Right in your eyeballs

Sleeping Dogs Review: Kirk Mckeand.

Sleeping Dogs Review: Kirk Mckeand.

You count three of them, on your left you catch the glint of a blade in an attackers hand, on your right another cowers in fear, witnessing you pin what is left of his friend’s face to a buzz-saw. As you throw the victim’s limp body aside, you see a ray of sun bounce off sharp metal, instinctively you swing your leg up, and the attacker falls to the ground as your shin bone rips one side of his jaw from his skull. Without hesitation you pick up the dropped blade and quickly slide it between his ribs, after all, he had the same intention. You break into a run towards the final victim, who, by this point, has been overcome by fear. A feeling of empathy surges through your body, so you do what any sane man would do in this situation; you throw him in a dumpster. Welcome to Sleeping Dogs.

Sleeping dogs is developed by United Front, who’s last game was Modnation Racers; a karting title that also contained elements of user-generated content.The team was initially working on a new IP, planned to be a sandbox style open world game set in Hong Kong. Activision snapped up the game they were working on, with the intention of integrating it into an existing franchise, the mediocre True Crime franchise.

When the game was announced, it looked like another wannabee trying to usurp the throne from Rockstar Games. Eventually Activision dropped the title citing “the title could not compete with the open-world genre leaders,” and therefore never claim the gilded seat that has been warmed by Rockstar’s metaphorical buttocks. Much of the industry is afraid to take risks with new IP’s because they cannot reliably forecast their potential earnings, and at the time the game certainly didn’t look like it was going to bother the top 10 charts.

This is Vegas; another open world title, taken out the back and shot.

So just when it looked like the project was headed to the game graveyard, Square Enix punched through the clouds like lightning (yes….yes he is) and saved the game from development hell. True crime was dead (and rightly so after the mess that was True Crime New York City) and Sleeping Dogs, as we know it today, was born. This generation Square Enix have had much more success in the publishing sector, but no doubt the companies development know-how helped United Front a lot more than Activision ever could.

The choice of the title ‘Sleeping Dogs,’ feels like Square Enix were almost challenging Activision, “let Sleeping Dogs lie eh?” I hear them say “how about we wake up your dog, steal your dog , tart it up and stick it in a beauty pageant ? huh? how do you like them apples?” ……sorry. So after a few doggy treats and a slight makeover, United Front were free to make the game they originally envisioned, and I must say, it has teeth.

The game when it was called True Crime, and was very yellow.

Early screenshots suggested there was a strange, golden, haze-like filter applied to the games camera, which did not suit the style at all, although this may have been a placeholder effect for the (John Wootiful) bullet time mechanic. When the game was a in its infancy it suffered from jaundice, and it was not much of a looker, but after a bit of nurturing from its adopted parent, Square Enix,  it evolved into a lady-killer.

Visually the game is very accomplished, it has a range of weather effects that compliment the game graphically, and the rain effect especially is a standout highlight. The puddles on the road catching the reflections of passing objects, your characters clothes getting visibly wet, it all feeds directly into the atmosphere of the game. There are also day/night cycles, and the streets of Hong Kong feel completely different by each. The dynamic light sources (for example the headlights on a vehicle) create some very nice visual effects too, and add to the overall authenticity of the world.

Notice the amount of individual light sources on display.

Authenticity is a trait the game oozes, early in the game you are in a tutorial area, which happens to be a bustling, Chinese market. There are food vendors selling stat-boosting treats, knock-off brand name clothes stalls, and just when you can almost hear the stereotypical Chinese man selling pirate DVD’s …you do, yes you do actually hear him, he’s in the game. The general ambiance is so convincing, you really start to appreciate the usual PR buzzwords; like immersion.

You play as undercover cop Wei Shen, who is Hong Kong born but lived in America previous to the events in the game. His mission is to infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad organisation, and to bring them down internally by moving up in the ranks until he can build a case against the “Dragon Head.”

On foot chases are simple fun.

The game opens up with the player character, trying to evade police in an on-foot chase, which involves some free-running that even Jackie Chan would envy. When running into a civilian Wei, automatically takes a sidestep to avoid a collision, but if you run in to a couple consecutively Wei bumps into them and it slows you down. It is not a complicated system, especially with it being semi-automated, but some of the dodging and weaving is at least in the players hands, which makes things feel a little less scripted. When actually coming up against a solid obstacle you use rhythmic taps of the jump button, to do (what the game calls) “a clean free-run.” All this basically means is, if you get your timing wrong, the jump or vault animation is slightly slower, and the seconds that you waste can be vital during the numerous chase sequences.

Stunt hijack, physically implausible? Yes. Awesome? Also yes.

When the game trusts you to be let loose into its sizable sandbox, you get to experience one of the best car handling in a sandbox game this generation. The cars have a nice sense of speed, which is also complimented by some accomplished visual effects (like motion blurring) and they all feel unique to handle. The breaking distance straddles the line between accessibility and player skill perfectly, it takes long enough to break that you have to really think about when to apply them, which makes you feel all the more smug when you get a clean run through gridlocked traffic.The handbrake swings you into a nice drift that you can maintain through a turn, and this makes you almost feel as great as when performing a j-turn through a pair of cars or “stunt hijacking” a passing vehicle.

     One thing I found strange during my time on the in-game roads, was that despite living in the UK (where I have spent my whole existence) it took me hours to get used to driving on the left, this is a side effect of countless developers  to setting their games in uninspired and generic locales. It is no bad thing my muscle memory made me drive dangerously though, because Sleeping Dogs tracks your stats for various challenges, so you can compete with your friends. A little window pops up in the bottom left of your screen when a challenge is triggered, these are not intrusive, but they can make you feel very competitive when “milkymilkboy1997lolz” maintains his top speed five seconds longer than you.

Even looking at screenshots makes your cheeks flap like a Pitbull.

As widely reported, the combat is similar to Rocksteady’s Batman games, you have a main attack button, which when pressed multiple times cause Wei to perform various combos. If you hold the attack button he performs a heavy attack, when this is mixed with quick taps you can perform variations on his normal attack, for example two normal attacks leading into a heavy attack makes Wei perform a knee strike that stuns your enemies, with a cheek shattering thud. On the version I tested (PS3) the triangle button is used to counter incoming enemy strikes, the various goons flash red briefly to indicate they are about to attack, in my opinion this was not needed as the enemies never attack en masse and the animations indicating their intentions are a fair warning. The enemies come in standard variations, the big guy that is harder to grab, weapon wielding goons that you cannot counter, and there is nothing really unique with regards to enemy archetypes.

HADOKEN!!

The most satisfying part of the combat is, without a doubt, the grab button. This allows you to grab a thug and use various environmental dangers to put an end to their existence, the amount of variation here is impressive, you can mince their faces in a fan, burn their noses off on an electric cooker, open a car door and kick it into their head relentlessly, and my personal favorite – death by swordfish. You can also weild weapons for a limited duration, this makes them feel more like temporary powerups than any meaningful upgrade. The weapons range from the obvious (knives, tire irons) to the bizarre, (fish, handbags) but the game never quite strays into Saints Row 3 levels of surrealism.

More games should feature marine based death.

The next skill tree is on the side of the law, and as police tend to do in games, revolves around dispensing justice via the medium of hot lead to the face. Some benefits include breaking into cars without setting off the alarm, and less police awareness when performing a stunt hijack, but mostly  the cop tree is concerned with the smoking barrel of a gun. The gun combat itself is probably the weakest part of the game, yet that is not to say it is bad, it is just overshadowed by the meaty hand to hand combat.

Gun combat involves the usual third person cover based shooting, with a little twist, you can vault over the numerous waist-high objects and this triggers a burst of slow-mo which you can extend by scoring a headshot. What this means for the combat is that, when you become adept at it, you can clear  rooms of cannon fodder in one fluid movement, which feels great and stops you cowering at the edge of the battlefield taking potshots like countless other third person shooters.

With a game like this, where it channels multiple genres, you must summarize it based on all of its seperate components, and in this game in particular, most of the mechanics hold up better than more focused games. Sleeping Dogs is something of a sleeper hit, and I think it will take many people by surprise, I was initially interested in the concept of the game, but I did not expect it to be nowhere near the level of polish that is present in the finished product.The only weak aspect of the game is the story, but even in that respect it is much better than many rival products, it has characters that you can empathize with, and characters that you love to hate. I honestly do not know how anybody could dislike this game, for a new and untested IP the game is very impressive and I highly recommend it, especially if you ever fancied hitting somebody with a fish. 90%.

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3 responses

  1. I plan on picking this up once/if I finish Yakuza 3

    October 15, 2012 at 10:00 am

  2. Absolutely amazing intro to this review, felt like i was reading a story haha! Definitely a game worthy of the 90% :).

    October 1, 2012 at 7:19 pm

    • Thanks, the original version was missing the intro. I changed it after advice from some of the top boys.

      October 1, 2012 at 8:26 pm

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