the first dozen hours: Sleeping Dogs

August 29, 2012


It’s times like these where I’m glad that I’m not a professional game writer, because then I’d have to be a bit less wishy-washy when describing my experience playing Sleeping Dogs.

On the one hand, I greatly admire what it’s trying to do.  It’s true that the number of GTA clones has decreased considerably in recent years, but even so, there are still 2 directions that most of these open-world games seem to take – there’s the batshit crazy direction, best personified by the excellent Saints Row 3, and then there’s the serious, thoughtful, contemplative direction first explored in GTA4 and then in Red Dead Redemption.   Sleeping Dogs, to its tremendous credit, is aiming for something serious here – or, at least, is doing everything it can to avoid being unintentionally funny, which is a verydifficult thing to do when you have Chinese accents peppering a game meant for ‘Murican audiences.  (There are too many YouTube-able instances of prominent American celebrities/sports stars/newspeople saying stupid shit like “ching chang chong” as a shorthand for Chinese for me to link to here, but I’m sure you get the idea.)

It also brings a lot to the table in terms of gameplay.  First and foremost, it’s probably got the best melee combat we’ve yet seen in an open-world game, and while it’s not quite as good as the recent Batman games, it’s still great fun.  (By the same token, some of the fights are quite difficult, which can be frustrating – but when you do win a fight, it’s all the more satisfying.)

And enough can’t be said about the open world itself.  Hong Kong, even if it’s fictionalized, is an exotic and unique locale for this type of game – or, indeed, any game, really – and the city is incredibly well-designed and is a lot of fun to explore.  If I were to make a Top 10 Best Open World Cities list – and I very well might, when the next generation of consoles launches and I need to do a current-gen wrap-up –  I’d probably put this in my top 3.  It’s that good.

But where there’s a sandbox, there is also jank, and Sleeping Dogs has some very strange jank.  Not the usual jank, where there’s bugs and broken AI and shit – more like inconsistent game design.  Without spoiling anything, your player character is an undercover cop, and you will be performing missions for both the police and the gangs you’ve infiltrated. After each mission, you receive performance grades that reflect how you did for both factions.  Now, here’s where this gets weird; regardless of which faction you work for, you will get docked points for the police faction if you do anything wrong – if you shoot a civilian hostage while aiming for the bad guy behind them, if you crash your car into a civilian vehicle during a chase even though the civilian car drove through an intersection, if you happen to run over a streetlight.  And yet, during the missions, you are not only beating up thugs, but you can brutally murder them by, say, impaling them on a pallet of swordfish heads, or by breaking an aquarium with their face, etc.  Indeed, you get rewarded for such brutality.

There’s also a bunch of weirdness in the story – it feels like certain scenes may have been edited out without smoothing over their rough edges.  Characters suddenly appear out of the blue and yet interact with your character like they’re old, trusted friends.  A wedding takes place out of the fucking blue.  And then there’s the character of Winston’s mother, which I can’t talk about without spoiling it, except to say that it is SUPER FUCKED UP and your character seems more than willing to help her do the things she does.  Which, as a cop, he should maybe not do.  Is all I’m saying.

I have no idea how far along I am in the story, but I’m enjoying myself for the most part, and it’s certainly worth a look if you’ve got some free time.

this is more like it

August 20, 2012


Topics covered today:

  • Darksiders 2
  • Sleeping Dogs
  • discovering new bands through game soundtracks

I’m actually going to start with the last thing first, because despite the mega-marathon sessions I had this weekend with both Darksiders 2 (hereinafter, “DS2”) and Sleeping Dogs (“SD”), it’s the third thing on this list that’s made the deepest impression on me.

To wit:  I am obsessed with the band White Denim.  I had never heard of them before, though it’s entirely possible that I may have noticed their albums reviewed with mid-level scores at Pitchfork and the AV Club and simply skipped past them.   In any event, at some point last week (i.e., before my rental copies of DS2 and SD arrived), I was playing Saints Row 3 on my PC with my headphones on, kinda just screwing around, looking for hidden packages, not really interested in any of the missions I had to do, when I suddenly noticed that whatever was on the radio was really, really good.  I stopped what I was doing, pulled out the radio song list (in order to make a custom mix – a great feature in SR3 only limited by how little of the music I actually like), and discovered that the song in question was White Denim’s “Paint Yourself.”

And from there, I quickly went to Spotify, found all of their albums, and now it’s all I’ve been listening to ever since.  They are some perfect hybrid of Broken Social Scene, Deerhoof, Blitzen Trapper and Phish – which shouldn’t make any sense, but it does, and then some.  I was annoyed with myself that I hadn’t noticed them sooner, when I was playing SR3 on my Xbox – but, then, I’m not sure I would’ve noticed it coming through the TV instead of my kick-ass studio monitor headphones.

This is not the first time I’ve learned about a band through a game – Rock Band turned me on to Maximo Park and Silversun Pickups (though, in those specific cases, I mostly just like the songs they picked and not the albums as a whole).    Frankly, the way certain games shove their soundtracks down my throat really just turns me off (I’m looking at you, EA.) GTA4 turned me on to a few things – somewhere out there, someone’s made a fantastic mp3 playlist of every GTA4 radio station – and, really every GTA game’s had a fantastic soundtrack.  But I’m not sure I’ve ever gotten this obsessed with a band before simply by hearing them in a game, and I think that’s kind of awesome.  (And the weird thing is, the song they picked isn’t even necessarily a lead single-type track.)

(Should you be interested in more of their stuff, I’ve made a Spotify playlist with all their albums, which can be found in the widget below (except I don’t think the widget can contain everything – the native Spotify application should, though).)

Moving on, then.

If my Raptr profile is to be believed, I spent twice as much time in Darksiders 2 than in Sleeping Dogs last week, though that doesn’t necessarily feel right.  I kinda rotated between the two of them for a while, switching if I found myself frustrated or if I came to a natural break in the action.  Funny thing – while the two games couldn’t be more different – one is a GTA clone set in Hong Kong, the other has you playing as Death (one of the Four Horsemen), slaughtering demons, traversing platforms and solving puzzles in strange, fantastical realms – their melee combat is just similar enough to make the combat a bit difficult to adjust to right after a switch.  

I guess the Raptr timing is right, though – I have no idea how far I am in DS2 but I suspect I’m at least at the halfway point, being that I just picked up my 3rd special ability (out of 4).  I’m enjoying the hell out of it, just as I did the first.  Great art style, great story (and great voice acting to boot), and the game experience is pretty much exactly what I want to be playing right now.  My only frustration is that I’m just not as good at the combat as I’d like to be, leading to boss battles that take forever to get through; and, well, on rare occasions the camera makes the platforming a bit more difficult than it needs to be.  That aside, it’s really quite good.  Maybe it’s not a WORK OF ART, but it’s a really enjoyable experience all the same, which is the part that really matters the most.

The thing I said above about not being great at combat applies in equal measure to my experience with Sleeping Dogs, which is (again) a pleasant surprise.  (I’m not great at the driving, either, though I’m getting better – the cars are a bit floaty and the handbrake takes a lot of getting used to.  OH, and people in Hong Kong drive on the wrong side of the road, so there’s that.)  But the thing about the combat is that, by and large, it’s how missions get completed, and sucking at the combat means that the game can be quite frustrating at times.  And yet I still find myself enjoying the experience, at the end of the day.  Hong Kong is a fascinating location for an open-world game, and it feels pretty authentic (not that I’ve ever been there, of course, but it still feels like a real city).  The story is definitely interesting, with quite a few compelling characters, and I’m certainly invested in what’s happening.  There’s lots of little side things to do, there’s tons of hidden packages to locate (which is one of my favorite things to do in these games – this also applies to DS2, which has hidden packages galore), and in spite of its occasional jank, it’s a compelling experience.  There’s some neat social touches in it, too, which (unfortunately) I can’t really explore, since I’m apparently the only person on my friends list who’s playing it, but in any event the game keeps track of various things you do (like how long you can drive without hitting anything), and then it ranks you with your friends.  I’d like to see Rockstar’s Social Club incorporate more of this kind of thing in GTA5, frankly.

Anyway.  It’s nice to be playing new games, again, finally.   My hands will be full with these two for the foreseeable future – or at least until Borderlands 2 arrives in a few weeks.

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