Sleeping Dogs was initially one of those games that I just picked up because I had finished one game and the next titles were still on their way in the mail. Ultimately it turned out to be quite a bit more than just a snack. For those not in the know, Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-like that was initially supposed to be a part of the True Crime series. For some unknown reason the original publisher rejected the game, thus the name change and another publisher. Because I have not written about any GTA yet, I am going to include some wider points from the genre's conventions.
1. Backstory matters in gameplay - to an extent!
Sleeping Dogs features one important backstory difference to GTA games: the protagonist is not a criminal. He is an undercover cop who has been tasked with infiltrating a triad in Hong Kong. This sets a different tone to the entire game. Although the mechanical punishments for driving over civilians are quite small, they bear much larger emotional impact on the player if they identify with the protagonist's dual identity. Although I am not particularly happy about killing bystanders in any of these games, Sleeping Dogs puts a lot more emphasis on the ethics of the player's actions. In GTA I hijack cars for leisure with no second thoughts but in Sleeping Dogs I found myself wanting a really pressing need before I could even think about hijacking a car.
There is no in-game punishment for breaking the law, unless the player is on a mission (and then it just lowers their cop score a bit). The mechanic, and also the reaction of the car's original owner are exactly the same in both GTA and Sleeping Dogs. The only difference is the protagonist's identity. Protagonist identity has its limits though, as is also evidenced by Sleeping Dogs: when asked (by a criminal contact) to hijack a specific car, hijacking the car actually feels less bad. This may be because the player can push the responsibility for their actions onto the game. After all, the game gave them the goal to hijack a car - even though they were responsible for taking the mission in the first place (hijack missions are optional)!
This is actually a fairly common ethical conflict in games: the conflict between in-game rewards and the ethical concerns of an action. Game characters do indeed do all sorts of nasty things under the player's control. This picture highlights this particular issue (in a rather parodical way - but it does get a point across). Typically gameplay incentives override any ethical concerns the player might have about the action - especially if the game does not confront the player about their actions. Therefore, although they are supposed to be the ideal hero, players controlling Link in various Zelda games will happily hack away at civilian property. This happens in part because no one cares in the game world. Thus the game is not actively confronting the player.
In Sleeping Dogs repercussions for actions are situational (score is only counted during missions). Even then they still somewhat reinforce the protagonist's identity's ability to control player actions. Furthermore, the rewards for hijacking cars at random are also quite low: garages where the protagonist can summon their own car are quite common. Later in the game they even get the ability to have a valet deliver a to them. Therefore it is not that necessary to hijack cars in order to get some wheels. This design decision is sound; if the game had actually forced the player to hijack cars just to get around, it would have a much harder time to get anything out of the protagonist's dual identity. Of course we can argue that the ridiculous bodycount also conflicts with this identity. However, this is once again a case where the game is forcing the player's hand. It also has its limits; just like I did in L.A. Noire, regardless of crashing into traffic and other property I usually did not choose to control my speeding.
The dual role of the protagonist is also present in the game's structure. The storyline consists of both triad and police missions, all of which need to be completed to advance in the story. All in all this play on identities does distinguish the game's story from a bunch of competitors to its advantage. It also makes it "easier" for the writers to create a more complex and conflicted protagonist. Easier in the sense that certain amount of complexity is already present in the character concept and game structure.
2. The Hong Kong experience
I love GTA titles - Vice City in particular - but there is one major and commonly accepted defect in the entire series: action is typically effing lame, and further destroyed by bad controls. This is commonly forgiven because Rockstar has a tendency to do a marvelous job on every other front. GTA V might not get away so easily though, because Sleeping Dogs has shown how things can be with proper effort. The game takes its inspiration from Hong Kong action movies - a genre of action movies famous for their insane stunts. The illusion would really break with GTA style static combat. Fortunately action sequences in the game are far more diverse. The game puts less emphasis on gunfights for starters. It includes close quarters combat all the way until the end of the game.
Adding more variety is just icing on the cake though. Both types of combat have been made simply a lot better than in any competitors I have played. Hand-to-hand takes its influences from games like Arkham Asylum and Yakuza, and the system is actually very functional. Winning fights against multiple opponents doesn't come down to just one strategy and most combos and other moves have their uses. Some have been thrown in just for flair of course, but they succeed in creating more diversity. Shortly put, combat stays interesting throughout the game. Gunfights are also more dynamic than usual. The addition of bullet time while vaulting over obstacles gives the player a lot of incentive to stay on the move. It is also easy to switch to close combat at any time - the player can even disarm opponents through grappling.
Hong Kong action wouldn't be Hong Kong action without more dynamic movement. Parkouring is quite easy in Sleeping Dogs but it gives the player better movement range. In particular it makes chase scenes on foor a lot more interesting. If there is one weaker category in terms of game controls it is cars. They behave somewhat weirdly in Sleeping Dogs, and car controls are a bit shaky. However, the driving experience is also enhanced with some Hong Kong flair. The player can ram cars on either side more effectively. The coolest trick in car driving is action hijack, where the protagonist jumps from one car on another to hijack it while it's moving. While this feature is not very commonly used, it adds an important bit of flavor to the game.
In addition to enriching the game's action quite a bit, Hong Kong also acts as a superb setting to the game. Although the game is technically (very) poor on PS3, the city looks impressive and - more importantly - very different from American cities often seen in games. It made me actually wish that there would have been even longer distances to drive just looking at the scenery and listening to the radio. The radio has some weird asian stuff on some channels which is a plus.
3. Travel experience and dialogue
In my last post about Journey, I talked about how simply traveling can be a powerful gaming experience. Journey had a very silent and elegant way of creating that experience. Sleeping Dogs also achieves good traveling experiences but through different means. This is something that I noticed quite a while ago when playing GTA IV (or maybe Vice City even) but haven't written about it yet. The experience of driving changes drastically as soon as the player gets a passenger in their car - not because a companion is present but because they are actually talking. I swear I could play a game of this genre where the only thing the player ever did was drive interesting companions around the place while dialogue is going on. Then again, this is coming from a guy who drove around in circles in Vice City when a good song was playing instead of going straight for the objective.
In a way using dialog in this way during transition draws the player's attention from the fact that they are just doing a transition from point A to point B. In GTA-like games the transition is typically more fun than some other games (such as RPGs where you just walk) but the player still speeds through as fast as possible - unless their avatar is having a conversation with another person. The feeling of there being another person in the car changes the way I drive in these games. Although there's no punishment (other than the occasional shriek of terror) for reckless driving, the presence of a virtual person somehow makes me drive way more carefully. In games where transition is boring by nature, having virtual company makes the experience feel more like a journey. I liked this in Nier for instance where NPCs commented on side quests while I was making my way towards quest objectives.
The reason I think this is important is that it goes to show how story content can change the gameplay experience. Thus it reinforces my stance that prewritten story content should not be treated simply as content that can be separated from gameplay. Disruptive ways of including story content such as cutscenes are kind of so-so, but injection story elements into gameplay parts - like conversations while driving - does affect the perceived gameplay experience. It does nothing to the mechanics but it changes the environment in which gameplay takes place. I think this is something that is not easily achievable without voice acting because text tends to be too disruptive.
At its core, Sleeping Dogs is yet another GTA clone. However, through clever decisions in both story concept and gameplay design, it in many ways surpasses the original. The biggest issues in the game are quite minor. The biggest problem the game had was its framerate on the PS3. It was simply abyssal during cutscenes. Fortunately it stayed quite good during actual gameplay. The game also had some hilarious bugs. My favorite has to be the bus trap: I got into a bus by accident and, opting to cancel instead of choosing my destination, was trapped inside with no way out! I actually left the game running for quite some time and when I came back, I was still in the bus. There were also some (quite common) oversights. It is cool and all that the protagonist's clothes get soaked and bloody. It is however quite less credible when no one reacts to it. Case in point: putting on good clothes to get onto a casino boat - I just couldn't get into a boat to get there without taking a little dip. Of course no one questioned my entirely soaked expensive suit. This oversight is very common in games but somehow I found it much more hilarious in Sleeping Dogs than usual.
Anyway. If you like the genre, play this game.