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Monday, July 06, 2015

Review: Sleeping Dogs Definitive Edition (PS4)

Sleeping Dogs is an open world game set in contemporary Hong Kong. The core game play is a Batman-style brawling mechanic with a side-dish of over-the-shoulder 3rd person based shooting. This is a striking combination of two of my favorite mechanics, and the game was on sale (both on Steam/$7 and on PS4/$15).

I bought this game after reading great reviews, and sat down to play it. And play it, and play it. The game's core mechanic as I mentioned before, was great, but what dropped my jaw is the story. If you're an Asian American male, by this point you're used to mainstream media constantly making Asian males (even protagonists played by Jet Li, for instance) effectively de-sexed characters:
Gene Cajayon, the Filipino American director of the 2001 film "The Debut," the first Fil-Am movie to be released nationwide in the United States, talks about the revised ending for the action movie "Romeo Must Die," a retelling of "Romeo and Juliet" where the R&B star Aaliyah plays Juliet to the Chinese actor Jet Li's Romeo. The original ending had Aaliyah kissing Li, a scenario that didn't test well with an "urban audience." So the studio changed it. The new ending had Aaliyah giving Li a tight hug. Says Cajayon, "Mainstream America, for the most part, gets uncomfortable with seeing an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light."
Well, the writers over at United Front Studios never got the memo. Wei Shen, the protagonist of Sleeping Dogs is virile, manly, and mould-breakingly gets laid with every date (NOTE: Like every video game out there aimed at a mainstream audience, there are no explicit sex scenes, but the dialogue heavily implies what's going on). No wonder the Publisher Square-Enix declared the game a financial failure despite it's amazing critical reviews. Shen is a Chinese American cop from San Francisco on loan to the Hong Kong police department because of his childhood connection with certain Triad members. As he infiltrates the gang and organization, he becomes torn between his personal loyalties to his childhood friends, his duty to the police organization, and his rising position as a "red pole" in the triad. This is a fairly familiar story to anyone who's watched any number of Hong Kong movies, but it's very well executed. In particular, Wei Shen is true to Chandler's statement: "the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world." The ending is satisfying, even if some aspects of it are predictable, and everything feels true to character. When Wei Shen goes to sleep, he wakes up with memories of recent events haunting him. You cannot help but empathize with what he's going through in order to do this job.

The game is very authentic. For instance, the opening of the game starts in Cantonese. And this isn't lousy Firefly-style acting, but the real deal. The accent is authentic, and by the end of the game you would have learned several choice Cantonese curses if you've been paying attention. Most of the storyline is in English, however, though certain characters who could never speak English would only speak in Cantonese while Wei Shen continues to reply in English (subtitles are provided for the non-Cantonese speakers, of course), which is completely acceptable.  Much of the English is also mixed in with Cantonese by the NPCs in authentic fashion. This is good stuff, and I did not expect it at all. Even the food you can get in the game (Pork Buns, Xiao Long Bao, etc) is authentic. And yes, every time you see Chinese characters in this game, they're correct!

The other parts of the game involving driving, car chases, gunshots and the stuff of epic movie-making, Hong Kong style. There are also side-missions where you do policeman-type duties (hostage crisis, car chases, and drug-busting, as well as serial killer investigations, etc) I didn't care too much about racing, so I didn't volunteer for too many races, but the ones I did were fun and more importantly to me, not set so hard that I got too frustrated. Even the collectible portion of the game isn't too frustrating, with the mini-map unlocking fairly early as a reward for going on dates with various women. As you unlock various martial arts moves and driving and shooting improvements, Wei Shen becomes more and more of a bad-ass. He can jump from a car to another to hijack another car. He can parkour with the best of them. At the highest level of martial arts, he starts making Wing Chun moves like Ip Man, one of my favorite modern martial arts movies. (There's even a costume to go with that!) Did I already mention, and he's good with the ladies? Oh, and he also has to do Karaoke a few times. One of the times he has to do it badly deliberately, and the animation is hilarious.

Speaking of combat: the game really comes into its own in the hand-to-hand martial arts combat. It's very reminiscent of the Jackie Chan movies where you can grab a person and use the environment to attack him. It beats the pants of all the other Batman-like games, including Shadows of Mordor. The opening foot chase sequence is also a lot of fun, and it's a pity that foot chases through a busy urban environment aren't used to as much effect in other games.

The game does have a few weaknesses. The early missions are exceedingly hard if you didn't run around and avail yourself of at least a couple of health upgrades, and drink/eat health and damage potions. This goes away fairly rapidly, but do spend some time looking for and upgrading your health and damage before going on any of the early missions. One of the DLC missions, Wheels of Fury, has a mission that stutters at sub-optimal frame rates, causing me to have to replay it a few times (it unlocks a car that even my wife said was a cool-looking car). The women Shen dates are all effectively one night stands,with no character development. In fact, one of the side mission has Shen stalking one of the women to see her cheating on him (she does, but yes, it's still a creepy thing to do and out of character for Shen) without there having any indication that there was a deeper relationship going on. Finally, the climax boss fight nerfs your hard-earned Dim Mak martial arts skill, which I thought was cheesy.

But these are nits. When I sat down to write the review of this game, I thought I'd write something like: "If you've ever complained about the portrayal of Asian men in media, put your money where your mouth is and buy this game." But now that I've thought it over, I realized that the statement would have been a disservice to this game. This is a superlative experience, well designed and executed in almost every way, and easily the best game I've played so far this year. That it's a few years old and hence relatively cheap makes it an amazing value. That it breaks every male Asian stereotype and makes mainstream America uncomfortable is simply icing on the cake. It deserves more success than it has had, and I have no compunctions about tagging it with my highest recommendations.

This one is worth every minute of its 25 hour+ play time (not including extended DLC content that comes as part of the definitive edition), and every penny of its full retail price ($18 on Amazon without any discounts). Buy it, and you'll play the heck out of it.

The definitive edition comes with 2 DLCs that are separated from the main game: Nightmare in North Point, and Year of the Snake. Both DLCs got lackluster reviews, but mostly for being short (90 minutes each). This is no big deal since you're getting it all packaged with the game anyway! Both DLC are somewhat interesting, though it's interesting that since I played them both after the main game they had a milder impact, since I didn't expect to be able to use any of the perks earned in the DLC in the main storyline! In any case, the lack of the RPG aspects in the DLC (you no longer earn any points towards powering up Wei Shen) means you're less likely to do side quests, but on the other hand, the game's core game play is still fun that the game hardly needs to bribe you into picking up the controller and playing the heck out of it. I wouldn't buy the DLC if I had to pay full price, however, so only pick it up if you're picking up the definitive edition for the PC or PS4.

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