I’ve set myself a personal challenge to complete one game a month in 2019, a mixture of larger studio published games and more independent titles to provide variety and avoid repetition. From one of the most well-known and praised titles to a more niche release, this year will provide me with the opportunity to enjoy a range of games within my collection and review them retrospectively. Enjoy the next 12 months.
Sleeping Dogs (Xbox 360)
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 2012
Finished: May 2019
Released in August 2012 across the seventh generation of consoles, before seeing a definitive edition release in 2014, from United Front Games studio comes the spiritual successor to the True Crime game series, Sleeping Dogs. Set in contemporary Hong Kong, the title allowed you to explore in the open world genre the vibrant and bustling city, a departure from similar American centric titles released on gaming systems, using a variety of vehicles and transport utilising your central protagonists mixed skills of martial arts, gadgetry and communication as you infiltrate the criminal Triad organization whilst attempting to ensure your identity as a member of the undercover police force is kept shrouded in mystery. Having enjoyed its predecessor True Crime on the Gamecube a generation prior, for a Nintendo devotee my one true immersion into the open world action adventure titles missing out on the grandeur of the Grand Theft Auto series, I was intrigued about the possibility of following up both its style and gameplay with the added resources and power of the seventh generation of hardware. In contrast to the Rockstar contemporary games with their sociopolitical narrative and parody, the True Crime and by default, Sleeping Dog games tonally had a more urban and good natured vibe to their narrative and direction, whilst the earlier titles were perhaps a little more direct in their homages to their peers, with the release of Sleeping Dogs it certainly felt the studio had found the direction and voice of the game it wanted to tell. At the time of its release there was still a degree of novelty in these types of open world games, certainly with an expansion outside of the United States setting and into Asia whilst there had been games of these types before with the Yakuza series, although restricted to a degree to the Asian market, this was a broad and welcoming title into this type of narrative, certainly graphic in parts at certain moments, but still a broadly simple, and beautifully designed open world perspective of Hong Kong. Unusually, a number of the common gripes and issues so prevalent in the open world genre, an array of marker points and hidden items to hoover up and collect to extend the experience are largely missing or certainly present in a more trivial or reduced amount. So an open world game, well shot and designed avoiding many of the pitfalls? I was intrigued to see whether it would be an enjoyable experience or a matter of attrition.
The story of Sleeping Dogs is both immediately familiar and perhaps therefore one of its weaker elements due to the overt familiarity, the narrative of the undercover cop infiltrating the triad crime organization, trying to maintain the facade whilst living in the criminal world and organization, building the bonds of brotherhood through adversity with his brothers in arms whilst facing the conflicting pressure from his true employment and cause. On its own merits outside the sense of deja vu caused by a knowledge of the wider media such as the Infernal Affairs movies or the western release, The Departed it was refreshing to play the title from this split perspective, the crime Triad based missions probably more interesting given the nature of the game and the general push to establish your character as ‘sinking’ into this lifestyle and mindset. However, there were highlights in the narrative of his police background and I did enjoy the dualistic approach of seeing the world from both perspective by the character. If I had to critique the narrative it would probably be the general lack of peril or threat caused by his role, certainly whilst it is referenced or mentioned by other secondary characters around you, he is quickly accepted into the criminal fraternity with relative ease and begins his descent into the world of the Triads. I will admit, as with LA Noire towards the last third of my gaming experience there was a certain level of grind beginning to set into my play sessions, perhaps more a symptom of attempting to complete these vast games in a relatively compressed time period. I will admit a conceit at this point, with my approach of alternating between the smaller titles such as Firewatch and Old Man’s Journey which are usually finished within a day or two and the open world games it does give me a little more time to enjoy and complete these titles on a monthly basis. Still, I have to say there is a certain level of attrition and grind that seeps into these titles, especially in a genre and narrative I have no great affinity or connection towards. Which is to say, I have enjoyed playing this game, it is a world away from the usual environments presented to us, America in its various guises and forms but ultimately I haven’t enjoyed that greatly or found the characters to be memorable or leaving a last impression with the exception perhaps of Mrs Chu, our featured cover star and her penchant for quite literally, dishing up her own blend of revenge at various moments in the game. Itself a somewhat jarring concession for your character to make in his moralistic approach to his duties but one, in a morally grey area you can understand to a degree and accept within the confines of the gaming world. As with my sojourn in the depression era world of Los Angeles, the missions whilst memorable aren’t a necessarily enjoyable experience, on more than one occasion I found myself pushing through, driving myself to complete the main narrative, what relief I found, exploring the beautifully recreated world of Hong Kong, itself a genuinely inspiring recreation of this great location.
I’ve never felt a great affinity or desire to explore Asia, appreciating its cultural contribution but somewhat deterred both by its distance in general and the distinction in cultures from western media and society. Hong Kong, given its historic legacy and connections to British Culture through generations of colonial rule certainly contrasts seemingly to other cities in the immediate vicinity and as such there was something that was instantly recognisable and familiar about a great many of the systems and architecture around me as I explored both by foot and by car. The city is wonderful to explore, and for one of the subjective pleasures of actually driving on the correct side of the road, a slight annoyance and grief whenever I play the latest American centric Grand Theft Auto titles. Whilst not a strict representation of the city itself, the developers used an approach we’ve discussed previously when looking at Assassins Creed Syndicate by Ubisoft of visiting and shaping the city based on personal experience and nuance. There are some omissions such as the Metro System, certain islands and locations and general amendments to geography and terrain, this isn’t a strict, representation more a general presentation of Hong Kong, the vast bright skylines alluding to any modern city but when exploring the streets the bright, distinctive neon lights and signs instantly attributable to this continent and place. I’ve long held a certain aversion to densely populated environments and locations, enjoying the freedom to explore on a whim, for that reason I enjoy being able to explore this environment at my own pace and time, recognising instantly I would be loathe to spend any length of time here. As much as I enjoyed Time Square last year or any visit up into London they are fleeting experiences or ones I can find some comfort being surrounded by a certain level of familiarity, the digital and presumably real world of Hong Kong is a brightly lit neon, densely populated world where criminality and law and order are a fine, double edged sword, fun to experience as a gamer, a complete aversion to me as a tourist. To address some of the more game centric features that should be mentioned is the prevalence of icons on your map, a common trait as seen in many open world games in an attempt to provide opportunities to spend any accumulated wealth. We looked at the notion of wealth and finance in detail recently, this certainly ers towards the classical and traditional representation of money and finance, the real world mechanic of money and finance without the connectivity of the present generation requiring modern games such as these a need to populate their maps with repetitive shops and features, to create the sensation of a rich and varied world. I guess at this point in time and what I’ve come to realise, I’ve got no real interest in collecting various shoes, clothes and vehicles, perhaps a male psychology, the allure of shopping in my real life is a concept lost on me beyond functionality, in the gaming world, once I have an outfit that is passable and a car that can perform I am content and have no desire to explore the swarm of shop icons or other venues. They serve no real purpose to the narrative than to create an illusion of society. There is perhaps an argument which I hadn’t discussed previously for these modern open world games in the current generation of games to create brand associations with real designers and allow digital copies of styles to be purchased and showcased. These types of games tend to create homages to certain shops and brands anyway, why not create some form of cohesion with actual stores, purchasing the latest Timberland boots or Gap hoodies, any visit to these real world cities reveals the most powerful brands operate in these markets, it would seem an easy win for everyone involved to allow you to dress your avatar in real world clothing. The downside perhaps, the nature of the stories with your character involved in crime to various degree to be dressed in designer clothing. But from a capitalist perspective, if you are going to fill your map with a swathe of clothes stores, I would presume there would be some logic to allow you to use real money to purchase digital versions and showcase the brands. If you want to appeal both to the psychology of your largest demographic, both in terms of gender and predication towards the hobby, introducing for example a digital equivalence of a gaming store or hobby store with ingame exclusive to purchase and deliver via Amazon for example would be a great way to add believability and immersion to your title.
As a gaming experience, Sleeping Dogs fluctuates between the functional, the bold and creative to the embarrassing and almost broken in terms of its mechanics. Principally there are a handful of core mechanics you have to judge and measure, beginning with the fighting and martial arts. I enjoyed the training mechanism and framing device of the gym you train in after acquiring certain collectibles. Its an interesting twist, to actually encourage and reward exploration although the statues tend to be located on your path during the main campaign so your scope to adventure is somewhat limited as a result. I’m not a great fan of memorising sequences in combat, having studied martial arts to a degree in my life the whole mechanism just feels like a gameplay mechanic. Whilst the ‘Arkham’ system has become somewhat derivative in recent years it does work and is a functional choice, this type of combat that requires you to memorise 2 x, a long x and a short x just is tedious to remember. In honesty, as with my ingame clothing and driving options when I have a method that works against a majority of the villains I am content to stay there, in the absence of a reason to need to learn new moves to progress I fail to find any purpose in expanding my repertoire of moves and abilities. The driving requires no license or skill to learn, curiously I would be interested to see an open world game require you to actually learn to drive a car, every game follows the same conceit of take car, press x to drive. Its a functional short cut but breaks immersion for those who do drive and as with any open world game, with no repercussions for breaking road laws again encourages a wreckless approach. For what it is, does it work? in part although the vehicles feel largely weightless in most varieties with the exception of the larger trucks and vehicles that handle terribly. I enjoyed the liberation of driving around the city but for a game that prides itself on its racing it just feels at times a game built around a racing game as opposed to an optional mechanic in the game. Lastly, the gun and shooting mechanics, arguably the weakest and worst of the games core mechanics, and quite simply reflective of the period of time it was developed. There are a few nice set pieces, the siege in the hospital a particular favourite but it just feels to similar to Grand Theft Auto with all the associatory faults present. No real difference in the shooting mechanics, a rubbish cover system to use, enemies that can unload an entire clip into you whilst you stand passive without doing any real damage. At best, its functional with a variety of different weapon types to use, the flash light mechanic was an interesting addition but it just felt weak and certainly doesn’t challenge any established shoots for their crown. I’m open to the concept it was an intentional decision, remind the user the strength lies in the martial arts and combat which certainly is stronger and more varied. There are a number of both bladed and object weapons such as pipes and wrenches which can be used at various stages, these feel a lot more satisfying to use than the guns.
Sleeping Dogs was perhaps the first of my legacy games collection I’ve failed to bond with to the same extent as some of the other game’s I played and completed this year. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have its benefits or positives and genuinely, for the most part despite some of the more obvious weaknesses discussed I did actually have fun exploring the world of Hong Kong, or at least this games portrayal. Visually even on the base release game as opposed to the definitive edition released on the current generation of consoles, it was still a treat to walk around the neon lights of the markets and view the skyline as i drove around. The driving felt light and vehicles somewhat weightless, the gunplay was weak, at best and whilst it broke up the martial arts sections clearly the game was built around the set pieces and as such I would have enjoyed these parts more in the absence of guns and shooting. The characters and main narrative were somewhat forgettable and so similar to other media and releases around the same subject matter besides the matriarch of the Chu family I haven’t come away with any lasting memory or impression of any of the cast. The missions were varied and perhaps one of the games strengths I didn’t touch on to greatly but did prove a good distraction. The set piece at the hospital, the wedding an interesting experience, unfortunately largely broken up by the usual assortment of go here, kill that type of exploits. The genesis of the Ubisoft formula is ever present, collectibles to unlock, icons to uncover and explore, all of which act as a distraction from pursuing the main narrative. With the exception perhaps of Dragon Age Inquisition, itself guilty of the same sins in part, after effectively hoovering up a great many of these random icons and items over the years there really is little to no appeal, I’m not a completionist or desire that perfect gamerscore, far more content to experience the main narrative path. On occasion when playing I felt the same sensation of grinding as experienced during LA Noire, pushing through the fatigue barrier of the world to complete the story. I wanted to enjoy this game, it feels perhaps more a guilty pleasure or passable experience but as a representation of the game industry and modern day Hong Kong, it’s a brightly lit facade, a sensory sensation of light, sound and decadence you find yourself enjoying for a moment before leaving leaving behind, grateful perhaps for the distraction but certainly for walking away.
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