Retrospective: Sleeping Dogs (UPDATED)

Sleeping Dogs was one of the most fun games I played last year, and even made my Top Ten Games of 2012, but a lack of identity might have you calling it a little ruff around the edges - oh god, I'm so sorry.

By Tony Walter | Mar 21, 2013

Sleeping Dogs has no right to be a functional product. No game that sees as many mid-development overhauls as this, ever comes out as well as Sleeping Dogs has. The Duke Nukem Forever syndrome - though that game has problems stemming much deeper than troubled development - of being in development for far too long, is more of a critical, and some times fiscal, death sentence than it is giving a game time to get it 'just right'.

Originally, Sleeping Dogs was Black Lotus*, an open world action game with a female protagonist. Unfortunately, as we've been made aware, female protagonists aren't the sort of risk all large studios are willing to take. The original idea was scrapped by Activision and Sleeping Dogs' second iteration took its place. Black Lotus was to become the next sequel in the profoundly mediocre open world action franchise(franchise?), True Crime, as True Crime: Hong Kong. Activision then realized what everybody else was already thinking, "why the hell would we make a new True Crime game?" The project, once again, was scrapped. This time however, Square Enix picked it up, perhaps in a stroke of genius, without the True Crime name attached - I wonder if they had to pay more to not take it. Square Enix and United Front are responsible for the game that was eventually released, Sleeping Dogs.

Perhaps then, it isn't such a wonder that Sleeping Dogs, though from a technical standpoint a miracle, lacks focus, and an identity. The game opens heir apparent to the True Crime games, you're Wei Shen, an undercover cop, with a mysterious and dark past, and an affinity for martial arts. It didn't take much time before I was spotting Hard Boiled inspirations in the gritty, dark, Hong Kong organized crime underground. An extended shoot out in a hospital might have well been ripped straight from the script of John Woo's '92 action classic. And the narrative attempts achieving a realistic weight for its characters, similar to what you might expect in a modern Rockstar release. There are no heroes and villains, simply characters who are trying to get by in non-ideal situations, some make poor decisions, and you're expected to feel for them.

One of several emotional moments between Wei and Jackie.
It's a shame the impact of the climax was dulled so much.
It doesn't take long in the open world before you begin to spot the jarringly comical, almost cartoonish, peripheral behaviors of the world. Goofy street merchants, eccentric radio hosts, and bizarre clothing options, among other strange development choices, all work to deflate the emotional weight Sleeping Dogs' narrative is pushing. It's somewhat hard to accept the gravity of inner-Triad betrayal while you're wearing neon shorts, a dinosaur tee shirt, and a luchador mask. The goofiness even finds itself bleeding into the driving mechanics of the game in the form of a ramming mechanic, that proves invaluable during car chases, and an almost entirely useless action hijack that has you leap from one moving vehicle to another. Both mechanics work, both have specific use cases, and both feel really out of place in the otherwise gritty and realistic narrative.

I had more fun opening the car door as I drove - knocking down light posts
and pedestrians - than I did using the mechanic to hijack other cars.
Without a doubt though, the most jarring and unwelcome piece of this broken identity is the hyper-violent execution props tossed sparingly around any environment you might find yourself in during hand-to-hand combat, including the streets of Hong Kong. Isn't this guy an undercover cop? Am I just supposed to chalk it up to good acting that he just bashed that guy's face in with a payphone receiver? Okay, what about that man he lit on fire? Or, the guy who's head I just pressed into a circular saw? How is Wei Shen supposed to be a sympathetic character when he is, by a wide margin, the most violent person in the game? As far as I can tell, the only thing the Triads are in control of, is a restaurant and a karaoke club. And they're the bad guys? Each time I found myself resorting to the executions, I was ripped out of the narrative and reminded, "oh, this is just another violent video game." At a certain point, I subconsciously began avoiding using the props, despite their usefulness in turning the tide of an uneven fight.

One of the many totally unnecessary environmental executions in the game.
The lack of focus seems apparent of the troubled development cycle, and that might be a big part of it. Some of the game's elements might suggest at one point the game was going to be something closer to the older Grand Theft Auto games, or the Saints Row franchise, a less serious, satirical experience. Assuming the narrative was one of the final parts of the creative process of Sleeping Dogs (it would almost have to be, considering its history), maybe Square Enix wanted something more competitive with the serious story telling in games like Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption. Though action hijack, that feels borrowed from Square Enix's other open world action game, Just Cause, would indicate that even after the final change of hands took place, it still wasn't sure what it wanted to be.

Grand Theft Auto IV is by no means an entirely realistic experience.
But the comedy and ridiculousness still fall in line with the rest of the
game's social commentary, and do not feel out of place.
In the end, Sleeping Dogs biggest flaw has been it's unfortunate need to work against itself. No one of these three separate identities is inherently flawed, but nor do they work together to compose anything cohesive. Am I supposed to be gathering a deeper understand of these character's struggle? Am I just a piece of a ridiculous comedy? Or is this supposed to be a thrill ride, not to be taken seriously? It feels as though you're playing parts of three different games, which might be the case. 

My greatest enjoyment of Sleeping Dogs came when I gave up on taking it as seriously as the narrative would have liked me to. The story, at that point, though in another game could have been great, fell to the wayside. I quit caring about the characters, and the moments that were clearly an attempt at reaching for emotion felt cheap and unearned. However, the game was fun. Perhaps the most fun I had playing a game last year. The hand-to-hand combat system was the best I've seen in any game like this, and rivals that of games that put even more focus on combat.

It should be this fun to fight enemies in more games.
I do not regret my choice to put Sleeping Dogs on my Top Ten Games of 2012 list. It earned is position fairly, as a tremendously fun sandbox. The question shouldn't be if I enjoyed Sleeping Dogs - I absolutely did - but rather, was it all it could have been? Sleeping Dogs could have been so much more than just a fun sandbox. With more focus, perhaps a less troubled development cycle, it could have easily become one of the best open world games of this generation.

My recommendation for future sequels? Drop the gritty, realistic story, and focus on the absurd aspects. The Saints Row franchise went through a similar struggle early on, but hit its stride by the third release. Funny games are not too common, and funny games that are equally fun to play, are even less so. Melodramatic open world action games are a dime a dozen, and having the player play as a cop - especially with Hong Kong's loose definition of cop - isn't a strong enough gimmick to support another open world game franchise.

Sleeping Dogs was already a ridiculous game - I mean, Wei really has no reason for surviving the final mission. United Front just needs to commit to that. Perhaps it wasn't entirely their fault, the game very well could have been in this bizarre position by the time they got their hands on it. But, when we inevitably see Sleeping Dogs 2, that excuse will no longer apply. And, hopefully, they won't need it.

*Shortly after posting this piece, I was contacted by the Sleeping Dogs Twitter account on a potential error.

The article provided suggests that Sleeping Dogs was not originally Black Lotus, but rather that Black Lotus was a separate parallel project, eventually canceled. Rumor has it that Black Lotus was going to feature a female lead. The article also suggests that after Black Lotus was canceled, that some of the assets of the game may have been handed over to Sleeping Dogs. As Black Lotus was described as "by all accounts a less gritty, more comic-book caper," that could explain some of the more goofy, seemingly out of place aspects of Sleeping Dogs.

However, during further research I came across this 2009 article about casting for a project known as Black Lotus. This suggests that Black Lotus was conceived as a successor to the True Crime franchise. More interestingly though, is the casting list which briefly describes several rolls in the game: 

late 20s, undercover cop infiltrating the Triads
Grew up in San Franciso and Hong Kong.
Speaks and emotes with confidence.
Think Daniel Wu.

late 40s, British.
28 year police veteran motivated by personal vendetta.
Really wants to take the Triads down.
Strong and fatherly type.
Think Liam Neeson.

late 20s, Cantonese.
He is the Sidekick and comic relief.
He hangs around Wei thinking Wei is real gangster (Jackie is wanna-be)
Average to somewhat skinnier body type.
Full of nervous energy, he comes up with brilliant schemes
that fail with his execution.
High pitched, weasely, strong comic flair.

Again, this article was posted in November 2009, well before Sleeping Dogs, as we know it, was officially announced in 2012. Take that for what you will. But in my opinion, it suggests that, at very least, the project was internally known as Black Lotus during some stage of development.

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