Thursday, 7 March 2013

Now Playing: Sleeping Dogs

I wasn’t very interested in Sleeping Dogs when it was released. I honestly thought it looked like a rather mediocre GTA clone. I tried the demo, but I wasn’t very impressed. However, when the game went on sale I decided to give it a shot having heard a lot of good things about it, and I’m pleased to say my initial assumptions were quite incorrect.

Sleeping Dogs is a GTA clone, but it’s a damn good one. And whilst it may take a lot of inspiration from the GTA model, to simply write it off as a clone does it a great disservice, because SD is a game very much with its own identity, and it brings a lot of its own good ideas to the table.

Sleeping Dogs sees you assume the role of the likeable protagonist Wei Shen, returning to his old stomping grounds of Hong Kong. He’s a police officer, now working undercover in order to infiltrate a Triad organisation. The story is dark, gritty and down-to-earth, although there are some moments of levity to balance out the regularly brutal violence. The story is fairly well paced and engaging, and features a variety of interesting characters on both sides of the law (with good VA work throughout).

Like Wei Shen, the player finds themselves torn between their loyalty to their assignment and their new Triad friends. The game largely avoids any clichéd straight up ‘good’ or ‘bad’ guys. Oh, there are a few and it’s certainly satisfying when they get their comeuppance, but on the whole, the characters, even some of the more unpleasant criminal elements, still draw you in, and you still feel bad when something happens to them.

At one point in the story, a good friend of Wei’s is taken in by the police. He’s a criminal but he’s not a ‘bad’ guy and you share Wei’s frustration at this turn of events. The only negatives I really have in regards to the story is that the ending is a little abrupt and unsatisfying. Although it should be said, my disappointment stems more from that fact that I was enjoying the game so much I wanted more - and that’s always a good sign. I should also note that the action segments can sometimes be a little OTT, which somewhat jars with the overall serious tone of the story.

Like any good GTA clone, SD features a large sandbox city to play in. The world is fairly large, but unfortunately not particularly interesting to explore. There are a lot of enclosed roadways and streets, which doesn’t give the greatest sense of freedom. There’s no aerial travel, but there are plenty of cars and bikes and a small selection of boats - although very little reason to use them outside of a couple of missions.

The world is nicely detailed throughout, with plenty of civilians reacting dynamically to your dangerous driving, or just putting up an umbrella when it rains. Oh yeah, rain - it looks gorgeous in the game, and is very atmospheric. Overall, the game looks very good. I used the HD texture pack though, so I’m not sure how it looks without it.

Driving is okay, although it took some getting used to, particularly bikes, which I don’t think I ever felt handled right. They always felt a little awkward and fiddly to control. There’s a decent selection of music on a few radio stations, but nowhere near as good as in GTA titles. The arrows in the road are a nice touch - guiding you to your set destination without having to continually check the mini-map. Police chases are very easy to elude, but given your status as an undercover officer, it wouldn’t make much sense to spend so much time fighting the police.

Combat! It’s good, but very easy. It reminded me a lot of Arkham Asylum. It’s primarily melee based, featuring counters, combos and throws. It doesn’t feel quite as fluid or responsive as in AA, but it’s certainly enjoyable as you learn new combos, and environment take-downs are always satisfying.

There are a few different enemy types, but nothing that really makes you change up your tactics and it never really gets more difficult either - the game just throws more guys at you at once. The gun based combat feels a little sluggish, but it does the job, and it rarely comes into play, at least until towards the end. It has a nice little slow motion mechanic when vaunting over cover or shooting from vehicles. There’s a level up/upgrade system which is okay, but feels a little tacked on. Unlocks vary between good and ‘never going to use’ and it could have been more fleshed out.

Apart from the main missions, side quests are plentiful but largely repetitive affairs. There are dozens of collectibles to discover - money, clothes and upgrade items. There’s plenty of cosmetic customisation options, plus different temporary bonuses from purchasable food which give you a small boost during missions. The phone is nicely integrated (no annoying cousins bothering you to go bowling) and I love the valet call, a nice little touch.

You can go on ‘dates’ in the game with certain characters, but these are rather pointless and don’t tie in to the main plot or really lead anywhere at all, which is a shame. On top of all of that, there’s a ton of extra content and stuff to keep you busy - karaoke, races, side jobs, ‘favours’, random events, fight clubs and gambling.

Overall, SD is a great title. With a little more polish and fleshed out features, it easily could have rated higher. But even so, SD is well worth your time and investment. It may not excel in any particular area, but it blends together some very solid, very entertaining mechanics, and the complete package was extremely engaging and enjoyable to play.


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