About two thirds of the way through Sleeping Dogs, while trying to escape from a horribly designed rooftop section that I’d become lost in after completing a side mission, I stumbled upon a trashed apartment. The television was smashed, things were scattered all over the room – it was obvious not only that some serious stuff had gone down in here, but also that the room wasn’t just there to add to the game’s overarching atmosphere.
Sleeping Dogs just doesn’t do things like that; I was clearly here ahead of time. Doors in this game’s world only open if you explicitly need to go through. Sure enough, a few real-world hours later (tracking in-game time in Sleeping Dogs is all but impossible), I find myself back there, investigating the joint, as the friend-of-a-friend who lived there had gone missing.
Sleeping Dogs is full of little moments that make you aware of the strings being pulled behind the scenes. Hong Kong never really feels like a world you inhabit, but rather a construct implicitly set up to facilitate the game’s missions. Going off course in certain missions, beyond invisible barriers, can immediately result in failure – in one chase mission, my failure message simply read ‘You can’t escape that way’, because the game wanted me to end up at a very specific point, but didn’t want to explicitly funnel me in that direction.
Another mission took me to an underground lair, wherein I rescued a cage full of kidnapped women – but I’d been down here not ten minutes prior, setting up a drug bust with the game’s comically ludicrous drug surveillance system, and the caged off area had been suspiciously empty. Protagonist Wei is always far more aware of where he’s going, what he’s doing, and who he’s talking to, than the player is; there’s a huge disconnect between the player and the character. This isn’t helped by the frequently awful writing, which is overloaded with clichés, predictable twists, and ridiculous characters, not to mention a dating system that is awful to the point of offense.
I had a lot of fun with Sleeping Dogs, and got horribly addicted to it, but the whole time I was aware of just how many things the game wasn’t doing well.
It’s for these reasons that I’m annoyed by how much I love the game.
Sleeping Dogs, which I hooked directly into my veins and finished within three days, is fantastic. It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable games of 2012 so far, and totally worth your time and money. The driving mechanics are solid, the hand-to-hand system is great, the shooting is wacky and fun, and going completely nuts on the streets of Hong Kong is loads of fun, even if it makes absolutely no sense within the context of the game.
GTA will go to great lengths to punish your police-attracting shenanigans, subtly encouraging you to think of them as diversions outside of the flow of missions, and there’s never been a GTA protagonist who you don’t buy as a car thief. In Sleeping Dogs, the open world mechanics don’t really support the missions around them, but driving around and picking up all the weird little side-missions is still entirely worthwhile.
So I had a lot of fun with Sleeping Dogs, and got horribly addicted to it, but the whole time I was aware of just how many things the game wasn’t doing well. It cuts so very many corners, but still ends up being enormous, and quite splendid. By the second day, I found myself wondering if the sheer volume of complaints I had about this game meant that I was simply expecting too much from it, and whether it was even fair to want so much more from a game that just kept giving.
On the one hand, yes, Sleeping Dogs is packed full of great content, and I really, really enjoyed playing it. On the other, isn’t complacency just the absolute worst thing that can plague any sort of creative industry? At the point where we start to dismiss our complaints and suggest that everything’s fine because we’re having fun, aren’t we marginalising just how much a game like Sleeping Dogs can achieve? On some level, of course, this is wishful thinking – not every game has the budget, nor the guaranteed success, that has allowed Rockstar to create worlds that genuinely seem to breathe. Is it really fair to get annoyed that this game, which just barely managed to get itself released after multiple publisher swaps, is so far from perfect?
I’ve long protested the notion that we should ‘lighten up’ and just accept that games don’t need to be more than fun, an opinion often expressed by the very same folks who will passionately argue at length about the artistic expression of games when they come under threat from critics. So to find myself doing just that – lightening up, and surrendering to the game despite its many issues – has left me feeling uncomfortable, in much the same way one might feel uncomfortable about genuinely really enjoying an unremarkable action film when you know that Die Hard is out there.
This isn’t, after all, a game that clearly aspires to be silly, ala Saints Row, and more often than not I found myself laughing at it rather than with it. Reconciling these various feelings has been difficult, and ultimately, I’m left only with these two confusing, conflicting thoughts:
1. Game developers should definitely try to do better than Sleeping Dogs.
2. Sleeping Dogs is definitely worth buying, playing and loving.
By James O'Connor