Sleeping Dogs – Focusing on Core Mechanics (No Spoilers)

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— Generally, when I play these games, I try and avoid as many reviews as possible. I like to be unbiased when I go into a game and not be influenced by others opinions or findings. To not do so would take away from this entire design exercise that I try and do for myself, ultimately making this blog irrelevant. I also strongly feel that it is wrong to take one game, with its own merit to be viewed upon, and put it next to another game (outside of its own series) and compare and contrast. It is an extremely lazy damn way to review a game and makes no sense to me to do so when attempting to write a legitimate review or focused perspective. —

After playing Sleeping Dogs, with a rough idea of what design component I would focus on, I hopped online to see what people had to say about the game. You may be able to imagine how upset I was to find most of the reviews, even the positive ones, focused around comparing it to the Grand Theft Auto series. This irked me (maybe more than it should) so I decided to throw away my original idea and come at this game from a different approach.

Sleeping Dogs, the open-world action game from United Front Games, doesn’t try to be anything it isn’t. While playing, I didn’t feel like the developers were trying to make a ground-breaking game, and I don’t mean this in a bad way. They didn’t seem to be striving to be like any other game (well…I’ll get to that), nor did I feel like I was playing a knock-off that maybe they weren’t intending to replicate.

I will admit, I did feel that the developers were replicating a game I had played before, but it wasn’t GTA, Sleeping Dogs played very similarly to True Crime: Streets of LA. Both games had a story that revolved around undercover cops and crime, they both focused on a hand-to-hand martial arts combat system and less on weapons, and both games, though open-world, still strongly related all the side objectives and games around the main story.

True_Crime_HK_cover_artI looked it up after I finished playing and, to no surprise, found that Sleeping Dogs is the revamped version of a previously cancelled project called True Crime: Hong Kong (Activision scrapped the almost completed project until Square Enix picked up as UFG’s producers and loved it). Needless to say I was put at ease and went back to being pleased with the finished product the developers made.

What makes Sleeping Dogs a good game is a strong emphasis on its core mechanics. The core mechanics are so well done, you can tell the developers were able to focus primarily on them, rather than implementing a series of others, and leaves the game with a solid foundation. In a time where so many AAA games are attempting to push the boundaries in order to stand out, Sleeping Dogs did it by doing the opposite.

The story is strong and compelling, and part of that reason is, as stated above, the fact that all of your side objectives are related to that main story. There is solid character development amongst your protagonist, Wei Shen, and even amongst smaller characters. At no point was I not aware that I was playing an undercover cop being a triad. The main characters didn’t have a 2-dimensional feel or provide cliche personalities. There are mini-games available where you can do things that don’t really have much of a connection to the main story (cock fighting, street racing, car theft), but they counter that by providing the ‘Face’ mechanic where the player gains a reputation within the community, awarding unlocks and perks that help the player progress through the story.

sleepingdogspc_06The combat engine isn’t gimmicky, and gives a very well done hand-to-hand system for the player to improve upon throughout the game. The environment is successfully utilized during melee fights, enhancing the system even more. When weapons are used, they are almost always related to the story, and aren’t just a part of your day-to-day arsenal (Using an assault rifle you picked up to make it out of an ambushed scenario by rival triads). But just because weapons aren’t always used, many of your actions and rewards through side-quests give you the ability to enhance your weapons use (running melee weapon attacks, moving from cover in slow-motion, etc.). This further provided evidence that the developers really cared about focusing on the primary mechanics. Any of these things could have easily been made trivial or executed poorly, instead they were all very solid.

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There is remnants of a ‘dating’ mechanic in the game that was scrapped. Whether the developers did this because they knew it didn’t mesh with the rest of the games story-focused quests, or simply because something got in the way (deadlines, poor execution, etc), I don’t know, but it was a smart move.What is left of the dating system helps partially develop Wei Shin as a character, and more importantly providing story progression and unlocking access to different abilities or quests.

Sleeping Dogs is a solid game and is a great example of how a modest approach to a AAA game can still deliver, not only a good game, but one that can still compete in the market. We need a reminder, especially within mainstream gaming, that simpler (and well done) can often times be better.

-Nick Thompson

Twitter: @notnickthompson

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