game, most of the damage Wei dishes out is in face-kick-sized chunks. It’s a good thing that this is one of the first sandbox games that really nails the hand to hand combat. Like Batman in the Arkham games, Wei is more than capable of handling multiple opponents, and doing so without any “wonderful toys” save what falls from the hands of unconcious thugs. With a pull of the left trigger, Wei can lock onto an opponent, but never loses the ability to attack or defend in any other direction while doing so. Every object and surface has contextual opportunities, with certian parts of the architecture available for brutal finishing moves. Using all of these possible tools togethers results in combat that is fluid, stylish, and, well, just freakin’ nasty. For all his inner torment about taking lives, Wei doesn’t seem to have any trouble sleeping after a night of impaling street-corner toughs on giant fishhooks and roasting their heads in blast furnaces.
As Wei’s journey through the Hong Kong crime scene spirals down into the darkness, the option to kill or not pretty much goes poof as soon as the guns start showing up. The shooting sequences are where Sleeping Dogs feels less like GTA and more like Max Payne, in that they’re fluid, bloody, and short. There’s a basic but functional cover system, and Wei can leap over objects and blast enemies in slow motion, Vanquish-style. That coupled with a bunch of mean-ass disarming moves translates into gunplay that’s frantic and visceral.
Wei doesn’t go frolicking around Hong Kong with a rocket launcher like Nico Bellic; for the most part the player is unarmed until the start of a specific sequence. The game sometimes goes so far as to magically yank your gun out of your hands as it’s congratulating you on a job well done. The transitions in and out of gunplay sequences are sometimes a bit hamfisted; it’s kind of a telegraph to turn a corner and find a pistol sitting there at the entrance of a sewer. I guess steps needed to be taken to limit the amount of situations in which you could solve your problems with hot lead, but still.
The gunplay is satisfying, though, focusing more on style and spectacle than on bodycount. The same principle applies to the driving: there are numerous little flourishes to make getting around Hong Kong as entertaining as possible. As big as the map is, I never found myself thinking “fuuuuck, I gotta get all the way over there!?”, which happened all the time in GTAIV. The driving mechanics are super tight, more in line with a Need for Speed title than the usual bricks-on-rollerskates you typically find in a sandbox game. Wei has just as many ‘moves’ behind the wheel as he does on foot, leaping from speeding car to speeding car and battering opponents with a dedicated “ram” move. Sometimes you’ll find yourself literally riding shotgun, fending off pursuers whose vehicles tend to wipe out bigger than the bad guys from The A-Team. There are also a ton of straight-up street races happening around the city, but other than a few plot-specific challenges, these don’t mix it up much, and you’ll actually have more fun with the incedental driving you do in the game.
Wei is on foot for a majority of the game anyway. Most of the time, this is a good thing. There is a freerunning mechanic that allows you to vault over obstacles and leap gaps, but one that has very specific parameters. Wei is no Altair, and his climbing abilities are limited to interacting with certain recognizeable surfaces ala Mirror’s Edge. You’ll find yourself in a lot of foot-chases; hell, it’s the very first thing you do in the game. The trouble is that the whole mechanic boils down to you having a “press x to not headbutt a wall” kinda thing. It’s limited but it does the trick, especially when paired with Wei’s other abilities.
That’s the thing about Sleeping Dogs. Wei is Die Hard, but he’s not Die Hard 4, and he can find himself very much over his head. In the same way, each of the gameplay elements (driving, shooting, etc.) can be said to have its limitations. But the point is (and this is where the other games in the “series” failed) that if you recognize those limitations, and learn to use all the moves in your skillset in conjunction, then there’s nothing the game throws at you you can’t handle.
An example: I was getting my ass consistently kicked trying to clear out a gang guarding a surveillance camera (one of the clumsier side activities, you’ll see what I mean). It wasn’t until I sent a motorcycle careening into the group, vaulted over a dumpster, any bullet-timed a shot into its gas tank (which was AWESOME) that I was able to get the job done. And that’s where the game shines. It’s packed to the brim will these random-encounter-turned-setpiece moments. Some of the individual mechanics can be clumsy, and some of the activities can drag, but the sum experience is a total blast. The game gives you the tools to make every sequence as stylish and as over-the-top as you want; you’ll be tempted to re-do completed missions just for the sake of choreographing unused gameplay elements into the sequence. I defy you to admit you ever wanted to replay a scene in a GTA game.
The game’s story structure is woven into the missions pretty elegantly. Wei is an undercover cop, but for all intents and purposes he is a Triad as well. The story moves along these two intertwining paths, with the choice to move either along by completing missions. Any any one time, you can move the “cop” or “gangster” stories forward at your own pace, though they will often crisscross. The story is traditional, if well-crafted: you’ve got the conflicted cop, the twisting alignments and betrayals, the sinister, colonialist Brit pulling the strings, etc. The story is compelling, the characters memorable, the emotions evocative; you care what happens to Wei and his compatriots. That’s rare in this day and age of the skippable cutscene. The character of Wei is especially fleshed out, with a three-dimensional personality that never feels overdone. When he is cocky, it works; when he gets angry, look the fuck out. He is a likeable character, and the game works just as much as a chronicle of his journey as it does a means to get back to the action.
Sleeping Dogs is a good example of an open-world with exactly enough content. Almost everything there is to do in the game is fun; you never have a “no, Roman, I do NOT want to go freakin’ bowling” moment. That’s high praise for a game that tries to do so much. If a game is the sum of its parts, the best game will be one in which those parts work best when used together, and this is where this game shines. Sandobx games create a world, and plunk you down in it. The Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs is one you will return to again and again.