Sleeping Dogs: Let Lie Too Long?
The problem with reviewing a game like Sleeping Dogs is that it tries to recreate the world in miniature, making the review tantamount to the same. It runs, it jumps, it shoots, it races, it gambles, it invests, it investigates, but it is not defined by any one of these things. How do you review something that does a little bit of everything but not enough to be classified by it?
As sarcastically as possible, of course. And with a lot of pigeonholing.
Sleeping Dogs: Let Lie Too Long?
Sleeping Dogs is the red-headed stepchild of open-world adventure games (sandbox shooters to those more honest of us) both in terms of current treatment and lineage. It was originally titled Black Lotus by independent programmers, but was then sold to Activision as the third installment of their True Crime series. Since the second edition of the series didn’t sell as well as projected and the project was deemed too costly to continue, Square Enix bought up what code had been established for cheap in late 2011. When Activision told Square Enix they would have to pay separately for the right to call it True Crime: Hong Kong, Square Enix promptly told Activision to get fucked and retitled the game to its current appellation, however unrelated to anything in the game it may be.
To boost sales, frequent in-game reference is made to Square Enix’s previous popular sandbox shooter Just Cause 2 (which excited me to no end, as I was expecting something similarly off-the-wall as Rico Rodriguez’s infinite parachutes and hookshot), but once you start playing it becomes strikingly apparent that no one from Just Cause 2‘s development team came anywhere near Sleeping Dogs. Linking the two shot Square Enix in the foot since it raises the player’s expectations. We’re expecting a 500 square mile, fully-destructable balls-to-the-wall physics-defying extravaganza of havoc and mayhem, and what we get is a nicely polished but ultimately dialed-down-to-a-nine GTA clone that pays a little more attention to story and characterization than most.
You play as 28 year old Wei Shen, a Hong Kong ghetto native who, as a boy, moved to the states with his mother and junkie sister in hopes she’d clean up from the thug life. But he learned the hard way that you don’t choose the thug life; the thug life chooses you. Now Wei’s back as an undercover cop as part of a joint effort between San Francisco and Hong Kong PD to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, a Triad group loosely based on the factual Sun Yee On (Don’t you just love the imaginative naming schemes, folks? Trust me, it gets worse once you meet the higher ups in the Sun On Yee.).
Since Wei knew the kids of yesterday who have become the legbreakers, pimps, drug-pushers, pornographers, and hired murderers of today, getting his foot in the door is thought to be a shoe-in by HKPD uptymucks, despite Wei’s ongoing identity crisis, disingenuous nature, and history of violence whenever the subject of his past is involved.
Dare I say the words “loose cannon” may be involved? Perhaps a no-nonsense hardass who plays by his own rules? He plays fast and loose with the rules, and no one is surprised when he gets burned? I’m going to have to stop now since my book of cop film clichés goes no further.
For that matter, the entire introduction comes off like a mid-80s John Woo gun ballet starring Chow Yun Fat. This has hardboiled cop story oozing from its pores from the word go.
The first few hours of gameplay were jaw-dropping. Not because I was impressed, but because I was floored by the prevalent racism and abuse of Asian stereotypes I was witnessing. Not a gun in sight, only a bevy of kung fu moves so ubiquitous that I could’ve sworn an old lady with a walker busted out drunken master style on my ass at one point. Nobody could drive. Not even Wei, which, along with pedestrians using every available road as a place to stop and have a picnic, made the mandatory racing portions of the game an imperial pain in the pork buns. Dirt, rot, cockroaches, and rats made me feel as if I needed a shower just when stopping by Wei’s apartment for a quick nap. And Wei was lucky to have the place to himself, what with everyone living packed in tighter than sardines. And then there was the inevitable mission through a night market filled with stalls, stolen goods, knockoffs, and blaring that atonal music you hear in kung fu films that sounds like someone trying to unplug a blocked nostril. By then I wasn’t even phased when the male vendors called to me in pidgin English and the female ones seductively challenged my masculinity in order to get me to buy their wares in a fashion depressingly reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket.
Nobody threw out a “Me so horny” line, but a few came damn close.
At this point I was wondering what equal rights group I should be shooting a letter to when the silk lifted from my eyes, and I attained enlightenment. This was a social commentary on modern Hong Kong, and all became clear. People were crowded together thanks to rampant poverty and an oppressive ruling class. HKPD was disregarded for more homegrown solutions to one’s problems because of internal corruption. Guns were not used because they drew the police when you wanted to settle matters privately. Kung fu then becomes a necessary means of self-defense and achieving your goals in a high crime area. And Chinese vehicular engineering has yet to discover the true purpose of brakes and steering wheels.
As for the gang culture…
Let’s take a moment to be serious. We are enticed to play GTA: Hong Kong or whatever it’s called because we want to see the way life works in a different part of the world. Humans are always interested in humans. That’s why some sandbox shooters which basically just change the locale can be successful in the current market. The Triads are mysterious. There’s an Eastern mystique which we anticipate at the mere thought of playing a game taking place in Asia. But the tattoos, the thug wear, the hip-hop and same old criminal rackets; there’s nothing new here. Change the skin tone, and we could just as easily be focusing on the Cuban mob in Miami, hardcore cholos in East LA, wiseguys in Chicago, or old school steelers in Detroit. It’s all the same. It’s all become the same.
Thug culture has officially overtaken the world and transcended both cultural and ethnic boundaries. Hong Kong, just like Wei, is in a state of flux with no identity to call its own. And that, while a sad notion, eventually hit me as the underlying theme for Sleeping Dogs. The Triads, Tongs, Korean Seoulpa, Sicilian Mafia, Japanese Yakuza; all organized criminal groups originated as means for people to self-regulate in lawless societies whose governments turned blind eyes to the plights of the people. They are the close-knit precursors to today’s government bureaucracy; some would argue that they still remain superior. And now that Wei must infiltrate the Sun On Yee, he gets to see the power and emotion of a family unit he didn’t know was possible. And we get to watch his anguish as he must choose between the old way and the new.