The Dreaded Backlog: Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition
Welcome to THE DREADED BACKLOG! It’s incredibly easy to buy video games, but it takes a lot more time to play through them. All of us have a backlog of good gaming intentions that need to be fulfilled. Together we must overcome the overwhelming threat of THE DREADED BACKLOG!
My experience with Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition (Xbox One) has been long, tiring and very mixed. However I did experience enough moments of joy to finish the main campaign, in addition to the Nightmare in Northpoint and Year of the Snake DLC campaigns. In essence Sleeping Dogs is the tale of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong (or this universe’s version of it) who must Kung-Fu his way to the top of the criminal underground. Sleeping Dogs is essentially a paint-by-numbers open world game with driving, side missions, a breathing city and the requisite gun and fist fights. To break down my mixed feelings I must first express that the game plays like an AA game pretending to be an AAA game (video evidence of which I have linked to throughout).
First of all there is the close combat. It’s a clear rip-off of the Arkham Freeflow combat system, but this time with classical button bashing combos thrown in. These two methodologies aren’t the best of bedfellows. However, the combat feels brutal. Snapping bones is satisfying and environment attacks even more so. You can drop men onto sword-fish, feed them into ventilation fans, throw them into the sea and so on. When the close combat works it feels great and its fun. When the combat system doesn’t work (which is often) it’s a nightmare. Blocking simply doesn’t work as it is supposed to. Aiming Wei at the enemies is a nightmare involving toggling in and out of a trigger hold. Blocking against weapons turns into dodging which throws off the rhythm of fights due to taking grappling out of the occasion. Lastly this game is clearly inspired by Hong Kong martial arts and crime films. Yet none of the fights have the speed of violence associated with those films. I realise the game input has to be at a slow pace to make the game playable for different ability ranges, but that simply means you make the animations fast and more complex independently of the player input. However, all that being said, when you win a particularly hard fight or turn back the scales after a game fuck up, it makes for an emotional high. Albeit one would rather the game created a working combat system and then created a challenge within said system that adheres to the supposed rules of that system.
The driving is solid. That’s about as much as can be said. The different kinds of vehicles feel different enough. You can do smooth turning techniques or dodgy video game micro adjustment driving. Ramming is mapped to a button (X on XB1) plus your direction on the stick. This is a fun and simple mechanism that makes car chases easier to execute than games without ramming mechanisms wherein you have to hope to pin the opponent or cause a spin-out. It is a little silly that one can ‘ram’ forwards in the car however. This leads to the car skidding yet somehow darting forward and picking up speed, an unrealistic attitude to physics that can be used to overtake in races.
However, as silly as all this is, it is fun. What’s also fun is changing cars by leaping from your own into an enemy’s vehicle. That being said, boarding only works from the left (except when on motorbikes) as though you can only change to the driver’s seat from the passenger seat despite being able to jump onto a moving car from a moving car. Plus the animations go wrong almost every time when you leap to a truck. As for the races, they are mostly well balanced. But some are only possible after buying a better car, at which point they become laughably easy. There is no real middle ground.
In addition to the close quarters fighting and driving, there are shoot outs. They’re your standard third-person sticky-cover shooter fare, albeit with slow motion moments when you vault an object. At first the shootouts are very easy. Then they become much harder until one gets into the right shoot-and-movement pattern, then they become easy again. However this is appropriate given the fact they are just a side bit of fun to break up the martial arts/driving and to stop people nitpicking a modern crime setting without firearm violence. Shooting in a car can be difficult (as it should be) but shooting out tires never gets old.
Sleeping Dogs‘ setting is a complete breath of fresh air. Their interpretation of contemporary Hong Kong is a welcome change from the typical AAA video game cities largely in North America and sometimes Europe. There are crime-ridden high-rise slums, decadent warehoused docks, offshore gambling dens, wealth corrupted high-class hotels, monasteries, restaurants and bars (often as fronts) and a chaotic road system plagued by too many cars. However given that this is a AA game trying to be AAA, the city system is also incredibly glitchy. There are constant car crashes going on, sometimes even in the in-engine cut scenes. There is constant visual popping. As such this remake is not that strenuously remade. Its barely a definitive edition. Whilst this is clearly a AA game attempting to be a AAA game, it’s bizarre that the frame rate dips so much when you get in a car when the tech running the game is so advanced in comparison to said game.
In general my gameplay gripes are the glitchy AF design, the sheer amount of driving without a robust quick travel option, the near unworkable parkour sequences and that the changing between different combat modes (driving to fist-fights to shoot-outs etc) never feels natural. So much so that the developers seemed aware of this and break the sections up with cut scenes frequently.
So Sleeping Dogs gameplay and fun levels are all over the map. So is there a good story at the core of the game to make it all worthwhile?
Wei Shen is a sympathetic lead. He’s every-man enough to be a protagonist for any player. He’s got depth in terms of the clash between his loyalties, his patience and his anger. He’s even quite physically vulnerable: he does bleed. He’s no Ip Man. However it would be nice if his characterisation gave us some wider idea as to his motivation and his prior nature before this mission. We never see Wei outside of his being either in undercover mode, being a lothario or being angry at his cop superiors.
The women are all fairly one note. Whilst some are in sympathetic situations, they’re all either bland (like Emma Stone’s character) or weird and shrill and jealous. The only non-cop female character of any depth is killed off with her husband halfway in. One feels she was only made to be such a good character as for the audience to sympathise with her without making her male-gazey. The villains are all fairly obvious. Given Hong Kong’s recent past of being a British colony and the action genre’s fondness for British villains, the surprise villain surprise is far from surprising. Wei’s gang members are also not memorable. Many are deplorable and half the time we are still expected to sympathise with them. One member has a large emotional crux of the plot built onto him in the end. He appears significantly in the beginning of the game, but disappears almost entirely until near the very end. Given that most players will balance plot missions with side missions, it’s difficult not to forget he exists at all so many hours in.
However, this game reminds me of Mafia II in many ways (especially the fun of collecting your own wardrobe). Its main character is solid, the women are terrible and the gameplay switches between fantasy fulfilment and unintentional infuriation. However the plot has something. It does grip and it does stay with the player. You feel the intensity of the situation and how trapped Wei is. It manages to empower and belittle. The plot gives enough time to balance character work and action set pieces. It doesn’t throw big fights at you every two minutes to keep you interested. Rather it waits until they’re narratively appropriate. Whilst it does feel ridiculous how many people you kill in this game, it does somewhat add to the effect that Wei is barely keeping his head above the water line in a river of blood. Whilst I found the game incredibly frustrating, at least Wei was frustrated too.
In terms of the side missions: The cop missions are the best, they vary the plot and allow you to interact with the best female character: the mercurial Detective Teng. The dating stuff is a joke and an unrewarding one at that. The alley missions are a little tedious and very repetitive, especially in the docks. I am not one for gambling mini-games in video games, but here they seemed too simple even for me, let alone players who do enjoy that stuff.
How about the DLCs?
Year of the Snake
The plot is dis-interesting post-campaign fluff to tie off some very vague loose ends as Wei is put back on the streets as a beat cop (a slight saving grace as it changes up some of the conflicts). Most of the plotting revolves around dealing with dozens of city-wide bomb threats. The bomb stuff is repetitive. The driving-the-bomb-into-water is a clever mechanism, but it’s horribly annoying that the game prevents you placing a way point during these missions. Especially when much of the water is fenced off (indestructibly so) in the only areas with openings. And this is all at night. At one point I left the car in a wide and open and empty street. It killed no one and the damage didn’t even reach the sides of the road. Surely that counts? I’m pretty sure the police would rather get the wreckage from there than in the depths of the bays. The limitations of being a cop is fun until they drop them and you’re allowed to beat people senseless again. The crowd control sections (plot reasons leads to riots) start fun until it becomes clear that the smoke grenade gun simply doesn’t work. In full: the pacing is grating and the missions are dull and then it just ends as it gets going.
Nightmare in Northpoint
This DLC is about a demon attack in the Northpoint area of Hong Kong (conveniently limiting the action to a small area of the city map). The canonical status seems to be in the ‘non’ camp.The main hopping monsters aren’t fun to fight. The humans that are possessed are no different. The bigger monsters aren’t actively fun to engage, you just hack until dead. Like Year of the Snake the missions are repetitive and dull and then the DLC story simply ends before it has got going. However the story gimmick is fun. The music changes work and the streets full of glowing eyes are creepy. The fog looks good, but the generic blue filter used throughout is very lazy. There is some nice character work in that some of those Wei killed/failed have come back to life. It makes one a little sad that the game isn’t canonical and somehow done convincingly in the main world of Sleeping Dogs.
I can’t reasonably imagine in what state a player is supposed to be playing these two DLCs, they only offer the most exhausted features from the main game. If one was to complete the game and take a break from it before playing these, they’d be too short to be worth the effort. Unless you’re a completionist or completely in love with the main title, these extras are completely missable.
To conclude I’d say Sleeping Dogs is well worth playing, with warts and all. For all my complaints, I did complete the game and I cared about what happened in it. For every moment where the game completely shits itself there are two more moments where the gameplay comes alive. Get it cheap, play it fast, stay patient and you’ll have buckets of fun.