This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Sleeping Dogs.
I'm thinking I might have been a little hasty when I declared that the term "Grand Theft Auto clone" was redundant. There have been enough games where you are allowed to get bored, run down the street and start taping passers-by to trolley cars that sandbox games are officially a genre, but when a sandbox game is about a petty crim starting off in the slum district, being used as a footstool by the local underworld's middle management, doing mostly vehicle related favours for increasingly important contacts until they can work their way up to wealth and success while knocking over enough lamp posts to illuminate Oprah Winfrey's inner thighs; then the term "Grand Theft Auto clone" seems perfectly adequate, while "petty-crim-footstool-vehicle-related-inner-thighs-'em-up" is too awkward to say. Bonus points are offered if the game's set in some recreation of a real-world contemporary city and if the plot throws up some moral message that all the luxury and fine living in the world will never quell the guilt from all the murdering you've been doing for it, which rings a bit misdirected while I'm ploughing through pedestrian precincts in a riding mower.
Fittingly, Sleeping Dogs was originally of the slightly-laughably-named True Crime series – the original Grand Theft Auto clone! – except there was a developer switch and they had to come up with a new title that somehow makes even less sense; although there's a racist joke about East Asian cuisine in there somewhere that you'll be pleased to hear I'm not going to acknowledge.
The recreated real world city is Hong Kong and the petty crim footstool that dreams of the stars is Wei Shen, a Chinese-American recently returned from the States to sign up with the Triads, because who the fuck else are you going to sign up with in Hong Kong, the Real IRA? But get ready to un-bunch your pants because here comes the twist: Wei is actually an undercover police officer, which would come as more of a surprise if it weren't the plot of the previous two True Crime games. And in the grand tradition of undercover cop crime stories, every high-level criminal implicitly trusts this new bloke without any verifiable background over all their established henchmen because he's smarter and better with a gun, almost as if he's been to some kind of, say, police academy.
So the thrust of the concept is that you have one cop experience bar and one crim experience bar which offer different upgrades, a gameplay mechanic intended to illustrate the fact that Shen is torn between two loyalties, an aspect that I feel would carry more weight if the police gave any degree of shit. The Triads' sure-fire test for whether you're an undercover cop or not is that undercover cops won't kill, but I'm not sure where they got that impression 'cause Shen hesitates more about putting up fly-paper than killing his fellow man. Aand as long as you stick to other criminals, you can go wild as far as the police are concerned. They're only iffy about you killing pedestrians and even then, it won't give you negative police experience, you just get less of it at the end of the mission. "Now, Timmy, we can only give you an Xbox and five games for Christmas this year because you did blowtorch your initials into your sister!" I feel Shen's dilemma would've feel more tense if there had been more negative gameplay effects for not sticking within acceptable murder levels, but then again, the game probably doesn't want to discourage the player from slamming the faces of random goons into whirring table saws, 'cause really, why would you?
On that note, effort has been put into the melee fighting, in that it's like Arkham Asylum. And Arkham Asylum-style fisticuffs seem to be becoming to combat engines what Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton movies. So there's the standard mash-mash-mash-counter routine, but Sleeping Dogs adds heavy attack combos, grabs and a couple of creative environmental kills that would make Jason Voorhees reach for the chill pills. All of which feels less controlled than when Batman does it but that just goes towards creating a solid kung-fu action movie sense of what is technically known as "flipping out the buttered fuck crumpets".
And it goes very well with the competent free-running mechanics in that sometimes I'd sprint into a throng of waiting enemies screaming at the top of my voice and flying-kick the nearest assailant so that he rockets horizontally into the street with my shoe tucked under his jaw like a violin, which I found to be a much more efficient opening gambit than, "You have the right to remain silent". Transitions between running, driving and fighting are all pleasantly smooth, so whenever I left a clothing shop and someone standing outside would always take the piss out of my fashion sense, I could get into the habit of casually decking them in the face and running away.
But the main reason the close combat stands out is because it's the only aspect of the game that poses any challenge whatsoever. The missions all do the Grand Theft Auto IV thing in which you must rigidly follow a specific sequence of predetermined actions like you're doing a fucking join-the-dots. And things definitely go downhill when guns are introduced; at the gun tutorial mission, a character mentions that we haven't seen any guns up to that point because there aren't so many in Hong Kong, and if he'd said that a couple of hours later, I would have laughed up enough phlegm to coat the screen!
The game weakens severely in its second half when Wei is basically fannying about with subplots that don't go anywhere and killing time before he has to finally confront the guy we figured out was the big baddie three shootouts ago. All the interesting melee combat and free-running gets diluted with all the driving and shooting and the ten million minigames that have been introduced. A hacking mini-game in itself is fine, but forcing us to wiggle the analog sticks to undo a couple of screws first is just busywork. Could we maybe just assume Wei knows how to undo screws? It can't be that much harder than breaking a man's kneecaps with his armpit.
Come to think of it, the whole game has the cop-crim issue pithily summarized as "good ideas failing to realize potential". One recurring side mission involves hacking security cameras so you can watch footage of lounging toughs and pick out the drug supplier among them. So presumably you make logical deductions, watch their behaviour, try to look for money furtively changing hands, right? Nope, you just arrest the dude in the suit. Same guy, same suit, every fucking time! And if it takes you more than five seconds, then a big red arrow appears floating over their head. Blimey, profiling's easier than I thought!
I guess a game with as many mechanics as this has to skimp on the polish here and there, and that karaoke mini-game that the story campaign fucking forces you to do twice wasn't going to program itself. So if you are the rabidest of the rabid GTA fans, then here's a GTA clone still dripping with birthing chamber fluid to tide you over. But for me, the question is whether Sleeping Dogs represents a step forward or a step back for the sandbox genre, and let me put it like this - eight years ago, GTA San Andreas had a jetpack. Does Sleeping Dogs have a jetpack? Well then, better luck next time!
- Handed over his gun and badge: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Yes I know to let sleeping dogs lie is a saying but I don't see how it's more relevant to the plot than a title like, say, Bloke Does Crime And Is A Cop
- I find rush hour to be the best time to practice handbrake turns
So the Escapist Expo is still in September and you should still totally come, but also in October, I've got a second novel coming out! It's called Jam, and you can pre-order it from Amazon and tfaw.com . It's about an apocalypse, with jam in it!