Friday, February 17, 2012

Is Sleeping Dogs a More Relevant Sandbox Crime Game Than GTAV?

After viewing (and briefly playing) a recent demo of Square Enix's Sleeping Dogs, I found myself less taken by the history of the game and its design than I was by its setting. The game itself looks good, but it's nothing extraordinary: An iterative addition to the ever-expanding open-world action genre. It simply adds a few refinements (along with an absolutely excessive patina of violence) to the formula established a decade ago by Grand Theft Auto III without adding any particularly bold innovations. Yet as gamers and the industry alike brace for the fifth chapter of the Grand Theft Auto series to arrive later this year, I find what I've seen of Sleeping Dogs to be far more forward-thinking than what little Rockstar has shown of GTAV. 

Of course, from a play mechanics perspective, who can really say? We've seen nothing of how GTAV plays. And our demo of Sleeping Dogs consisted of a 45-minute patchwork of game random sequences strung together in rapid succession. One moment the hero was hanging out with a rangy childhood friend in the back room of a restaurant owned by that friend's mother; the next, he was vowing revenge for that friend's death to that same mother, now grieving. While we caught a few glimpses of Dogs' dense free-roaming world, they were largely limited to the handful of moments when the demo guide stopped to rotate the camera and take in a scene. Certainly we didn't take much away from the playable portion, which offered nothing more than a brief car race and a sequence involving an on-foot chase. The chase and the subsequent brawl had already been shown off in the demo session, and straying too far from the mission goals in the playable portion to explore the streets resulted in instant mission failure. Dogs' may be an open world, but we were offered only the briefest guided tour.  

Still, what little we played of Dogs was respectable. Its most noteworthy additions are the tweaks it makes to combat, which has traditionally been the weakest aspect of open-world games (despite those games' tendency to lean so heavily on fighting). The brawling draws openly from Batman: Arkham Asylum emphasizing dodges and finishing moves. The game's protagonist can evade incoming attacks with the press of a button when an icon flashes over the assailant's head and counter with a flurry of punches and kicks. A stunned enemy can be grappled and smashed into interactive points within the environment, resulting in finishing moves that range from harsh (smashing someone's head in a refrigerator door) to needlessly grotesque (holding a foe's face against a running table saw, or punching them into the hood of a disassembled car before dropping the entire engine block on their chest). It's a smooth, fluid combat system whose elegance is jarringly contrasted by the utter brutality of the finishing moves. 

Gunplay seems equally refined, though we didn't have the opportunity to test it ourselves. Dogs looks to employ the modern post-Resident Evil 4 standard of drawing with the left trigger, aiming with the right stick, and firing with the right trigger. Cover points come into play, and you can slide into hiding or vault over obstacles with the press of the A button. Blindfire, of course, is an option, and it's possible to dilate time to slow the action and aim with higher precision, though the mechanics and limitations of this ability weren't entirely clear from simply watching the action. The slowdown element seems a particularly welcome addition to vehicular gunplay, though; at one point the demo shifted to an on-road chase which saw the hero gunning down foes from the back of a motorcycle. Where these sequences tend to be infuriatingly twitchy in other similar games, the ability to cut the action to half-speed made the whole affair appear far less frustrating than any vehicular shootout I've ever suffered through in this genre. 

 In short, brawling and shooting in Sleeping Dogs look like a vast improvement over any Grand Theft Auto game to date. So what? Rockstar hasn't shown how GTAV plays yet (and probably won't until E3, which is about when Dogs is set to ship); we have no reason to assume Rockstar North isn't taking great pains to finally address the long-standing complaints about how the combat portions of GTA always feel like pure distilled anti-fun. 

No, what I find most striking about Dogs is that the way in which its setting and style feel so much more forward-thinking than GTAV's. Rockstar is adamant about making the GTA series a parody of the American dream, or lifestyle, or something; besides a brief dalliance in 1969's London that few current fans of the series have ever played, GTA has eternally played out in a bizarre, inconsistent effigy of major American metropoles like New York, Los Angeles, and Miami. The underlying subtext of GTA is that the American Dream is a nightmare and the U.S. isn't the perfect center of the universe that its residents see it as. It goes about making this point by centering its stories in a fake version of America and setting up strawmen to knock down rather than by simply setting its action elsewhere.  

Sleeping Dogs, on the other hand, is set in Hong Kong. This makes it the second open-world Square Enix game within the past year to feature action in a modern (or futuristic, in the case of Deus Ex: Human Revolution) Chinese city. Its hard-boiled crime caper is inspired by HK cinema and the demo's quieter moments of walking through the crowded streets, markets, and back alleys between missions could have been lifted from a Wong Kar Wai film (minus the '60s rock and grainy, color-shifted visual style). As China rises to become a major player on the world stage and its economic and military power grow to rival America's, I find it both interesting and appropriate to see more Western pop media begin to explore the culture and history of that very foreign and very closed society. This growing interest in China is to the current decade what America's obsession with Japan was in the '80s: Equal parts fear, fascination, and curiosity. Sleeping Dogs doesn't seem to make any big statements about China, or Hong Kong's relationship to it but simply seeing a Canadian studio draw on the work of John Woo is interesting... especially since they're specifically looking to John Woo the HK auteur rather than John Woo the bombastic purveyor of Hollywood action schlock.

Meanwhile, I look at GTAV and I see a game in peril of arriving practically stillborn due, ironically enough, to its attempt at timeliness. GTA's next hero seems a more mature character than the series has known before, a family man no doubt inspired by the popularity of Red Dead Redemption's John Marston, and that's a welcome change. But his story seemingly revolves around the sub-prime housing crisis, which no doubt will drive him to steal many, many cars and kill many, many people. It's a tale many Americans can relate to (minus, hopefully, the theft and murder), but it also feels like a reaction to news from a few years ago,

The True Crime games have always been dismissed by the public as GTA-wannabes; this time around, the series may be redefining itself in more than name. At the very least, at least it'll offer a new crime-ridden city to bum around in after a decade of slogging through various fake versions of L.A. and New York. 


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