A Rambo movie isn't Saw, something that revels in watching bodies be eviscerated and in the pain of the victims of violence. The focus is on a romanticized, idealized action hero capable of taking on all comers. This to me is the violence of Grand Theft Auto, Doom, or Call of Duty. The violence in Sleeping Dogs falls into that tradition -- that is, until it doesn't.
Sleeping DogsPublisher: Square Enix
Format: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3
ESRB Rating: Mature
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: 2012-08-14
Barring a few bugs (one of which prompted a reset and return to a save point), Sleeping Dogs is from an objective perspective a pretty well crafted game.
The game looks very pretty, taking the player to a place left unexplored in the open world genre (at least that I can recall), the streets of Hong Kong. Those streets are brimming with life in a manner somewhat reminiscent of the opening minutes (when its protagonist returns home) of Mafia II, moments that did an exceptional job of establishing the character whose skin the player would occupy for the foreseeable future by allowing the player to explore the neighborhood that he was returning to in a slow, methodical way. In that game, Vito Scaletta's trudge through the snow-filled back alleyways of an Italian neighborhood to the strains of Bing Crosby's “Let It Snow,” while wives yelled angrily at their layabout husbands that were off to the corner bar once again from the windows of tiny apartments set the tone and mood of the world rather neatly. Likewise, Sleeping Dogs gives us a series of initial on-foot missions that take the player into Hong Kong's night market that give an interesting sense of place, especially to a player who finds these streets rather exotic and unfamiliar and thus rather novel as a result.
Additionally, Sleeping Dogs sets itself apart from the standard tales of crime often told through the lawless free play that an open world offers by shifting the focus of combat away from guns and towards a fairly robust melee system. That system, as others have noted, is similar in many ways to the counter and combo system of the recent Batman: Arkham games, and while it feels a little rawer and less fluid than that system at times, it is also one that is more rewarding given a bit of practice. It is refreshing to not collect guns and ammo throughout one's play experience and weirdly off-putting initially to realize that when you do get a hold of a piece that more than likely you will discard it soon enough, especially since the martial arts action that ensues instead of the standard gun fight grows more and more fun to engage in.
You may note that some of my “objective perspective” on the design of the world and the combat has given way to more subjective descriptions of the game, like “fun.” And indeed from a subjective perspective, it is hard for me also to not admit that I had quite a bit of fun playing the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop infiltrating the underworld of Hong Kong, its Triad gangs, who is also being slowly drawn in by the allure of the gangster lifestyle and the kind of brotherhood or “family” unit that it represents.
All that being said, as much fun as I had with the game and as beautifully drawn as its world is at times, there seems to me something that holds this game back from standing up to the best that this genre has to offer, notably Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, Red Dead Redemption, and Bully. Certainly, this is a Grand Theft Auto clone, much like a game from the Saints Row series, but even when comparing it to that slicker but slightly less captivating series, this game still leaves me with a sense of a void that exists in really getting the formula right.
To put it one way, it kind of lacks a soul.
Rockstar's efforts at building worlds for me are largely very good experiences, experiences made better by the satire of the series and its interrogation of American culture through its grotesque fictional cities of that nation. Red Dead is overall less grotesquely humorous in its approach to the Old West, but it still retains an interesting critical eye on its subject matter, the spirit of the West. And Bully presents itself as a kind of marvelous and horrific simulation of a middle school experience throughout all of its twisted encounters and sequences, allowing the player to relive the horrors of puberty and also laugh a little at the absurdity of trying to get through it. Saints Row while, perhaps, a bit less fond of a “thinkier” kind of critique of its subject matter has gone way over the top with its zany approach to the crazed violence and general licentious nature of the lifestyle of the rich and famous gangster.
Sleeping Dogs lacks such a commitment to satire or critique or zaniness or some other way of making the generally amoral or immoral nature of the kind of “anything goes” gameplay of the open world a means of exploring some sense of what freedom means (and why we desire it and why it can be so loathsome when we get it), leaving the game very, very playable, though without any clear idea to express soulfully.
Wei Shen is a good character. He is interesting because he is a man who is supposed to represent law and order that is spiraling out of control as he gets embedded more deeply and gains more authority in the Triads. I have heard critics complain about the ludonarrative dissonance that is frequently cited as a problem in open world games existing in Sleeping Dogs as well. Such complaints focus on the way that the kinds of things that a character conveys in cutscenes (often some kind of moral compass) seem so much very at odds with the content of the missions assigned to the character to play out or the mischief that one can get a character into in an open world by simply “playing as you want to.”
Those criticisms don't give the plot in the game enough credit. Wei Shen's moral compass is eroding. Thus, his activities in play while wildly out of step with his legal and moral obligations actually often do represent what he is becoming in the plot (frankly, I wish that United Front had been brave enough to end this tale by letting Wei Shen go completely “over to the Dark Side,” which might have put all such criticism to rest -- it would also make for a story that we haven't really seen before in a genre full of gangsters with some semblance of a heart of gold).
Again, though, despite the fact that I think Wei Shen is interesting, I'm not quite sure that the story, which is often pretty by-the-numbers cops and robbers stuff intends to really go anywhere with all of his wrestling with himself about what he thinks is right.
There are moments where this game feels like it wants to take the story typical of an open world title somewhere new, but then one is always left scratching one's head as to why.
For example, there is a moment towards the end of a game that reminds me somewhat of something out of the playbook of a Cohen brothers film. That is not to say that Sleeping Dogs writing approaches the quality of a work by the Cohens. It's not. However, the Cohens have a certain fondnesss for upending the tone of their films with a scene of extraordinary violence. Both Fargo and Burn After Reading contain moments like this, in which the humor and wit expressed throughout a large part of the film suddenly give way to some terrible moment (the shooting in the closet in Burn After Reading, for example), as if to remind us that despite the wry tone of the previous craziness of the film that there are very real, very dire consequences for seemingly insane, seemingly amusing, seemingly stupid human behaviors.
Now, admittedly, open world games are generally rather violent affairs with lots of shooting and other mayhem as part of their core. However, I often view the violence of games like GTA as equivalent to the violence of a Rambo movie. Yes, the body count is huge, but there isn't some intense focus on human suffering in the films. Rambo mows through guys, and we need to see that to understand how capable he is, how powerful, how unstoppable. However, a Rambo movie isn't Saw, something that revels in watching bodies be eviscerated and in the pain of the victims of violence. The focus is on a romanticized, idealized action hero capable of taking on all comers. This to me is the violence of GTA or even non-open-world titles like Doom or Call of Duty.
The violence in Sleeping Dogs falls into that tradition -- that is, until it doesn't. There is a sequence at the end that is so utterly brutal, that it just shifts the whole tone of the game and its representation of violence in a wholly different direction. Again, very Cohen-esque. The developers are even clever enough to change gameplay and perspective in this scene as Wei crawls, limps, and takes actions never before seen in the game as the camera drifts to a weirdly diagonal position before the player. However, unlike the Cohens, who emphasize the consequential by suddenly shocking us with something more extreme than they have shown us before, the sequence never really goes beyond just changing the tone of violence normally familiar in a game of this sort.
Like the game as a whole, the scene feels somewhat surprising, feels somewhat innovative, but never gets beyond merely really competently affecting the player for a moment before returning us to a familiar, but well executed game space.