Of Sleeping Dogs and Cell Phones: ‘Sleeping Dogs’ Reviewon August 23, 2012 at 8:00 am
So “Sleeping Dogs” is super great. It came out just last week, and I love it. It might be my favorite game I’ve played all year (though that isn’t saying much). I’ve never, ever played a game after beating it to find all the collectibles and to complete it 100%, but I just might with this one. However, this isn’t going to be all praise, as there is one specific thing I’m not completely in love with.
“Sleeping Dogs” is the newest game from developer United Front Games, of “ModNation Racers” fame, and publisher Square Enix, of… a lot of different games fame. It’s an open world sandbox game reminiscent of “Grand Theft Auto” or “Saints Row”; however unlike both those series, “Sleeping Dogs” doesn’t place you in the role of a gangster taking down “the man” and becoming the boss hog of [insert city here]. Instead, “Sleeping Dogs” casts you as undercover cop Wei Shen as he brings down the Hong Kong Triads.
While it isn’t as insane as “Saint’s Row”, it’s much more exciting and engaging than “Grand Theft Auto IV” was. With engaging and exciting fist-fighting that feels extremely smooth and rewarding. It’s kind of like “Batman: Arkham City” without the bat gadgets. Driving is responsive and fast-paced, and with action hijacks and shoot-outs, it never feels dull or tedious to drive during missions. Even the gun-play manage to be intense and explosive despite being primarily cover-based. John Woo inspired vaults over cover also help keep the player engaged.
Even with the superb gameplay, the shining point of “Sleeping Dogs” is the story. To give the briefest overview, Wei Shen comes back to his birthplace of Hong Kong after an extended period of time in the United States. He meets up with his old childhood friend Jackie Ma and from there joins the Sun On Yee, a vicious and powerful triad gang. As he does jobs for the triads he climbs the ranks and gains respect from his new peers, while also continuing to covertly subvert triad operations.
The writing is absolutely fantastic, never breaking the immersion or contradicting the in-universe logic. With few exceptions, characters are well written, have depth, and are acted superbly. Even the overall narrative itself is compelling and completely immerses the player into the universe around him or her.
However, even though I do enjoy praising games, for some reason I can’t help but talk about flaws. I’ve had multiple friends claim that I was a hipster for disliking “Fallout 3” just because it was popular and loving “Fallout: New Vegas” just because it isn’t. Yet, despite my distaste for the name, I’m going to lay some praise onto GTA 4.
Okay, before everyone burns my house down, let me preface this. GTA 4 is a very flawed game. The cars handle stiffly and aren’t fun to drive, which really sucks considering the amount of driving you have to do to get from mission to mission and to even complete the missions. The actual shooting is just boring and bland cover based combat that’s less inspired than even the laziest “Gears of War” clone. The story has a huge problem with tone dissonance. You’ll go from Niko talking about his PTSD he got from murdering kids in “the war” to him gleefully committing vehicular manslaughter without a care in the world in the span of 15 minutes. The writing and narrative itself worked pretty well in a vacuum, but it fell apart really hard when it had to transition into gameplay.
“Sleeping Dogs” doesn’t suffer from any of that. But there’s still one thing that I didn’t like about it, and it’s something I did like that was in GTA 4.
So, now that all but one of you have left (Thanks, Grandma) I’m going to justify that. For those of you who aren’t aware of probably the most criticized aspect of GTA 4: during the game, your friends will periodically call Niko’s cell phone and ask if you wanted to go get food, a drink, or do one of the many mini-game activities. Often, you would receive a call while on a mission or escaping from the police or doing something more important. And by often I mean all the time. Every mission. Forever. Needless to say it was frustrating by the 80th time your cousin Roman asked if you wanted to go bowling. It might have sucked less if the activities were any fun, but only drinking and the comedy shows were even close to decent (Fun fact: Ricky Gervais and Kat Williams did the two stand-up acts you can see in the game, and they’re actually pretty good).
Even with these horrible, horrible flaws, I didn’t absolutely hate the phone calls. Well, the calls themselves sucked, but going out and doing the activities was… not fun. Okay, the real reason why I liked them was the dialogue between Niko and whoever you were driving with. The characters you could hang out with were interesting and somewhat likable, or at least most of them. It gave some insight and character development; we get to see a more personal side to the characters that we don’t see during story missions, since most of the time the dialogue is devoted to the upcoming drug deal or bank heist. Plus, there are three girlfriends that you can only interact with through dates outside the main narrative.
“Sleeping Dogs” doesn’t have these off mission interactions with any of the characters in the game. The closest thing to them are the dates with girlfriends, which are only accessible by your phone, but are really just vehicles to reveal collectibles on a map, and with the limit of only being able to go on one date with each they all play like normal missions. Which is a huge shame, considering that some the girlfriends are really well voiced acted and interesting (Emma Stone herself even shows up in one of these roles in a fantastic performance), and only really needed some more development. It is very disappointing not to see any chance to build upon some of the more likable or fascinating characters. Even some of the more well-developed characters have really awesome character arcs that are expounded upon pretty well, but I would’ve liked to see them discussed even more.
Don’t get me wrong here, I absolutely loved “Sleeping Dogs”. Like I said earlier, it’s probably the best game I’ve played this year, but it was disappointing to not be able to learn more about the characters. I wanted to see Winston and Jackie in different situations; ones that are more personal. I wanted to learn and get to know more about the universe and characters.