Kung fu style, with a Hong Kong feel
REVIEW: Sleeping Dogs (Xbox360, PS3, PC) United Front Games. $98.
Considering its reputation as one of the world's most vibrant and exotic cities, it's somewhat surprising that Hong Kong has been so consistently overlooked as a setting by game developers.
In an industry that has traditionally struggled to simultaneously cater for the wildly different tastes of the Japanese and American markets, Hong Kong's East-meets-West aesthetic, where Buddhist temples stand in the shadow of gleaming skyscrapers, would appear to be the perfect backdrop for a cultural crossover.
Boldly going where so few have gone before, Sleeping Dogs not only uses Hong Kong as a backdrop, but as an inspiration for everything from characters and storyline to music and art style. While it stops short of an accurate, street-for-street depiction, anyone who has spent any time in the city will immediately recognise the crowded marketplaces, bamboo scaffolding and neon skyline of Kowloon Bay.
The game opens with the game's lead character, Wei Shen, embroiled in a drug deal that quickly turns sour, resulting in a frantic chase scene that introduces both the city itself and the control scheme used to navigate narrow alleyways and vault over obstacles as you burst through apartment complexes and restaurants in a bid to evade the law.
When you are finally cornered and hauled into a police interview room, it's revealed that Shen is no ordinary crook but an undercover detective attempting to infiltrate the powerful Triad gangs that control organised crime in the city.
To successfully integrate yourself into the Hong Kong underworld, you are required to earn the trust of the lower-level street gangs by eliminating rivals, protecting your turf and carrying out errands for underbosses. As you find yourself drawn deeper into a life of crime, it's easy to forget your true identity, but police work plays its part too, as you use the intel you uncover on the streets to take down drug dealers, extortionists and murderers.
The interplay between the forces on either side of the thin blue line is so well-executed you wonder why such an obvious feature has not been used in more games in the past.
Playing both sides creates a nerve-racking scenario where your police handlers are concerned about your criminal activity being more than just a front, and your gangland affiliates' suspicions are aroused by your inquisitive snooping. It's more than a little reminiscent of the movie Donnie Brasco as the protagonist undergoes an identity crisis while straddling the line between cop and crook.
As with all free-roaming action games, the other inevitable comparison is with the sandbox series that spawned a decade of inferior imitators, Grand Theft Auto. While it's true that the environment, mission structure and car-jacking transport system owe a debt of gratitude to GTA, Sleeping Dogs does more than most to differentiate itself from Rockstar's record-breaking franchise.
The most obvious difference is the emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, as opposed to firearms. Fittingly for a Hong Kong-based game, kung fu is your weapon of choice, with increasingly effective attacks unlocked as you complete missions and level up.
In true Bruce Lee movie style, hordes of goons form a convenient circle while attacking in ones and twos. Although gunplay is eventually introduced, it feels a little tacked on and is not as enjoyable as the martial arts sections.
While the sandbox set-up might feel familiar, what really sets Sleeping Dogs apart from the competition is an exceptional storyline that grips you from the very start and keeps you engrossed throughout.
A well-written script, high-quality voice acting, interesting characters and a plot that twists and turns at every junction all combine to create the video game equivalent of a page-turner - a marvellously moreish experience where you will happily overlook the fact that you are carrying out another fetch-and-fight errand boy mission just to find out what happens next.
Cut scenes in other games can often feel like an annoying interruption but I found myself eagerly anticipating the cinematic sections of Sleeping Dogs. Instead of a half-hearted attempt to tie together a series of unrelated action sequences, these stylish vignettes add depth to the gameplay; fleshing out the characters and creating an immersive atmosphere that compensates for the occasionally repetitive action.
Despite a few frustrating flaws, Sleeping Dogs is a compelling and consistently classy experience that is almost certain to be there or thereabouts when the shortlists for 2012's game of the year are drawn up.
- © Fairfax NZ News