I've been playing the game that once was Activision's True Crime: Hong Kong, but morphed into Square Enix's Sleeping Dogs. It's a GTA-like set in Hong Kong, starring an undercover cop submerging himself into criminal gangs. Here is what fell out of my head in response to it.
I have opinions on a great many things- why cats are better than children, why mushrooms are the greatest foodstuff on Earth, why I'd have little-to-no problem with all men being wiped out, why habitual smokers should bear in mind that the nurse who comes in to change the bag of liquid faeces they're wired up to for the last, miserable months of their truncated lives isn't going to say 'well, never mind, at least it sometimes made you look a bit like you might be in a band when you were younger' - but I could summon no opinion on Sleeping Dogs for the longest time. (Well, I say 'longest time', but that would imply that 'nine' is the largest sum of hours I can imagine, and that's simply not true. I was on a 14-hour flight once, for instance.) 'No opinion' is not a careful way of saying 'a negative opinion.' I mean exactly what I say - the total absence of opinion, one way or another.
I was there and it was there and I was playing it, but no chords were struck. I've driven digital sports cars around darkened digital cities so many times by now that I believe a certain part of my pickled brain simply didn't kick in and acknowledge that I was playing something new. I was working on raw muscle memory. If that sounds dangerously like an opinion about Sleeping Dogs - i.e. that it is very similar to a great many post-GTA III games - please believe me when I say such thoughts didn't occur to me until past the nine hour mark. I sat there and I played, and I may even have let my jaw slacken and drool a little, but I didn't think.
I knew exactly what I was doing without having to make conscious effort: this was pure habit. I don't analyse my morning ablutions, for instance. Then, as it always does in This Sort Of Thing, came The Moment. The moment when it ceased to be merely a game and became My Game. The moment when Sleeping Dogs and I connected. There's a secret to what makes this happen, in Sleeping Dogs or almost any other game of its sort.
Juxtaposition! These games – these open, urban worlds we rampage through a few times each year – live or die on it. Really, they offer only one thing, and that is the freedom to shoot, punch, kick or drive over as many people as you see fit, until such time as they are dead. For all the many bells and countless whistles added to sandbox cityscapes since Grand Theft Auto III become a cultural phenomenon, the essential gangster-unbound fantasy has not changed.
It’s the juxtaposition of that essential activity – the ad-hoc, unpunished mass eradication of computer-controlled characters for our entertainment – with the sights and sounds of each of these cityscapes that can keep this hoary formula fresh. X will be multiplied by Y, and suddenly this open world isn't just another place to shoot, punch, kick or drive within. Suddenly it's yours.
Here was mine, courtesy of in-game radio station Sagittarius FM:
FAR AWAY [splat] IN TIME FAR AWAY [scrrrrrrrrrrrape-crunch] IN TIME FAR AWAY [aarghcrashwheeeeeeeeeeeeeeee]
Don't ask me to offer an objective opinion about Echo Beach, for that is impossible. You might as well ask me to offer an objective opinion about the fourth paving slab to the left on the street outside the first house I ever lived in. It's one of those songs that was and forever will be there in my brain, and as such can dredge up associations I'm not even conscious of. Ring the bell and Pavlov's dog will start drooling. Play the song and little Alec Meer will start tapping his toes.
He will also, it transpires, begin to drive faster and more recklessly, and yet somehow more adeptly, cruising around a vibrant, rain-soaked Hong Kong at maximum speed while parts of his body twitch to the sax-imbued 80s rhythm and every splatted civilian only seems like a natural part of this perfect meld of music and movement. He will also discover that if he rhythmically taps left and right just so while driving, the car will appear to dance to Martha & The Muffins. He will do this whenever the song comes on again, and be faintly annoyed when the song ends.
This may not be very interesting to you. All these open world games have those juxtapositions of retro song and casual hyper-violence, after all - there's nothing remotely new about it. I'm just telling you what happened. If you're waiting for me to say something that will guide you in your potential purchase of Sleeping Dogs, I will stand on my hind legs and tell you it is 8 graphics out of 10. Now. My connection to the game achieved, I was able at last to consider it.
Where was I? Hong Kong, a hectic melange of East and West, where I could ping rapidly from carbon fibre cars and gleaming skyscrapers to grubby street markets and pork roll vendors to elegant, serene temples. It is a good city for this kind of game. New York seems so over-familiar, but so many of the world's other capitals - London, Paris - aren't anywhere near so well-suited to high-speed driving despite their grand array of sights and people. Hong Kong works, because it like New York it is urbanity incarnate. It is also, to my bleary British eyes, ever so slightly alien in tandem to being recognisably a metropolis as I know them from both reality and games.
Who was I? An undercover cop, infiltrating the Triad and bending both sides' rules in the process. An unfaithful lover. A martial artist. A race expert. A crack shot with a pistol. A man caught between the lure of the law and the lure of adopted family that just so happens to also be a crime cartel. The plot is all over the place, repeatedly offering compelling setups in terms of both grey-area morality and supporting characters but tending to default to catch'n'kill, which coupled with your unremarked-upon freedom to kill whosoever you wish when bombing around between mission, entirely robs the game of any sense of being caught on the horns of an overarching dilemma.
For all that, individual moments work well, and there's a persistent air of paranoia that Sleeping Dogs' dialogue's unfortunate tendency towards the obnoxious can't undo. And ,at times, the dialogue and the close-focus storytelling really shines. There are stomach-punch moments of horror, both in terms of witnessing bad things happen to people you're growing fond of and, in one moment I'm dying to discuss but can't at this stage (spoilers!) confronting you, the unrepentant and oh-so-male player, with the twisted hypocrisy of your anything-goes morality.
While Sleeping Dogs has a thousand and twelve things in common with GTA IV, and in fact probably has a poster of GTA IV on its bedroom wall which it whispers 'I love you' to every night before it goes to sleep, one thing it doesn't copy is Rockstar's predilection for grotesques in its supporting cast. It wants its talking characters to be believable, albeit very much through an unashamedly, proudly low-brow action movie lens, and while at times this means blandness at others it means points of human connection and even the tugging of heartstrings.
99% of the game's plot and characters will have faded from my memory by this time next month, but it's that 1% that sticks - and it will - that matters. Sure, Sleeping Dogs unblinking high-speed and defaulting to exploitation can undermine the powerful moments, but there most certainly are powerful moments. I would love to know what this game had been had it not also felt it needed to be there-are-gangsters-so-there-must-be-swearing-and-posturing-constantly, because there is a stout kernel of nobility and real heart underneath the macho affect.
Oh, right, I was supposed to be artificially asking questions of myself and then answering them for you, the potential consumer's benefit. Would it help if I said Sleeping Dogs is 7 longevities out of ten?
What was I doing? Well, driving and violence, although the major break from the standard open urban world formula is that the violence is predominantly centred around hand-to-hand martial arts, albeit with a whole lot more gruesome bone-snapping and face-crushing than Bruce Lee tended towards. Fights tend to play out like a bloodier yet somehow less crunchy take on the Batman: Arkham games, so it's about countering, combos and evasion rather than frantic pummelling of buttons and faces.
It can get routine - oh look there is a gang of men waiting for me gosh I wonder what they'll do - and it can be infuriatingly unresponsive (or perhaps over-responsive, picking up on timing errors you yourself are not quite aware of) but I liked it. Fights did feel like events because my attention could not lapse, so I was kept invested by twin dint of clear and present danger and the power fantasy of knowing that, yes, it is entirely possible for me to triumph over 19 men without ever having to pull a gun.
(Guns are a surprisingly minor part of Sleeping Dogs. They don't even make an appearance until several hours in, and even thereafter are irregular. When they were present, I strived to avoid using them as the game doesn't do anything interesting with them and they feel far less satisfying and made me feel less involved in the situation than did the kung fu.)
Driving and violence were not my sole activities, however. I could also:
- Hack security cameras to later spy on ne'er-do-wells and order their arrest. This is the only (non-cutscene-based) arresting in the game, which means the on-the-spot justice of Sleeping Dogs' forerunners, the True Crime games, has sadly been dispensed with.
- Other things involve the above, fairly irksome hacking game. It's based on the old code-cracking two-player boardgame Mastermind, but with numbers rather than coloured pegs, and while I've definitely seen far worse hacking minigames, I still found this to brazenly artificial and a savage punch straight to the kidneys of flow and pace. There are some moments where it has to be done before a guard catches you, and those are admittedly tense, but it didn't stop me rolling my eyes and loudly saying 'OH GOD' whenever I saw those bloody dials turn up.
- Sing karaoke! Yes, it's as silly as it sounds, and it's entirely intended to be. It's baby Guitar Hero, but starring a buff man whose voice goes all wobbly and pubescent when you hit the wrong notes while singing the Clash or Pat Benatar. Ridiculous, and absolutely the sort of minigame I'm in favour of - as well as fitting the setting in a well-observed, gangster-free way.
- Collect things! You know.
- Buy clothes! You know. There are minor buffs for certain matching sets, but the choice of togs largely isn't wild enough to be anything other than a forgettable distraction. I didn't bother with much of it, partly because the game regularly dresses you in new outfits during the story anyway.
- Buy cars! Which is absolutely pointless as you can find and 'borrow' enough sports cars to fill Donald Trump's garage at every intersection.
- Go on dates. Side missions to impress the ladies, which if successful end in nookie even if you had only meant to be friendly because you were more interested in another woman. This plays into the morality of the game and the protagonist's claimed belief that his dangerous, duplicitous life makes him ill-suited to long-term relationships. The polygamy is not unremarked upon, which makes for some strong moments, although the game somewhat shoots these achievements in the foot by abruptly abandoning most of these characters and sub-plots once MISSION COMPLETE and levelling-up bonus achieved.
- Oh yes - levelling up. There are about four different skill trees to make your way up simultaneously, which offer assorted combat abilities and buffs as you do. Two of these - Triad and Police - depend on your performance during missions, for instance public property will dock you police points while headhotting criminals gets you Triad points, but there isn't any moral absolutism. It is entirely possible to max out both Triad and Police points in any mission. There is also the stupidly-named Face, which you level up in by doing certain side missions, being a dude in combat and - oh dear - successfully making the (unseen but very heavily implied) sex with all the women. Levelling up any of your meters isn't really necessary for success, especially as it's not a particularly difficult game, but will give you bonus moves in combat and city-wide assists such as being able to see where useful items are on your map.
2073 words and I'm still listing features in bullet points? Jesus, I'm doing this wrong. Right!
Once I had my Martha & The Muffins moment, I realised that, yes, I was quite enjoying Sleeping Dogs and it had quite a lot going for it despite being an overwhelming familiar experience. I'm not sure I could give you one good reason why it should exist when we have so many games like it already, but I do not begrudge it existing.
I wish it had the big brass balls to further pursue the more heartfelt, self-reflective aspects of being an amoral character that it occasionally explores, but equally I'm ok with taking it on a superficial level - biff and vroom - too, as it does those things well. I mean, there's zero sense of risk as death just means waking up in the hospital with a small amount of your vast and pointless wealth removed, and it copies the GTA car physics model of making head-on collisions feel like hitting a tree trunk with a baseball bat, but as a place to dick around in it's got a fairly developed combat model and a striking setting.
It's also done the work in terms of PC graphics, with a high-res texture pack and DirectX 11 stuff - it looked proper great on my system and ran well too, although for some reason it did make it run so hot that I've actually got a couple of spots of my face due to the extreme humidity in my tiny study while I was playing it.
So, yes, quite liked it, good-looking, decent man-punching/kicking, might play a bit more, but I suspect that if you asked me a year from now 'what was that Square Enix GTA-like set in Hong Kong?' I'd have to go away and think about it for a bit.