Published: 28-Aug-2012 12:05
By Daniel Rutledge
If '90s era John Woo and Jackie Chan got together in today's post-GTA IV world and made a videogame, it would be Sleeping Dogs.
The open-world Hong Kong crime game is a hell of a lot of fun to play, largely thanks to the wonderful setting. It’s beautifully realized and consistently pleasing through the game’s duration with masses of neon lights, street clothing vendors, washing drying between apartments, dumplings and noodles for sale at street stalls and endless Cantonese foul language.
If you’ve ever been a fan of Hong Kong action cinema, there’s a good chance you’ll love a lot about Sleeping Dogs - I sure do.
Although the game is open-world, the story is mostly linear. You can do mission C before mission A, if you like, but there's no way of altering the way the narrative apart from a few very minor decisions. This would be disappointing if the story wasn't so damn good.
As undercover cop Wei Shen you start out fresh in Hong Kong after returning from the USA. To begin with you're impressing the Triads, working your way up their power ladder and very quickly having to prove you are not working for the police.
But as the game progresses, it is Shen's police superiors who question his loyalty. Let down by both sides and with a family history complicating matters, Shen faces an identity crisis which tests this same loyalty over and over again. It plays out as a very compelling storyline - I'd put it alongside Max Payne 3 and Spec Ops: The Line as the top three of 2012 so far.
To call Sleeping Dogs a GTA clone would be to miss the point. It is very similar in many aspects of the gameplay, but while GTA had very strong cinematic sensibilities, the focus of Sleeping Dogs is squarely on emulating the specific feel of Hong Kong cinema. The action is centered far more on unarmed combat than gunplay, with a surprisingly complex and satisfying combat system that is far more comparable to Batman: Arkham City than GTA IV or Saints Row.
As guns and ammo are really quite limited, they serve pretty much as power-ups in the combat of Sleeping Dogs. There are of course missions that require a lot more use of firearm use than others though and in these the game uses unique stylistic flourishes. There’s a John Woo mode similar to Bullet Time from Max Payne which basically means if you vault over cover, it cuts to slow-motion for precision firing. This also happens at times when shooting from a vehicle, making this staple of open-world crime games a lot easier and less clunky in Sleeping Dogs than in many of its peers, including GTA.
These modes are fun and feed into the Hong Kong cinema feel well. There’s other similar things like ‘action hijacks’ which have Shen leap from one vehicle onto the roof of another, pull the driver out and jump into it all with a very cinematic animation. It’s choice.
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Some opponents are difficult to fight because of special abilities they have, making it impossible to counter them, for example. This can be quite annoying at times but generally I like that there is such variation in enemy fighting styles. You can learn new moves and combos from an in-game kung fu master and these become more and more rewarding.
There's also the environmental interaction you can employ while kung fu-ing your enemies and this pleased me the most. After grabbing an opponent, items around the screen will glow red if they can be used to inflict damage. This could be a giant nightclub wall fish tank to throw your enemy into, an extractor fan to push their head into or a security door to ram down on them. There’s a great deal of these conveniently placed in most fight spots and many of the fistfights I had ended up with me trying to string as many environmental knockouts/kills together as possible.
The fights can be pretty tough and some took me several attempts to succeed. In addition to the police and Triad missions, you can carry out smaller missions, such as helping your kung fu master regain his prized statue collection or chasing up debts for shop vendors. While driving around you can also help with drug busts for Shen’s police bosses or take over turf from rivals for his Triad bosses – both of which just mean wasting a bunch of guys. The drug busts in particular I found quite challenging until I realised I could stay in a car and just drive back and forth running everyone down.
In addition to the main police, Triad and side missions, there is a lot to do around Hong Kong to keep you entertained. There’s massage parlours, herbal tea dispensers, health shrines and so on that both enrich the game’s sense of setting and give sensible character bonuses. Then there’s cock fights, karaoke, street racing, illegal offshore gambling dens and all sorts of extra fun to be had.
The character upgrade system of Sleeping Dogs means you collect police and Triad points every mission to spend on new abilities in addition to the kung fu you learn. This sounded a lot more exciting to me than it actually was playing the game, because police, Triad and kung fu advancements are all limited to two skill streams each – a far cry from something like the complicated astrology system of Skyrim. But it’s still satisfying and adds to the just-one-more-mission addictiveness the story nails so well. You also earn bonuses from wearing certain outfits in the game, which means purchasing a badass suit results in more than just aesthetic pleasure.
After the long, troubled development period of this title, it feels like layers and layers of polish have been added to it before release. Hong Kong looks gorgeous and most of the characters are uniquely modeled and animated with fantastic results. The voice talent is splendid across the board with just a few examples of irritating over-acting. The music is solid too, although the radio stations aren’t as classic as those of GTA.
That being said, there are a number of annoying and disappointing things with the game. Some NPCs say the same lines over and over, every time you come across them. The vehicles drive with physics so forgiving you can pretty much control them with your eyes closed. Sometimes when you're fighting, the enemies seem to just stand around waiting for you to attack them one at a time. A few small parts of the script could’ve been improved.
So Sleeping Dogs is not perfect, but all of its minor flaws are, for me, very forgivable when the end result is so great. Although I hurtled through the highly entertaining single player campaign fairly quickly, there’s way more in Hong Kong I look forward to enjoying in Sleeping Dogs, long after this review has been published.
Courtesy of 3News.