Friday, August 24, 2012

Sleeping Dogs PC Review

Sleeping Dogs is a game by United Front Games and Square Enix that drops you into modern Hong Kong and shows you a violent world where everything isn't as simple as black and white. It is the third game in the True Crime series, the last of which came out in 2005, and it focuses on giving you the perspective of law enforcement. The games used to have highly accurate open world locations, but Sleeping Dogs stepped away from that and made a more stylized and less accurate Hong Kong. The world is still open and full of side missions, collectibles and life, but it is similar to Grand Theft Auto IV in the way that the world opens up as you go through the story and the games main focus is the story. The story is also what sets this game apart from many other games of the genre, for it has some very serious tones and some meaningful sections of the story, however it still has plenty of trivial and action orientated sections. The game is about 20-30 hours long, depending on if you try to complete 100% of the side missions and find all of the collectibles, but there is a whole lot to dissect and discuss here so lets start going through it. Also, we have a video review if you would like to do that sort of thing instead.

Taking in the sights. It is always a temptation to stop and look.

The story is the main attraction in Sleeping Dogs, for most people, and it left me with some very mixed feelings. You play an undercover cop in Hong Kong named Wei Shen. He grew up in Hong Kong and has just returned to perform his undercover role, but he has spent most of his life living in California. They approach the situation in an intelligent way. Being an undercover cop in a gang full of people you used to know isn't easy and they make certain that you know how difficult it is on Wei Shen. If you have seen movies like The Departed or Infernal Affairs then you can easily understand what they are trying to get at in the story. The story starts out fairly typical with you infiltrating a small time gang that is a small part of a criminal organization called the Sun On Yee. You start out with petty tasks, like collecting protection money or edging out competitors, but the tasks get a lot more upscale after a few hours and you find yourself doing a wide variety of tasks.

The first time I realized how much potential this story has was when they gave these generic gangsters real-life characteristics and made them feel human. The leader of the gang initially seems like a hot headed typical macho gangster, but they quickly turn him into someone far more personable. He wants to get married, he doesn't cheat on girlfriend, he treats the gang members like his brothers and he is actually pretty intelligent. Unfortunately they do this kind of character introspection with every character you met, but they do manage to do it with several of them and it is a pleasure to see story telling that actually surprises you in meaningful and non-violent ways.

One of the four apartments you get in the game
United Front Games also does some things with the story that are unheard of in a game full of gangs, racing, shooting and violence, like treating women and men equally and not falling into stereotypes. For instance, you can date many women in the game and while you don't have to it does help gameplay wise because each woman you date gives you something to help you find collectibles. Wei Shen treats these women like you imagine a gangster might and you generally only go on one date with each woman. There is a particular side mission with one of his girlfriends that struck me as I played through the game.

A battered, bloody and exposed Wei Shen
When Wei Shen finds out that one of his girlfriends is cheating on him you go on a mission to confront her and shame her, but once you catch her meeting with her new boyfriend she throws down some logic that I didn't expect to see. Instead of Wei Shen beating up her new boyfriend she shames him by saying how he is constantly dating multiple women and why can't she do the same. He actually accepts that logic and apologizes. That scene showed a multi-faceted Wei and instead of taking the action orientated route, like most games would, they chose the one that might make you contemplate the scene and the characters. Another oddity is how they use a side task to give insight into Wei Shen and how he is viewing his situation. They do that with the martial arts club and how every time you bring back a statue, you return statues to learn more martial arts skills, Wei has a chat with his instructor and it is always has a personal touch to it.

Wei and his instructor talking as he returns the last of the missing statues

So far I've only talked about how great the story is and it does have some incredibly strong moments, but as much as they think out some scenes and conclusions they seem to have given little thought to others. The ending is something that doesn't feel right and feels like a cop out, no pun intended. There are also a few times when they don't follow the same consistency that other parts of the story seem to constantly be following. An example of this would be how you kill a very large number of people in the game, some of which are killed officially in story scenes, but most are killed on the sidelines and there are no apparent negative repercussions. This wouldn't be a big deal if they didn't spend a couple segments of the story implying that there would be serious repercussions for killing and becoming a real gangster. There is this constant back and forth of whether or not Wei Shen is mentally still a cop and trying to uphold the law or if he has truly become a gangster, but in the end they never seriously address it and make it feel trivial despite how often it is brought up in the story.

When you start Sleeping Dogs you start off running and getting a first hand taste of how the games free running system works. It isn't Assassin's Creed, you can't scale buildings, but you can slide over tables, quickly jump up walls and fall great distances gracefully. It is fairly simple and it works pretty well in the world, but there are a few times when technical glitches arise and stop it from flowing smoothly. Shortly after the free running segment you are introduced to the melee system, which is the main combat system in the game and you spend most of the game fighting hand to hand or with melee weapons. Marital Arts plays a great part of the game and as you go through the game you learn new moves, new counters and a lot of upgrades that help you decimate your enemies. You have grabs, counters, light attacks and heavy attacks. There are certain combos you can do and it generally feels pretty great, even with the default PC controls.

The combat system starts out really simple and it makes you wonder how you could ever lose, especially when you can easily counter enemies (they glow blatantly red before an attack) and you can easily use environmental attacks on enemies that often instantly put them out of the fight, like throwing someones head into an air conditioning unit. It all gets much more difficult when they start adding in different types of enemies, like grapplers who cannot be grabbed unless they are stunned or brawlers who cannot be disrupted during an attack, only countered. Enemies will also start to have melee and ranged weapons and when they make these big groups of diverse enemy types then it can be really easy to get overwhelmed. Once you start learning a lot of new martial arts moves and upgrades it starts to get easier again, but it never gets so easy that you let your guard down and weapons can always tear down your health fairly quickly. Take a look at this bit of gameplay showing off melee combat and one of the drug bust side missions.

Ranged combat handles pretty well and it is one of the few things that seems to be easier with PC controls than it is with a gamepad. The shooting mechanics are fairly typical, but they are still well done and enjoyable. You can take cover and if you jump over cover you can go into a slow motion shooting mode, similar to bullet time in Max Payne, but it is only as long as it takes for your feet take to hit the ground. There are a great many car chases that involve shooting too and those do get very repetitive, especially once you realize that this quickest way to get rid of any vehicle is too shoot the tires. Thankfully the explosions that result from you shooting a vehicles tires, when they roll unrealistically and explode, are well done and despite the repetitiveness it is entertaining with its slow motion stylistic nature. In car chases, and in a few other situations, you can action hijack vehicles and it is surprisingly easy to do.

UI and Controls
Most of the controls do feel like they are intended more for a gamepad than a keyboard and a mouse, but once you get used to them they start to feel pretty good. The controls for melee combat feel a little too free form at times, but more often than not it feels smooth and melee moves can be executed quickly. Ranged combat is one of the few things that feels a little better with PC controls. Driving and movement are both a little tough at times, but like everything else they become natural and fluid once you ease into it. The control scheme is very familiar for any PC gamer, but unfortunately the keys cannot be remapped and that is a serious problem for left handed gamers. The interface is well done and cannot be modified, like the controls, which could be a problem for you if you like to change around that kind of stuff, but most everyone else will be perfectly fine with it. Text is appropriately sized and easy to read, the mini-map is just the right size, hints tell you exactly what you need to know and everything works very well.

Sleeping Dogs is one of the most visually impressive games I've seen lately. Character models of civilians walking around the street are of decent quality, but you they have done some really nice work with many of the more central characters. Sure their character models and animations are equivalent of something excellent like Heavy Rain, but this is a far different type of game and for this type of game they have done a good job. Driving around the city at break neck speeds looks absolutely splendid, especially when it is raining, but there is something obnoxious about it at times. Sometimes when you are going very fast in a vehicle there is a shakey camera of sorts and there is no option to turn it off. It is something you can get used to and ignore, but you shouldn't have to ignore it and it has lessened my experiences of driving several times. There are other times when you are driving and the game puts you into a closed up fixed camera position, which can be annoying, but thankfully they have a key that lets you look behind and that usually makes that not an issue.

When you think of game being ported to PC you should hope they port it like Sleeping Dogs. This game has a full array of graphics options with everything from anti-aliasing to world density. You can see objects pretty far away and the game is built in a way that field of view isn't an issue. Building can always be seen from a distance and the only thing that fades in are people and cars, but they have done a great job making it hard to notice. I have seen a few missions that employ some odd spawning mechanisms that have enemies spawning right in front of your face, but other than that you never seen anything in the world spawning right in front of you or fading into view in an obtrusive way. There are a few times when I saw graphical glitches, but other than the there is a little to complain about the graphics and the game is a pleasure to look at.

Side Missions and Collectibles
Like all open world games of this nature there is a lot to find and do in this game other than the main story. You start off the game with very few side missions and they are mostly random tasks that have some kind of story to them. Some these side missions have multi-parts while others are single instances. You also have immediate access to two of the games mini-games, gambling and cock fighting. The rest of the side missions and mini-games, like racing and karaoke, don't open up until you progress further into the story. The collectibles are all there from the beginning, but some of them are locked away in areas that you have to unlock through the story. These areas aren't entire city blocks, more just houses and estates. Collectibles start out pretty tough to find, but once you get farther into the game you unlock ways to find them more easily. There are many different types of collectibles though, like chests, clothing, cars, statues and there are shrines that increase your maximum health.

The whole system for mini-games, side missions and collectibles works nearly identical to every other GTA style open world game. The mini-games are repeatable, give small rewards, and aren't too exciting. Some of the side missions are a bit more interesting and enjoyable, but most of them are fairly repetitious. Their isn't enough variety when it comes to these missions and many of them end up being racing, driving someone around or shooting enemy gang vehicles while someone else drives you somewhere. Racing motorcycles or cars is really enjoyable, especially since they handle well and the tracks can be rather tricky, but once you purchase some of the more expensive vehicles they get fairly easy. I would have appreciated more variety when it comes to mission types, especially drug busts that play out the same every single time. You go to a drug bust area, beat up the gangsters there, hack the camera, go to your apartment and identify the guy that looks the same at every drug bust.

You can repeat any mission, even main story missions.
Last Comments
Sleeping Dogs isn't a perfect game. It has a few bugs, it has plenty of repetition, the open world doesn't do anything new with the genre and a few of the story ideas don't pan out, but despite all that there is still so much to enjoy about the game; the story is generally pretty strong, the voice acting is fantastic, the characters are interesting, combat is well done and enjoyable and the world is a pleasure to travel through. On top of all that there is a lot of content to find and you can get a good twenty to thirty hours out of the game.It doesn't have any multiplayer, which will turn some people off, but the singleplayer is powerful enough that the absence of multiplayer doesn't feel like a major flaw. As good as the game is it is hard to recommend it for full price, but if you can get it on sale for any amount off then do it.

 Violent Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

Thanks for reading. 
-Written by Sean Cargle


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