Game: Sleeping Dogs
Platform: PS3, X360, PC
Publisher/Developer: Square Enix/United Front
Genre: Open World Crime Action
Describe This Game in Three Words: Grand Theft Asian
Plot Synopsis: Wei Shen is a San Francisco police officer who returns to his native Hong Kong in order to settle a score with the Sun On Yee crime organization and bring it down in order to avenge his family. He must walk the thin line between being a cop and being an effective gangster if he's to survive.
Up Up: I honestly haven't played a crime drama game since the original Grand Theft Auto for a simple and naive reason...I like to be the good guy. Specifically, I like to be Batman, but I'll take any hero. For some reason, yanking people out of cars and running over pedestrians never really appealed to me. You're talking about someone who restarted an entire game of BioShock simply because I accidentally harvested a Little Sister rather than save her. When it comes to games, I don't do moral ambiguity very well.
Initially, that's why I was excited about Sleeping Dogs. No matter how brutal Wei Shen can be, it's very clear in the game he's a good man trying his best to liberate his home from an ever more powerful corrupting influence. He's basically Leonardo DiCaprio in The Departed, and that's a pretty badass thing to be.
You explore an enormous rendition of Hong Kong that you are more or less free to move around in at your leisure. It really does feel like you're in complete control of a gangster flick, with amazing graphics and dialogue that show gaming has obliterated the line between film and gameplay.
The plot is fairly linear for an open world game, but if you worship Inconsequencia of the Sidequests like I do, you'll find plenty to keep you busy. Everything from breaking up drug deals to helping nice ladies commit insurance fraud by ramping a sports car off of a pier. You also get to explore the underworld black market, buying knockoff designer clothes, stolen cars and visiting massage parlors.
"Do you have a favorite country? France? Greece?" That's a masseuse quote, and you'd better believe this isn't a kid's game. It opens with a murder by meat cleaver and transitions quickly into a rival gangster lovingly retelling how Wei's sister gave him his first blowjob.
Aside from the dialogue and a few cut scenes, though, it's not overly adult, though I haven't gotten far enough through the date mechanics yet to tell you how far the game pushes the sexual envelope. I suppose I could come back later and update this to tell you whether I got to nail the various women you can meet, but that seems really, really juvenile.
Down, Down: There's an underlying message to the game that I don't like because of the whole "I want to be a good guy" thing I said before. Namely, the path to righteousness is much, much harder than the path to evil. You can drop in on any number of scenarios designed to increase your thug cred and do them pretty easily, but the drug gangs you have to beat up seem to be pegged at a much harder difficulty.
You'll have to progress quite a bit through the kung fu school side quest before you'll have the tools to take on the bad guys; otherwise you wake up in the hospital minus several thousand dollars. Don't worry about the money, though. After you get frustrated and return to crime scenarios, you'll find out crime pays very well for minimal effort. It was weird to earn five times my own real-world income within three hours just by kicking ass in a night club.
The Sun On Yee quests have their downside, too. Pretty much every time you get forced into a car chase with the cops or to have to hunt down a rival, you're stuck with things like chicken trucks and minibuses that have good enough speed but turn like drunks. American players will also have to get used to driving on the other side of the road as they do in Hong Kong because in certain scenarios, you have to follow the driving laws right down to traffic lights.
Other minor failures of execution: Your quest icon that tells you how far away an objective is and what direction to go is almost useless compared to the much smaller and harder to read minimap on the bottom. You'd better learn to follow it or be prepared to be stuck in a lot of the game.
Though you can pick up your own vehicle at any garage, they have a tendency to disappear from where you leave them if there's a cut scene involved. Walking back from my first date with Amy in a very distant part of the city wasn't fun, especially since I was trying really hard not to steal a car and be a nice guy. See how I said they stack the deck for evil?
Left, Right, Left, Right: The fight mechanic is clearly based on the Batman Arkham games, right down to using the triangle button to counter. While Wei actually has more martial arts options than Batman, the flow of the fights is nowhere near as seamless. You are going to get your ass kicked a lot, and there is nothing you can do about it but develop pinpoint timing. You must learn to use the hellishly narrow gap to counter in, or you will simply not win. It's instrumental to softening up tougher thugs that will otherwise laugh at your punches.
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Know what Wei can do that Batman can't, though? He can shove a guy's head into an amplifier. Environment attacks make the whole thing worth it. Be on the lookout for such options as they help overcome the controls and are fun as hell to boot.
B, A: Holy crap! The voice cast for this game is so unbelievably awesome! Two of the stars of the RZA's upcoming kung fu flick The Man with the Iron Fists have big roles, Lucy Liu and Byron Mann. Mann, you may remember, was Ryu in the Street Fighter flick with Raul Julia and Van Damme. He's joined by Liu Kang from that time's Mortal Kombat film, Robin Shou as Conroy Wu.
That's not the only Mortal Kombat connection. Ian Anthony Dale, who played Scorpion in the Legacy Web series and is cast for the new movie, has a part, and he played Kazuya Mishima in the Tekken film as well. This is like a video game acting royalty reunion, though regular Hollywood is well represented with the likes of Kelly Hu, Emma Stone and Tom Wilkinson. I haven't been this fanboy about a game cast since the first Kingdom Hearts.
Start?: Sleeping Dogs is amazing. It has managed to turn what is often a genre populated by insane murderpaths into a gripping narrative that rivals a Hollywood blockbuster. Wei Shen is a character that you identify with immediately, and working with him in his quest feels like an actual partnership. If you've always wanted to be like Denzel Washington, hellbent on bloody justice, this is your best shot.