Sunday, March 31

Sleeping Dogs Review (PS3): Undercover Gangster's Paradise

There comes a time when I think I have every video game genre pegged. First person shooters more than anything else, I guess - but, yeah, sometimes I'm almost certain of what I'll find when I boot up a game like Sleeping Dogs. Fast cars, awkward cover-shooting, a foul-mouthed supporting cast and a seemingly endless run of extremely-violent situations -- some of which are either mandatory or optional to experience -- were all I expected to find lining the streets of Hong Kong, but thankfully, there were more than a few surprises lurking in the ports, markets and alleyways of this neon city.

Most surprising and convincing of all is the conflict that your role as an undercover police offer presents throughout the adventure. Yes, this is a sandbox action game -- where mayhem can indeed be the order of the day -- but how could an officer of the law indulge in wanton destruction? There's nothing to stop you from popping caps in innocent asses, mind you, apart from an arbitrary police force, a scoring system that formulates your actions into experience for one of three different areas... and your sworn oath to serve and protect. That last bit was entirely assumed on my part: I was more than happy to deal death to drug dealers and gang bangers, but I was afraid of some narrative outcome for my misdeeds. So menacing is the threat of reprisal from your superiors, from both gangland and law enforcement fields, that I thought it best to behave.

The supporting cast is indeed menacing, though many members of it were oddly endearing - not just your loyal companions, but also the antagonists. There are some relationships that weren't fully developed and, as a result, you'll witness some awkward scenes where you find the hero (?), Wei Shen closer to people you'd imagine he'd just as soon shoot before you started the last mission. Some deaths are handled in a similar way, where I couldn't match Wei's grief as I had no idea who was laying on the slab. Narrative inconsistencies aside, I was surprised to find that there were genuine people hiding beneath layers of bravado, testosterone and violent intent.

 We are all best friends now!

Back to the scoring system, abilities and perks are unlocked through earning experience for the three aspects of Wei's work: Cop, Triad and Face. Cop experience comes from busting drug dealers, cracking cases and conducting yourself with restraint and finesse (read: don't kill civilians, crash into other cars and public property, etc). As it's possible to earn Cop score in all story missions and a reasonable array of secondary tasks, it's possible to gain access to every upgrade within a single playthrough. This component of the scoring system goes a way to reinforce the narrative context of being an undercover cop, which serves to almost excuse some of the more heinous acts that Wei takes part in or is at least complicit with.

Most secondary activities and dynamic events afford Face score, so again it's entirely possible that you'll be a Dai Lo before the game's end as well. I loved the idea of the "Face" activities which have Wei performing all sorts of favours for characters that you encounter throughout the main missions as well as the everyday denizens of the expansive city. It contributes to a real sense of place, community even, where the people walking the streets have the ability to impact on your experience even though they may not be directly involved in the overarching narrative.

Triad score is only afforded during story missions, and relatively stingily so, meaning I was unable to see every ability that this aspect had to offer. Your Triad score is an indicator of your performance in combat: using the environment to deal death and watching out for counter opportunities will net you a high score, while acting as a bullet sponge is a sure fire way to come up empty. The scoring system did a great deal to compel me to dabble in most of Sleeping Dogs extracurricular activities; I only wish that the Triad score came a bit easier so I could've unlock that jumping elbow attack.

Sharp writing!

The movement system in Sleeping Dogs is perhaps its greatest asset, mechanically speaking, with an array of moves that pay homage to the high stakes action sequences typical of old school Hong Kong action flicks. From the game's explosive opening, you'll get to engage with a spectacular-looking parkour system that is an absolute blast when it's functional. The dizzying heights at which you'll run and jump are made all the more awe-inspiring through judicious use of slow motion, and it never fails to looks spectacular in mission sequences. The free running gets a little stifled outside of the scripted sequences, with Wei not always responding to your commands and frequently being unable to clear low rises like road shoulders, sports cars and other small hurdles that you'd otherwise assume he could clear. It's not game breaking, but it's somewhat jarring seeing Wei go from daring action hero to uncoordinated oaf once the pace slows down.  

Driving -- a key action in almost any sandbox action game -- is handled competently, with all but the fastest of cars handling well on the streets and highways of Hong Kong. Street races, which were optional for the most part, provided the most annoyances with inconsistent opponent AI and performance. In some races I could streak to the front of the pack and not be troubled for an entire race, while on other occasions, the race leader could not be hunted down - even if I managed to maintain top speed for the majority of an event. The mechanic that most will remember Sleeping Dogs for in future, however, is the action hijack which allows Wei to commandeer cars at full speed. Jumping from car to car, much like the painfully underrated PSP driving/shooter hybrid, Pursuit Force, is a real thrill, which again seems like a nod to classic action films. It's just a shame that use of the ability is often forbidden during story missions - I know it's for good reason, but I want to a new ride whenever I damn well please! 

Bigbig Studios would be proud.

Combat is equal parts brutally satisfying and frustrating, with a melee system that struggles to cope with the large numbers of foes that are thrown into the mix. Wei's no good at crowd control (even though he does have some area attacks), meaning he can get caught in a veritable pinball machine of enemy strikes if surrounded. Counters are responsive, but some grapple moves and combos require similar inputs which lends not only to a feeling of repetition, but also irritation, as I often missed a button press or the required combination of buttons failed to register. The Face Meter allows for some ill feeling to be avoided with regenerating health and, if you invest the time in secondary tasks, attacks that can't be interrupted by enemy strikes; but even with this crutch, I often ended up falling against large throngs of enemy thugs. Still, much like the parkour system, when the hand-to-hand combat works, it makes for an immensely thrilling and satisfying experience.

The third person shooting action occurs far less frequently than the fisticuffs, but it's a uniformly positive addition to Sleeping Dogs' combat repertoire. Getting in and out of cover is fluid, and the slow motion effect when you vault over obstacles and out of windows leads to plenty of memorable and gory moments. There is nothing quite like jumping over a counter top to steal a golden hand cannon, only to use it to splatter its former owner's brains all over a food service area - in slow mo no less! On rails sequences, where you defend your car from incoming vehicular threats are also a treat, with cars and bikes flying or otherwise rolling across lanes of highway traffic if you line up your shots well. There's also the capacity to regenerate health during firefights, meaning that you'll rarely be aggravated during these segments. While the arsenal may not be as broad as those featured in other sandbox action games, distributing lead amongst warring Triad factions is always fun.

In terms of presentation, this iteration of Hong Kong leaves something to be desired. I haven't walked through the city itself in real-life, I just can't imagine it being so muddy. There's a grainy veneer slapped over any structures in the distance, and there are some issues with pop-in - particularly when you decide to visit an offshore gambling den. It's like they appear out of nowhere! The soundtrack is solid, with most stations providing a listenable mix of tracks with reasonably humorous faux advertisements to punctuate programming. There's even some tracks performed by one of the in-game characters which give an air of authenticity to some of the later missions. It's not the worst looking or scored open world action game I've played, but the visuals in particular could have used some extra polish. 

The mission design in Sleeping Dogs is an example of best practice for the sandbox action game genre, with frequent checkpoints, exciting and well-constructed set pieces, and concise mission length that had me baying for more. I can't think of a single activity or mission that I didn't enjoy, and more importantly, all of the faux-sleuthing action has me convinced that United Front Games could deliver the open world Ghost in the Shell game that I've always wanted. Phone bugging, stakeouts, call-tracing, safe-cracking - it's all here, it's all accessible and it's all fun. No system or mechanic is featured too often in consecutive missions so as to become stale, and I was genuinely sorry to see the end of Wei Shen's saga. There are some sequences that are not fit for the faint of heart, but the game comes easily and highly recommended. 

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