Monday, January 6, 2014

Don't Let This Sleeping Dog Lie. . .

So here's the deal: since I want to keep things varied on this blog, I'm writing about my Japan trip with every other post so I can still write about the random East Asian stuff I encounter on an almost daily basis. I know a lot of people have been to Japan and write about it and know more about Japan than I do, but I thought my trip was unique in some respects and that's why I'm sharing it with y'all! So basically I'm going to alternate between the travel log and the usual mishmash of topics that populates this blog. Thank you all for reading! And now . . . video games!    

Christmas was good to me this year: I received a number of neat things from my family. But one in particular was Sleeping Dogs, developed by United Front and published by Square Enix, which I completed earlier this week.

This game has been out for a while and I guess is considered last-gen now with the release of PS4 and Xbox One, but I just got around to playing it and I thought it was worth highlighting. I blogged about this game way back when it was in production, a year or two ago. At the time I was stoked to see this being developed, as I remembered thinking back in high school how awesome a GTA Hong Kong would be and it finally looked like it was becoming a reality.

However, I was not blindly optimistic. I'd heard that Sleeping Dogs had a sordid production history and was originally slated to be an entry in the True Crime series of games, the first iteration of which I played a bit some years ago. I remember thinking that, aside from the fighting system, just about everything else in the game felt like a poor man's GTA; it just didn't have the polish and staying power to set it apart. So when Sleeping Dogs was in production I was really hoping that it wouldn't end up as some half-baked GTA clone. I went to study in Korea without a game console, so when Sleeping Dogs was released I wasn't able to play it. Then I came back to Canada and temporarily forgot that it existed. After remembering that I had wanted to play it, I asked a game-guru friend of mine if he had tried it, and he said it was one of the best games he had played all year! That was high praise coming from a guy who I know is very critical about his games, and so my hope was restored.

A virtual Hong Kong night market in as seen in Sleeping Dogs.
I had put the game on my Christmas list, not really expecting to get it, so on Christmas morning when I opened up a DVD-shaped gift, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I now owned the PS3 port of the game. When I first started playing it after Christmas dinner (tired and somewhat intoxicated), my initial reaction was sort of "meh." The graphics looked rough, the driving mechanics seemed a little too arcade-like, and I couldn't really get into it. It wasn't a deal-breaker, though, and I decided I'd sleep on it and try it again the next day. Suffice it to say, that following day I don't think I left my room save to eat and go to the washroom. Sleeping Dogs was the game I had been waiting for for a long time -- GTA Hong Kong had finally been realized, and it went beyond my expectations. Good job, United Front!

You're bound to meet a lot of shady characters in the Hong Kong underworld, many of them voiced by your favourite Asian-American actors.
The first thing I noticed about the game was the voice credits, particularly the appearance of such names as Will Yun Lee, the notorious Edison Chen, Kelly Hu, Byron Mann, Robin "Lu Kang" Shou, the legendary James Hong, Kim Yunjin, and even Conan-frickin'-Lee from Tiger on Beat! It's a veritable smorgasbord of Asian and Asian-American acting talent -- nice touch! Even Emma Stone has a cameo, as a foreign tourist you can date in the game as a side mission -- pretty cool! The game is set in a fictional version of Hong Kong that uses real names such as Aberdeen and Kennedy Town, but the geography is totally different from the actual place, which I found kind of odd. Despite this, the game does a good job of making you feel like you're in Hong Kong, or at least in a cinematic version of it (I have yet to actually visit Hong Kong). I was a little surprised to see that Kowloon and its infamous apartment slums make no appearance in the game. Saving it for a future title, maybe? In the end I felt the setting was pretty well fleshed-out.

 An aerial view of Sleeping Dog's Hong Kong.
I think my game-guru friend said it best when describing the gameplay in this title. The driving is halfway between GTA and Saint's Row -- a good mix of arcade and simulation (though leaning much more to the arcade side), the fighting is like a somewhat less polished Arkham Asylum system, and the shooting is satisfying, with guns that feel powerful and weighty and hit detection and physics that ensure that your enemies react as they might in some of the best scenes from John Woo's finest "bullet ballets." It makes for a pretty slick package. The game certainly does not look as polished as GTA V and there is some glitchy animation here and there, but it still does an excellent job of making you feel like a badass HK movie protagonist. The experience of walking through virtual Hong Kong reminded me of a blend of GTA and Yakuza: a good mix of fun and exhilarating driving, with enough interactivity to make the city feel like a living, breathing place. The ability to leap out of your car onto another and subsequently jack it in mid-drive is kind of an awesome touch. When you aim a gun while you're driving, the game goes into slow motion, making it easier to shoot out the tires of an enemy car or motorcycle and watch it barrel down the street and explode into flaming wreckage -- totally awesome.

The story conjures up memories of Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled, City on Fire, and myriad other films. I just can't get enough! 
It is obvious that Hong Kong cinema was the inspiration for the narrative of this game. You're an undercover cop, Wei Shen, whose mission is to bring down a major triad group called the Sun On Yee from the inside. You meet all sorts of shady characters who feel as if they might have been pulled right out of one of Johnny To's film noir gangster romps or one of John Woo's high-octane bullet ballets. There's even a part in the game in which you must fight a bunch of monks in a temple, à la a period kung-fu flick. The story is a cornucopia of movie references both subtle and non, which is all too wonderful for an Asian film geek like myself.

The language of the game is primarily accented English, though you do meet a number of characters who speak Cantonese exclusively. This does take away from the authenticity of the setting to some degree, but it is a North American game so I didn't find this too surprising; and English is pretty much the second language of Hong Kong, so I guess it kind of works if you think about it. If you pay attention to the dialogue you can learn a number of Cantonese swear words that you can use on your friends! (Just remember to use them sparingly.) My only complaint is that the game felt a bit too short (though I did play it for three days straight, so that may have something to do with it) and the ending ties things up a little too nicely if you ask me (though this could be thought of as an homage to old-school Hong Kong movies, which tend to end rather abruptly and almost too perfectly).

One of the DLC packs titled Movie Masters Pack allows you to play as, among other things, a Shaolin bronze man from the old-school kung-fu flick 18 Bronze Men of Shaolin -- an awesome film in its own right!
All in all, I have to say a huge thank-you to United Front for being the folks to finally get this game to the light of day. Having a GTA-type game take place exclusively in Hong Kong is kind of a gutsy decision, and given the history of this game's development, it could all have gone very wrong. In the end, Sleeping Dogs is a complete package, with fun fighting, driving, and shooting and a storyline that makes you feel like you're in an HK movie. I had always wanted this game to exist, and now that I've finally played it, I'm not disappointed in the least! Sure, it has a few noticeable seams, but in the end I am definitely satisfied with this competent effort.

I wonder if there's a sequel in the works. I can only hope. There's some DLC available that adds a mission to the narrative that is straight out of Enter the Dragon, I might just have to pick that up. Anyway, if you haven't played this game by now, you may want to give it a try. It's pretty damn good!

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