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Lost Masters is a series of articles that endeavours to take a fresh look at brilliant games that flew under the radar at the time of their release. This month Gaming Editor Andrew Carroll looks at Sleeping Dogs.
If there’s one thing that’s had more influence on action games than anything else it’s Hong Kong action cinema. The bloody yet morally complex style and stories of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To were perfect for games. Their slo-mo gun-fu, morally compromised heroes and balls-to-the-wall action were exactly what an action game needed to make it stand out. Bullet time, first introduced in Max Payne, is now a staple of heavily stylised shooters like GTA V, Hitman: Absolution and occasionally Call of Duty. But Sleeping Dogs remains the peak of this influence and not just because of bullet time and its Hong Kong setting.
Wei Shen is newly arrived in Hong Kong after time spent in San Francisco as a detective. Undercover he must infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad and take them down from the inside. Wei finds himself conflicted between his old loyalties as a cop and his new loyalties within the fast-moving, back-stabbing world of the triads. As Wei rises through the ranks of the triad he butts heads with the psychopathic gangster Big Smile Lee as well as elements of the HKPD willing to do anything to bring the triad down even if that means Wei taking the fall.
Wei, like any good game protagonist, is a man haunted by his past. Upon moving to the States his PTSD-afflicted and heroin addicted sister Mimi died of an overdose while Wei was undercover with the local San Francisco triad. The heroin dealer was found brutally murdered days later, no points for guessing who did it. Wei was raised in Water Street, one of the poorest parts of the game’s Hong Kong. It’s where he returns to at the start of the game, eventually working his way up to Red Pole or lieutenant in the Sun On Yee. Wei’s been sunk in the criminal underworld most of his life and it makes sense that he would be equally drawn to and repulsed by it throughout. The brutal violence implied by Wei’s nightmares and the kind he both commits and bears witness to is reason enough to see why he would be conflicted about his complicity in organised crime.
Throughout the game Wei loses almost every ally he has. From the Water Street runt Jackie Ma to his commanding officer Pendrew, Wei is either bereaved or betrayed on all sides. It’s a dark look at the insidious, creeping effects of crime. Even when you’ve beaten it back it’s still edging in on a different side. In Sleeping Dogs Wei can either help or hinder the HKPD’s efforts to stop the tidal wave of crime constantly sweeping over Hong Kong.
The game has three different metres – Cop, Triad and Face – for players to fill out in order to gain new skills and unlock better paying jobs. Wei must beat up and arrest drug dealing thugs, win street races, engage in gun battles with the rival 18K triads and do favours for random Hong Kong citizens in order to upgrade each meter. A lot of these meters feed into Sleeping Dogs’ core combat mechanics: fighting, shooting and driving.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t the first game to allow you to fight with a car – Burnout sequel when? – but it’s one of the first ones to make a chase sequence feel organically cinematic. For as many scripted moments as the GTA games had in their innumerable chase sequences they still felt scripted. The best moments in both GTA and Sleeping Dogs happen when the games’ mechanics and open world operate in a kind of chaotic tandem with each other.
Shooting out a car’s tires in Sleeping Dogs leads to a slow motion crash that allows you to chain several explosive collisions together as you weave in and out of Hong Kong’s insane traffic. Additionally the ability to ram your car into an opposing vehicle is a satisfying, weighty counterpoint to the arcade-style driving but it’s the kung-fu brawls and Hard Boiled shootouts where Sleeping Dogs comes into its own.
Wei doesn’t get a gun until about five hours into Sleeping Dogs. Up to that point he’s been running through markets, down alleys and over rooftops doing simple extortion jobs for Winston Chu’s Water Street Gang. These five hours are a necessity to learn Sleeping Dogs’ fairly simply, very repetitive but exacting fight system.
Consisting of strikes, counters, blocks and throws the Batman: Arkham Asylum-inspired kung-fu system was often seen as plain when it came out but the timing required and damage inflicted by enemies made it challenging and fun. So too did the amount of environmental kills you could perform whether it was trapping some goon in a trunk, smashing him into a phone booth or shoving him in a furnace Sleeping Dogs never lacked for violence.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t the first gaming homage to John Woo’s filmography but it and the Woo-approved Stranglehold are probably the best. Although Sleeping Dogs limits the bullet time to a few short seconds it maximizes that patented Woo effect by making it seem like every enemy has a dozen blood squibs sewn into their clothes. Instead of writing anymore I’ll just direct you to the scene below, that’s what playing Sleeping Dogs feels like except you’re firing the guns.
Sleeping Dogs feels very of its time. A time when the blessing-and-curse combat system of Batman: Arkham Asylum still held sway. A time when GTA V was still a leviathan on the horizon. A time when John Woo was relatively inactive as an action filmmaker. Sleeping Dogs scratched a lot of itches upon its release and it sold well but it was a victim of time and circumstance. GTA V was soon the only open world crime game that mattered. The Arkham Asylum combat system fell out of favour as nearly all systems do. John Woo returned to action filmmaking. The itches no longer need scratching but when they do there’s always Sleeping Dogs.