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Full Steam Ahead: Sleeping Dogs

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: 22 Hours

Sleeping Dogs is a game I’ve already had the joy of discovering multiple times. First in 2012, when the game was released. I remember being fascinated by the idea of an open world sandbox set outside of the usual United States. Furthermore, it was being released by Square Enix, the same studio behind some of my favourite action games, Batman: Arkham City and Just Cause 2. However, it was a bit expensive for me to buy, so I decided I would wait until it went on sale. In 2013, a Steam sale came along, and I got ready to try the game, only to find my computer couldn’t run it. This was in the days before you could get a refund for Steam games, so I resigned it to the pile of games that, for some reason or another, I wouldn’t be playing. Fast forward to 2015, when a good friend of mine gave me his old graphics card. It may have been used, but it was still miles more advanced than anything my computer had. Dozens of games I couldn’t run in the past suddenly became available to me.

As you read on, you’ll get to know the story of Sleeping Dogs, a crime thriller set in modern day Hong Kong. You’ll also get to know the story of games in my library like Sleeping Dogs, what the game means to me, and specifically, the moment at which it stopped being just another game and became one of my absolute favourite games.

Welcome to Hong Kong

Red Pole. Sun On Yee. Old Prosperity. This isn’t New York City, or Liberty City, or any of the other open world sandboxes you’ve played before. This is is Hong Kong. It is fast, brutal, and dangerously beautiful. In Sleeping Dogs, I play as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American whose background connections in the Hong Kong underworld lead to a violent rise to the top of the region’s organized crime. There’s a catch though: Wei Shen is an undercover police officer.

The game reinforces these conflicting loyalties in a few different ways. Mechanically, you can perform various different actions during the game to up your Triad “score”, or your cop “score”. Actions such as providing intelligence, or taking down criminals from inside the triads will raise the latter. Performing particularly violent acts or using deceit to get what you want will raise your rank within the triads. However, harming innocents and damaging property will result in lower prestige with the police.

Block, Counter, Attack, Repeat.

Beyond these aspects, the game also features different missions for your different loyalties. Some are performed specifically for the Hong Kong Police Department, while others are performed for the Triads. Actions performed during each help support further objectives down the road. Early on, Wei Shen uncovers a drug trafficking ring within the Water Street Gang. Using intel gained within the gang, he begins tracking the suppliers and smugglers in the operation, turning evidence of their deals over to the HKPD. When one of the gang’s street level sellers gets suspicious of Wei, he reveals evidence that the seller in question has connections to a rival gang, leading to their immediate execution.

Needless to say, Sleeping Dogs is violent. I know that sandbox criminal games are often violent, but Sleeping Dogs pulls no punches. The hand-to-hand combat plays the same as many other block-counter-attack systems, like those used in Assassin’s Creed or Batman – Arkham Asylum. However, a tightly designed fighting combo system and the aforementioned particularly violent acts give the game an unhinged, raw feeling to it that makes the player feel powerful in one turn, and then recoil in horror at the next.

Guess what happens next.

Furthermore, these melee sequences are the bulk of the game’s combat. Wei Shen doesn’t even get a gun until about a third of the way through the game. However, guns offer basic cover mechanics, as well as John Woo style slow motion when you vault out of cover or leap from a moving car. It should be noted that this slow motion doesn’t generally make aiming any easier, but it feels so damn cool.

Not that it’s easy for your character, either. Wei Shen’s loyalties to the Sun On Yee gangs are constantly tested by gang members who are suspicious of you. Members of the HKPD you work with cast aspersions to your morality, frequently saying that your are one of “them”. Most action game heroes are never too deeply affected by their lives; Wei Shen wakes up screaming most nights, plagued by memories of his past, tortured by his loyalties.

I can’t include the audio in this picture, but you wouldn’t want me to.

Sleeping Dogs also has so many side quests. You can help gang members run errands, or partake in underground street racing, or join a fight club. Too mundane for you? You can bet on cockfighting. Too illegal? Go sing some karaoke.

Some games have clothing stores where you can change your character’s appearance. Sleeping Dogs has stalls where you can buy knock-offs of more expensive brands. Some games have street vendors that sell hot dogs to regenerate health. Sleeping Dogs has pork bun and tea stands. The pork bun stand man frequently tells passers by “ a man who has never had a pork bun is not a whole man!” I love that guy.

I love nearly all the characters in Sleeping Dogs. Some are original, some are tried and true tropes, but all of them draw me further into the game. I love the by-the-book handler, Raymond. I love perpetual screw-up Jackie Ma. I love obviously crooked Detective Pendrew. I love the washed-up thug Roland Ho. I love the quietly threatening chairman Uncle Po. I love the gym-rat leader of the Water Street gang, Winston Chu. In fact, I want to spend a little time talking about Winston Chu, and a very specific set of missions.

In the game, after proving your loyalty to the gang time and time again, Winston takes you on as kind of a right-hand-man. It’s pretty clear by this point in the game that Wei Shen is advancing through the Sun On Yee hierarchy, leaving other members of the Water Street Gang behind. But Winston trusts you and likes you, and sends you on a mission he would only trust someone very close to him to carry out.

He sends you to go run errands for his wedding with his bride-to-be, Peggy.

Winston and Peggy

For context’s sake, I’ll explain a little bit about where I was the first time I played the game. It was in the months leading up to my own wedding in 2015. Up until this point, the game was well designed, in an interesting setting, with fascinating cast of side characters. However, the game hadn’t hooked me yet. As either one of writers on Almost Infinite could surely tell you, organizing and preparing for a wedding is no small task. Rather, it’s like a billion little tasks, all of which need to be done with care, precision, and no small amount of luck. In the lead up to my wedding, I uninstalled massive swathes of my Steam library in order to cut distractions out of my life.

But I didn’t uninstall Sleeping Dogs. There’s a mission where you chauffeur Peggy to the Bridal shop, take out some rival gangsters who are trying to hijack the wedding cake (not kidding) and then sneak your way into a Shaolin temple where some uppity monks refuse to sell flowers for the bride’s floral arrangement (not bloody kidding). This mission is ridiculous. It’s not a realistic depiction of what preparing for my wedding was like (Graham, how do your experiences compare?). But I love this mission. It’s ridiculously over-the-top, like many aspects of the game, but where most of Sleeping Dogs exaggerates in its violence, this game makes chasing down a cake catering van the most intense experience. This is the mission that hooked me; this is the mission that stands out as my favourite in the game. This is the mission that kept Sleeping Dogs on my computer. Well, this and the mission that follows.

I don’t want to spoil much for you, but suffice to say the wedding ends badly. Game of Thrones badly. It’s not an entirely unpredictable outcome, games have been using this kind of emotional bait and switch to draw you into their story for years. “Sorry Mario, but your Princess is in another Castle.” It’s a violent mission in a violent game. Playing through it now, it makes me ready to quit. But in the months leading up to my wedding, I couldn’t let it go. Maybe these people were fictional, and their tragedy little more than an emotional plot hook, but dammit, I was going to see this through. I was going to see the people responsible pay. For one moment, I felt as invested in the world of Sleeping Dogs as I have ever been, in any game, ever.

It’s going to make more than a pork bun to make my day better.

I’ve never been to Hong Kong. I’d imagine that as with all things, the game exaggerates its setting. But Sleeping Dogs didn’t take me to a physical place as much as it did an emotional one. For a while, it was just another unfortunate purchase in my Steam library. Then it was a game made possible through the generosity and friendship of another gamer (Thanks MrMountie!). Then it was one of the most emotionally compelling games I’ve ever played. Sleeping Dogs is a lot of things, all at the same time, but as much I’d like to finish my newly started campaign, maybe it’s time to let this sleeping dog lie.

Next Episode: Supreme Commander 2

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