When a video game allows you to lose yourself in a different culture
Escapism is an essential part of video games. It sets it apart from films and books, as it is possible to enjoy different worlds through interaction. We have played as the average “dude” in a US city plenty of times. There is nothing wrong with this but I always hope for variety. Sleeping Dogs comes around in 2012 and it looked like it would offer a fresh open world experience with a unique setting. You play as Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco to fight the Triad gangs. Unlike GTA, which is a parody of modern America, this is more grounded in reality. Many loved the game on a superficial level, for me it represented something more.
The plot takes inspiration from Infernal Affairs (I highly recommend the film) where Wei Shen’s inner conflicts are explored, as he works undercover for the Hong Kong Police Department to penetrate the Triad gang. In essence, the story consists of two tracks with different sets of missions. The blue missions are where you work for the police, and the red where you advance as a gang member. The HKPD missions consist of multiple cases, many completely unrelated to the overall story, offering an opportunity to further explore Hong Kong. There are some exciting cases varying from solving murders to apprehending kidnappers. The Triad missions are about furthering your rank within the gang, as well as reacting to significant events which happen as the story progresses. Wei Shen attempts to understand the structure of the organisation, and as the investigation progresses, he reports his findings to his colleagues at the HKPD. As he gains respect from the gang, the split within his character becomes very clear. At one point, he is informed that his services are no longer required but he wants to finish what he started — to cripple the triad. At this point, however, the player cannot tell whether Wei Shen may be seeking power for himself. One of his characteristics that changes throughout the game, noticeable thanks to the voice actor’s outstanding performance, is his tone changing from a calm, professional undercover officer in the beginning of the game, to someone who openly displays his anger after the half-way point. As many of his gang allies die, he is pulled back to reality and realises the bigger picture before completely losing himself to the criminal world. This character development is fascinating to see as it is so subtle, and happens so slowly. The story shape the mechanics of the game, with good actions gaining you points for your police personality, and criminal actions helping you learn vicious Kung Fu attacks.
To go as far as saying the story is fantastic is extreme, but it is very good for an open world game. It is somewhat of a generic story of a police detective going undercover, yet this is something we have not seen fleshed out in a gaming experience, especially not in the Hong Kong setting. What is important to note, is that the story is broken down into reasonable, realistic objectives, and is paced well. The journey is unique, and the world has a purpose; every area in the city is crafted with detail in and not empty space, with side missions and hacking objectives spread around in every corner of the city.
We notice a change of scenery as he rises in rank — the game starts off in North Point, an older-looking area of Hong Kong. The streets are engulfed by billboards, and the building walls are showing signs of decay. The tight, busy roads with shops on either side are full of pedestrians and cars. At night, the city is transformed completely as Hong Kong lights up. Over time, missions start to take place in Central and Kennedy Town, the “newer”, flashier parts of the city. This shift takes place over many hours and feels natural, complimenting the pace of the plot. Driving from North Point to Central can be done quickly, but the change in the city, again, is very subtle. Without the same level of experience as Rockstar, it is an impressive feat to see an open world city feel so organic, though Rockstar never created a map that truly utilises every part of their fictitious city.
In Central, we notice the cars are nicer, and the apartments of other characters you meet for mission briefs are much more modern. Pedestrians are now seen wearing suits and the cars driven are more luxurious, think Rolls Royce and Lamborghini lookalikes. Traffic is more busy and you see many more double-decker buses, instead of the smaller ones like in North Point. The map is the very foundation of an open world game, and Sleeping Dogs hits the nail on the head.
Virtual Hong Kong, as I touched on, is beautiful. The PC version, with HD textures installed (the original release version) or the the newer Enhanced Edition can look stunning. It is exactly what I anticipated from Hong Kong in a video game. Central looks new and shiny, whilst the harbours look seventy years old. Even Victoria Peak is part of the map with its beautiful view of the skyline. The overall size is manageable and does not overwhelm — unlike GTA 5, it does not take seven minutes to drive from one point to another. A small feature I really liked, was being able to buy cars and having them stored at a parking garage automatically, allowing you to pick one at any of the parking garages that are spread around the city. You can pick any car no matter where you last left it — a convenient feature that lacked in GTA. A lot of effort is put into avoiding a lot of the typical open world grind by streamlining the gameplay, which I welcome.
The voice acting is unbelievable, take a look at the cast. The game is in English, however, with the Hong Kong characters mixing it up with some Cantonese slang and profanities, making the whole experience feel more authentic. I cannot judge if their Cantonese sounds “fake” but it works for me, at least. Again, this is another attention to detail that makes this game so special.
Outside of the USA, guns are a rare sight, and Hong Kong, similar to the United Kingdom and Australia, has very tight gun control laws. Coming across one is improbable but the developers saw this as an opportunity instead of a threat. The vast majority of the combat is kung fu. Hand-to-hand combat was inspired by Rocksteady’s Batman games and whilst it does not flow as well, it is a really good system. It is more brutal and aggressive, as you can kill opponents by smashing their heads into moving fans or throwing the body into an ice chipper... Sleeping Dogs does not limit its combat to guns, allowing for some interesting encounters in Hong Kong’s dark, tight alleys.
Every aspect of the game allows the player to lose themselves in a different culture. That is what made me love Sleeping Dogs and why I believe it is one of the best games of the last "generation". If it was not for its identity, it would have flown under my radar completely.
I do not look back and think about many games after completion, but Sleeping Dogs completely absorbed me. I revisited the game over the last few months and it was as immersive as the first time. Everything from the in-game radio to the interactions with other characters is different than in other games, so it saddens me that there will not be a sequel. I wish more games offered this type of escapism. Square Enix invested significant resources into this game, which becomes clear as one plays it. I keep my fingers crossed in the hope that we will see games in another Southeast Asian megacity, perhaps Jakarta, Manila or Bangkok in future, with a fully fleshed out world. Too many games are based in familiar Western locales and I appreciate the risk Sleeping Dogs took to bring us a great experience with a different flavour.
Thank you very much for reading. This is a new venture and I wanted to start a blog that is more than just “news” and reviews.
I wanted to publish this piece for my love for Sleeping Dogs, but I wrote this piece a few months back and never got around to publishing it. Whilst this is not quite a review, I will move away from this and write more about themes in future.
If you’re interested in the Combo Podcast, find all the links, from Soundcloud to RSS feeds, here. We are planning a dedicated episode on Sleeping Dogs soon.