Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie Would Be Boring

I finished Sleeping Dogs last week. If you've ever watched a movie about a cop who goes undercover in a mob and then finds which side of the line he's on getting harder to distinguish, then you're familiar with the basic plot of this game. Bonus points if the film you watched was set in Hong Kong and involved Triad gangs, since that's where this one is.

You play as the most excellent Wei Shen, who grew up in Hong Kong. His family moved to San Francisco, where he became a cop for a time, but now he's back as a member of Hong Kong PD, working undercover to try and bring down the Sun On Yee organization. Of course, there's a personal stake in it for Wei, and not just because a lot of the guys he works with early on are people he knew growing up.

In terms of gameplay, it's in the general GTA mold. There's a map, there are missions, plus a lot of other random stuff you can do or buy to waste time. Cockfights to bet on, martial arts clubs and street races to participate in, lots of clothes and cars for you to buy. You don't have to buy stuff; Wei owns a motorcycle and you get an impounded car for some street races, but it opens up some things for you. You can't race in a stolen vehicle. Some of the missions are strictly for police, some are triad missions, and in those cases, you get graded on how well you do. From the triad side of things, it's usually about how creative you are in your use of violence. Headshots, using the environment to finish people off, things like that. But the cop score is reduced if you damage property or injure civilians, which is kind of hard to avoid doing when you're pursuing someone in a car, or leaning out a window to fire at a bunch of guys on motorcycles chasing you.

The hand-to-hand combat reminds me of Batman: Arkham City (or maybe it should be the other way around). Time your counters to opponent attacks is pretty essential, and adjusting your strategy based on which type of foe your up against is important. Some guys are nimble and dodge flying kicks, you can't grapple with someone carrying a bladed weapon. The big fat guys are a pain in the ass, so my strategy was to pick one of them and hammer him until he drops, then more to the next one. Counter other attacks as necessary, but go back to hitting Fatso as soon as possible, before he picks Wei up and drops him on his head.

The amount of gunplay increases as the game goes on, and it's there you see the game trying to ape the, I guess John Woo style of film. The game encourages you to take cover initially, but there is a specific button command to make Wei vault over whatever he was hiding behind, and then you can go into slow motion and fire while doing that move. It isn't like Max Payne, where you can trigger bullet time whenever, you have to be pulling off some sort of acrobatic move. I wouldn't say I ever got excellent at it - I'm much stronger on the hand-to-hand combat - but I was good enough to get by. There's also the ability to hijack other vehicles by getting close to them and then leaping off your ride onto theirs, which is handy, though I didn't use it much outside of the times the game specifically called for it. I was usually happy with whatever I was already driving. The controls for driving, shooting, and fighting and all pretty smooth, though trying to drive and shoot was tricky. There are so many bumpers and buttons to keep pressed all at once, but the game makes shooting tires a viable strategy, so that helps. You don't have to keep firing until the car blows up.

One thing I had expected that I didn't get was the ability to make choices. I had thought it would be set up where at certain times, Wei would be given a mission, and he would decide how far he might go to accomplish it. Would he outright kill someone, or try to threaten them into hiding so it would look like he killed them? The game doesn't have that range of freedom, which isn't a deal-breaker, but it was mildly disappointing. Like, I really wanted to kill Sonny Wo five seconds after I met him, he was an extremely obnoxious sleazebag, but the game didn't allow it. There are points in the game where Wei decides certain things are a bridge too far, but the game makes those decisions, not you.

Maybe that isn't true, though. One of those lines was when Wei is working for a loan shark. As the story goes on, you're introduced to different characters, and some of them you have the choice to work for or not. They show up as contacts in your phone, and you can call them up and do missions for them if you want. You get money, maybe unlock some cool stuff, and it ups your Face Level (which is separate from your Triad or Cop Levels, as I think Face mostly relates to how much of a badass you are). But those are strictly optional. I made the choice to have Wei call the guy the first time, and then all the subsequent times. I wanted to see what the missions were (mostly involve chasing people over rooftops, vaulting railings and vendor's tables and beating the shit out of them until they cough up the cash). In that sense, I made the decision to put him on that path. Still, the game doesn't give any leeway in how to accomplish the objective.

Along those same lines, Wei does meet some girls over the course of the game, and so I thought perhaps there were different threads he could follow from dating one. As it turns out, all of them a basically a one-time deal. You go out with them once, and unless they call you in to help them with a problem, you don't hear from them again. Which is too bad, I liked a couple of them, they might have been interesting to bounce some of Wei's inner conflicts off of.

There are some portions of the game that are cop surveillance stuff. Mini-games for picking locks, planting listening devices, things like that. It mostly involves rotating the joysticks in various directions, so it's not the most fun part of the game, and I usually groaned, especially when it came to listening for the tumblers to click so I could open the many, many lockboxes scattered around. I'd think it had recorded getting one of the tumblers to click, so I'd start spinning the other way and end up losing the first number. Fortunately, that stuff is rare enough it doesn't bog down the game too much.

Some of the time, the game is very good at making me care about the other characters, which is key. The whole point is that Wei is supposed to start to care about these criminals and think of them as friends and family, so that the fact he's an undercover cop creates internal conflict. So that needs to work, and Sleeping Dogs succeeds, often enough. There's always at least one or two characters I care about that I want to look after, or keep out of the police's hands. Jackie, Winston eventually, Vivienne. Again, there's not much I specifically can do, because their fates are predetermined, but that actually helps me connect with Wei more, because we both feel powerless at times. It helps draw me in to the desperation he feels to try and find a way to fix things.

I would have liked it to be a little more obvious which buildings you could enter and which you couldn't. There's no simple way to tell other than just running up to a door and seeing if you pass through it. And there are a lot of doors, because it's a big flipping city (or four cities on the same island). Especially when there are places you discover you can definitely enter, the game just won't let you enter it now. Or there's a ledge you absolutely ought to be able to climb. Wei routinely climbs walls twice his height, but sometimes I can't get over a wall that doesn't even reach his chin, because they didn't make allowances for me climbing it. That gets frustrating when I'm just wandering around exploring.

On the whole though, the things Sleeping Dogs will let me do, it does very well. It's just there were some other things I was hoping to be able to do, that I can't.

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