Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sleeping Dogs Revisited: A love letter to... something

at 4:22 PM
Yeah, Sleeping Dogs is a great game. I'm certainly not alone it noting it as the sleeper (ha! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HAHAHA! HAAA!) hit of 2012; many critics waxed on about it's elegant post-Arkham hand-to-hand combat and elephant post-Max-Payne shootouts and whatever driving. Need for Speed driving I guess, since it happens on roads but is also races. You know roads, right? The flat black thingies? Well, you'll learn. All things in time. It was like someone said, "let's make Grand Theft Auto, but this time around, we'll include gameplay". I haven't played the True Crime games*, but Sleepy Dogs might have sold me. I feel like I should at least play Shenmue now (hi Greg! agh who am I kidding he doesn't even read the blog that's half named after him).

Sometimes I feel like I don't completely 'get' the game, though. I've never much delved into that John Woo China-Crime action-drama filmic thing, because I don't typically get a ton out of crime movies. My reaction to The Godfather was like, eh, okay. What I have delved into (and need to delve more... into) is martial arts cinema, because hey, it's awesome. Enter the Dragon is one of my favorite movies ever (see my list of Netflix IQ movies for a few more I like). Jackie Chan is in my book like A++ greatest actor of all time. Supercop, lol. And what my cursory knowledge of this genre indicates to me is that Sleeping Dogs is posed as the gamic adaptation of about a hundred different movies. Which I think is pretty cool. I don't like adaptations, but I do like culture, and this game is brimming with it.

The most overt nod to cinema comes in a DLC called Zodiac Island. This campaign tells the story of Wei Shen's journey to an exotic island to participate in a mysterious martial arts tournament, where he his joined by other masters from around the continent. If this setup feels familiar, it's because it's the backdrop for Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture. And if Mortal Kombat: The Motion Picture felt familiar, it's because it was based on Mortal Kombat: The Game. And if Mortal Kombat: The Game felt familiar, it's because it was heavily inspired by Enter the Dragon. And if Enter the Dragon felt familiar, it's because it was based on a Sleeping Dogs DLC called Zodiac Island. And if [...]. In case you don't get the reference, Sleeping Dogs goes the extra mile (perhaps one mile too many) in packaging the adventure as a corny '70s martial arts import film. The cut-scenes use a film-grain effect, the music is far too funky/disco-y for anyone's good, and there's even a lengthy opening credit montage using bold red faux-Asian typeface. It's a bit more of a bludgeon than a nod, but I still appreciated that credit was given to the game's roots.
A detour to make Sammo Hung proud
Even if the gangster parts are as heavy on references (that I wouldn't get) as the martial arts parts, this isn't some kind of Scod Pilgrum. Dogs has its own agenda - the game's raison d'etre is not simply to make references, and for the most part it's relatively straight-faced in its implementation of long-running tropes. This is a game that wants to embody the spirit that drove these movies, not recreate them in a different medium. It nails the action, the setting, and the pace, but falters when we look deeper, not doing a particularly strong job of translating the driving thematic material.

To put it simply, I was so stupefied by Dogs' story that I found myself in perpetual anticipation of something, ANYTHING that would justify the moronic course of the tale. No such twist ever came. You play as an undercover cop, which provides the main source of confusion - outside of a few "cop missions" which have no ties to the main story, no police-work ever takes place. The idea is that our hero, "No" Wei Shen, is tasked with bringing down the Sun On Yee triad. So Wei joins at the bottom, making his way to the top and making friends (who soon die) along the wei. Seriously, everyone in this game dies - to the extent where in the final mission, when the writers go looking for a dramatic moment by killing off Wei's childhood bud, my emotional reaction was to roll my eyes. So the thing is, Wei gets all friendly with the people he's supposed to be taking down, and experiences the classic undercover cop dilemma: his loyalty is challenged. Should he be cop, or should he help criminal. The resolution Sleeping Dogs finds is downright hilarious: Wei always remains loyal to his most immediate triad friends (who are introduced by the mission since, like I said, they ALL die), but he is completely helpless/useless and they end up in a worse state than they started. Which, coincidentally, is a GOOD thing according to the police department. It becomes farcical - this could've been a Naked Gun movie. For instance, when the mission is to provide security for your triad buddy's wedding, Wei is thinking as a triad and intends to keep everyone safe. He fails miserably, leading to the death of the entire wedding party at the hands of a rival gang. Which, in turn, makes the police happy, because it rid the streets of a lot of criminals. So it's like, whoops, the player's mission was fruitless, but also, worked out anyway??? At the end of the game, when all Wei's friends are dead, the police are like "well done Wei. Mission complete. Also, one of the main cops was a traitor. It wasn't worth mentioning for the first 95% of the story.". While maybe this could hold some narrative intrigue - that the only way to complete one obligation is to screw over the other - Wei's sense of duty as a cop is never explored. As the story presents the character, ALL he cares about is his triad. He doesn't give a shit about the Mission Complete - he's never trying to fulfill BOTH roles, the triad and the cop - so there's no conflict. And when you take out his role as a cop, the whole thing seems like a pretty terrible tragedy. At the end of the game, the Sun On Yee is in ruins, and all of Wei's friends have been killed, often thanks directly to him.
It's like the developers said "wow... this is a really sad. But if we make him a cop, then it makes it look like he was the best cop ever! With lots of dead friends! Totally happy ending!"
So, yeah, Sleeping Dogs is more a popcorn flick than an epic journey, which does beg the question why it's so fucking long. As I mentioned earlier, it scrapes by on the skin of its teeth thanks to solid mechanics and rotating pacing, managing always just barely to keep the player coming back. Then again, not every movie needs to be Hard Boiled, and missteps in tone and all, Dogs is still a thrilling adventure that will keep both action and martial arts fans fed for a long time. If United Front can nail down a coherent narrative next time 'round, they'll find themselves at the forefront of the current action boom. Although, who am I kidding, it's not like anyone HAS really managed that total package, not since RE4 at least. So they pretty much are at the head of the pack. It's just that the head of the pack isn't quite where it thinks it is, not just yet.

*Dogs was originally advertised as the third True Crime game, TC: Hong Kong, though the series relation is dubious at best. Basic accepted truth at this point is that Dogs started as an original title, then due to its similarity to True Crime was publisher-rebranded as TC:HK, then due to a publisher change and rights issues, returned to being an original title. Still, many acknowledge that the games have a lot in common, and Dogs has inspired in me the hope that open-city games can actually be worthwhile. Lord knows it took the Incredible Hulk (Ultimate Destruction) and Prototype (its spiritual successor) to get me to have any fun mucking about a present-day city.

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