After being abandoned by Activision in a near-complete state, Square Enix rescues The-Game-Previously-Known-As-True Crime 3 from turnaround hell. The result is an open-world masterwork.
I was skeptical of Sleeping Dogs. Granted, Square Enix has made some of the most amazing games in history, (though most of them occurred before the two titans of the JRPG merged) but this genre did not strike me as being anywhere near their wheelhouse. In the last few years I had come to believe the company was a stodgy, old school AAA company milking their flagships dry. Holy hell, was I ever wrong, so wrong. Sleeping Dogs has changed my perception of this developer and I can only hope we will see more in this vein.
The developer wasn’t the only reason I was skeptical of the game. I’ve never been a fan of the Grand Theft Auto series. Before you write me off right there, let me explain. I’ve always liked racing games, and it has always been my opinion that in a game named Grand Theft Auto, the driving should be fun — it wasn’t. Driving in Grand Theft Auto felt to me like driving in real life. I was just trying to get to where the action was. The driving was clunky, the combat was clunky (though much improved in GTAIV), and the open world bored me. I always enjoyed the setting of the GTA games, but mechanics are important.
Sleeping Dogs is everything I ever wanted out of Grand Theft Auto, more than I even knew was possible.
Sleeping Dogs was described to me as “Grand Theft Auto in Asia,” which I now believe is a horrendous mischaracterization of this masterpiece. A more apt description is that Sleeping Dogs is everything I ever wanted out of Grand Theft Auto, more than I even knew was possible. Melee combat plays a central role in the game. In fact, there is more melee combat than there are gunfights. The melee combat mechanics are fantastic. Simple at the core, with the option for complexity. You can sit there and counter attack your way through every fight Assassin’s Creed style, or you can grab somebody and smash their head into a running circular saw, your choice.
In Sleeping Dogs, you play an undercover cop working your way up through the Triads from the bottom in the city of Hong Kong. Among the triads, things tend to be settled with fists and knives. People are hospitalized or maimed, but not outright murdered, because murder starts a war, and war is bad for profit margins. Spoiler alert, the war comes eventually, and when it does, you can feel the tension and confusion among the characters. Things are different, and you’re a little bit offended that these fucking pricks crossed so many lines. But you’re also secretly happy, because your character is the best at violence, and now you are unleashed. End spoilers.
Lets talk about mechanics. Mechanics are what makes a game feel good or bad when you play it. If you play a game and you feel like an awkward kid that doesn’t know what he’s doing, it’s probably because of poor mechanics. The mechanics in Sleeping Dogs are not innovative, clever, or twee in any form or fashion. You know these mechanics. Playing this game will feel like putting on your favorite pair of pants.
Firearm combat uses the third person view, cover system, typical solid mechanics you find in games these days. There is little innovation to be found here and therein lies the genius. By not getting clever, and trying to innovate mechanically Square allowed anybody that has played a popular action title in the past five years to pick this game up and feel at home. The mechanics are solid, and fluid, to the point where they disappear. Mechanics like this allow us as gamers to achieve greater immersion while maintaining total control.
Playing this game will feel like putting on your favorite pair of pants. The mechanics allow great immersion and total control.
The driving sequences are amazing and here there is some innovation. What you are driving means something. Not only do cars have different speeds, but what vehicle you drive is important for combat driving sequences. Everything slows down when you hold down left trigger and pop your head out the window guns blazing. You drive and shoot at the same time. You are the ultimate Hong Kong martial arts action hero cop. You can do anything. Your character can jump from the speeding car he is driving, to another car’s roof (or for larger vans and such clinging to the side) and hijack said vehicle. This is important because sometimes you are stuck in a shitty car. See a nicer one? Hijack it on the highway at full speed. By the way, if the cops are chasing you, you can hijack a different car at full speed and it reduces the heat on you. I mean honestly guys, if that doesn’t sound fun to you, why the fuck do you play video games?
Now lets talk about story. This story isn’t new, however it is extremely well executed. It’s also familiar, we recognize it from classic Hong Kong Cinema. Who hasn’t watched Hard Boiled and thought “damn, I wish I could play that video game”? If you haven’t seen Hard Boiled, fix your life by watching it immediately.
The plot is engrossing, the characters are surprisingly vibrant. The main story is fully scripted. You have no control over the development of the plot outside when you choose to participate in the main story. This is fantastic, the game feels a thousand times more real, and natural to me than seven shitty dialogue options that lead to the same basic place. The driving is fantastic. Combat while driving is orgasmic. The ability to use a move that smashes into the side of an opposing car and shoves it out of the way is genius. This is your chance to feel like fucking Jason Statham in The Transporter. Got guys on motorcycles shooting at you? Do what you’ve always wanted them to do in the movies. Run them the fuck over.
The innovative side-smash move is your chance to feel like Jason Statham in The Transporter. Guys on cycles shooting at you? Run them the fuck over.
There are few negatives that come to mind. First is that sometimes the camera is a little clunky. There is this need the camera has to center itself, and on occasion it does this at the worst possible moment. But fuck, you’ll be too busy being a badass to even notice 95% of the time. Second is boat docking. “Press B to dock the boat” my ass. If you know how the fuck to do that leave me a comment so I don’t have to jump off the side of the boat and swim to shore.
Your character makes bank, and can buy tons of custom outfits, cars, motorcycles, whatever you want. You can date a bunch of chicks, most of whom require you to perform feats of strength for which you are well equipped. The Karaoke and Gambling mini-games are lots of fun. Hacking missions are OK, but hacking missions where you are under a time crunch are very intense.
The game is open world, and the world is big, so the graphics aren’t that great and the developers had to take some shortcuts by re-using certain storefronts and other assets (plays it off as the stores being chains, not really a big deal). The graphics problems aren’t pervasive, though. All the important stuff is great graphically.
You get some nice closeups of brutality when you grapple people and smash them into various objects. The cut scenes are actually interesting. I was very upset when I accidentally skipped one and had no idea why I was doing what I was doing for the next mission. The cut scenes feel like a movie. They almost always develop the plot. The plot is interesting, so the cut scenes are interesting. What flaws the game has graphically in places are more than made up for by the fact that you forget to notice the graphical flaws most of the time because the game keeps your head in the story.
The cutscenes are interesting, because the plot is interesting. The game keeps your head in the story.
One word of caution: Avoid the DLC if you want a natural experience with the game on your first playthrough. The DLC gives you shit tons of money, clothes, and experience, stuff that you should earn while playing through the game. Part of the compelling aspect of the game is making some bank to buy awesome shit, and you lose a little of that if you buy all the DLC.
According to Square Enix, this game lost money, which is a fucking shame because it doesn’t get much better than this. Sleeping Dogs is fantastic at everything except sucking, it’s a goddamned masterwork. So go buy this game, then buy a copy and give it to a friend so they can feel awesome too.
Developer: United Front Games, Square Enix London
Platform: 360, PS3, PC