Sleeping Dogs: Quick Thoughts

Getting arrested is always a great prompt for reconsidering one's choice of career...

I was holding back on getting this game, mostly because I wasn’t sure when I’d ever have the time to play a GtA clone in between all the other games that usually take my attention, and it was always regularly going on 75% off so I could always get it another time, right?

Seeing one of my friends who rarely plays Steam games on a habitual basis pick it up and stick with the game for around 4 days running (a record for this friend, really) suggested there was something fairly captivating about this title.

At 80% off, I was finally moved enough to put down some cash to take it out for a spin.

Turns out… it’s pretty good.

hongkongcopdrama

The opening sets the scene for what to expect.

If you’ve watched any Hong Kong action / cop movie, the game hits several bullseyes on flavor and theme. While I don’t know how much is 100% faithful to the actual city, the architecture -feels- like it’s captured some of its essence.

Martial arts, that staple of the genre? Got it in spades. That’s what you’ll be using to beat up thugs most of the time, Batman-style, minus the utility belt.

Sleeping Dogs follows the story of Wei Shen, a cop going deep undercover in the triads, and his struggle to balance both sides of his existence.

That blood... it's not mine. At least, I don't think it is...
That blood… it’s not mine. At least, I don’t think it is…

The morality aspect is, unfortunately, not addressed very well in player-chosen interaction.

I was, at first, pretty thrilled to realize that there were both cop missions and triad missions to do, and that violent actions increased triad score, while doing un-cop-like things subtracted from cop score. But some of the illusion of choice fades away when you realize that it’s a linear story and the chapters won’t progress until you do the compulsory missions on both sides.

And more fades away even further when you accidentally kill your first innocent through vehicular manslaughter via controls that don’t let themselves well to finesse and realize the only ramifications are a small negative number to said cop score, rather than getting yanked out of the undercover mission, charged in court and jailed for being totally off one’s rocker.

I suppose it wouldn’t be a Grand Theft Auto type of game if you couldn’t get away with vast quantities of crime and carnage.

As much as I wanted to pretend to be a good cop at heart and immerse into the setting at face value, roleplaying for all it was worth, small little niggling details do tend to induce shortcut taking – like being stuck in a traffic jam of three cars while waiting for the traffic light to turn green (always takes forever when you’re waiting for it to) and having some dumb AI of a bus ram you from behind while you were STATIONARY and curse you in Cantonese for being a m—-f—ker that doesn’t know how to drive properly.

That’s exactly the time you decide to hit the accelerator and swerve into the perpetually empty lane meant for oncoming traffic, ramming the idiotic bus for good measure during the maneuver, and speed through the red traffic light to be on your dang way to the next mission checkpoint, driving on the left side of the road be damned.

(Nice as it feels for someone in a historically British colonized country to be able to drive in a game on the ‘correct’ side, for once.)

The story and cutscenes question lifetaking by an officer of the law, even while undercover – as in, they’re not supposed to, but the game itself throws you into scenarios where you have a gun and a dozen people shooting at you, and doesn’t give you any achievement or indeed, seem to have any expectations at all that you’ll try to do it the hard way by kung-fu disarming and beating down every one of them down with your fists, instead proffering tutorials on how to slow motion vault over tables and shoot multiple enemies in that same breath action movie style.

Very soon, I found myself deciding to treat the game less like a simulation of real life, and more with movie morality. Ie. Cops get to shoot at bad guys and the extras will just fall down out of scene and there will be no repercussions from this excessive slaughter.

That said, if you treat Sleeping Dogs like a movie, it’s a pretty fun one. With a decent amount of authenticity.

At least he doesn't grab the gun like how many movie actors would do it - with their fingers on the trigger.
At least he doesn’t grab the gun like how many movie actors would do it – with their fingers on the trigger.

I was especially impressed to find a not-insignificant amount of voice acting in actual Cantonese.

Yes, Cantonese. Not Mandarin.

The differences may not be entirely obvious to those unfamiliar with the region and speak neither language, but Cantonese is a dialect used in a region of China (the Guangdong Province, historically Canton) and historically, as migrants from this southern region of China spread further south into Hongkong and Malaysia/Singapore, they brought their language with them.

(Southeast Asia also picked up other chinese dialects from migrants from other regions of China, resulting in some rather colorful amalgamations of cursewords and slang from various languages like Hokkien and Teochew, mixed with the local Malay, but that’s another story.)

Mandarin, or Standard Chinese, on the other hand, originated in yet another region of China (Beijing and the northern regions), and has been used as a lingua franca and ‘official language’ by which people from one region could make themselves understood to people from another – especially regarding issues of governance.

Bottom line. They’re not the same. People in Hongkong speak Cantonese. People in China speak Mandarin. (More or less.)

As someone who can understand both tongues, even if one struggles to express non-babytalk sentences in either, it adds a great touch of authenticity to Sleeping Dogs to even hear some phrases in the right language. (They are subtitled in English, so you won’t miss any meanings.)

There have been some debates on exactly -how- authentic the Cantonese used is, and yeah, while I don’t doubt that true Hong Kong residents using their variant of Cantonese will find distinctly strange accents on some of the voice actors, I’m of the opinion that it remains understandably Cantonese.

Language, after all, is notorious for evolving over regions.

Take for example, this spin on English by a native Singaporean English speaker, Ruby Pan, as she takes us on a whirlwind tour of American English, British English, two kinds of Singaporean English and Filipino English. How authentic is her English?

I’m sure her American English will still sound accented to some American English speakers. Hell, people in two regions of America may still have an accent to each other. Ditto people from Britain or Australia.

But it’s more or less all understandably English until we really get to the more significant dialects – I probably would struggle to understand Yorkshire English as much as some would struggle to understand Singlish or Filipino English, for example, due to loan words from other languages, but the main part of it is still -mostly- English.

Some voice actors in Sleeping Dogs have distinctly better grasp of the intonation and timings of Cantonese (Mrs Chu, Winston’s Chu mother sounds particularly authentically fearsome, channeling every Asian mum and mother-in-law there is) and others, usually the younger ones, struggle a little more.

Others complain that there’s a heck of a lot of English used for something supposedly set in Hong Kong, and that it sounds weird to have sprinklings of Cantonese mixed into English phrases as if it sounds cool, or we were in some Firefly universe where people pepper in Mandarin oddly into every other English sentence (Trust me, Firefly speakers sound distinctly odd, probably because they are mangling each Chinese word they’re struggling to pronounce.)

However, people who grow up with two languages are known to code-switch, forming a linguistic blend that is sometimes only understandable by people of that community.

So in a sense, while it may not be fully authentically Hong Kong, the setting turns into an interesting fictional amalgam of Hong Kong triad mixed with American-Born-Chinese style Western gangsterism (thank you, Grand Theft Auto roots.)

H-Klub Radio, from the in-game radio soundtracks in cars, features songs from 24Herbs that evoke the setting really well – Hip Hop… in Cantonese…

Yeah, you kinda have to laugh, while enjoying it.

Some bits of Sleeping Dogs are more reminiscent of a cheesy Hong Kong comedy movie, but that’s ALSO part of the whole atmosphere being recreated, y’know?

I escorted a bride-to-be around as a chauffeur, and a simple errand to get a wedding cake somehow turned into a death-defying pursuit sequence where in a similar movie, stuntmen would be employed to fly on wires out of one car onto the hood of another.

I was laughing through most of it as the initially cautious and slightly freaked out bride screaming about damage to her car when I scraped it against a parking meter turned out pretty darned ruthless when she realized it was -her- wedding cake on the line. “What? FASTER. GO FASTER!”

Right after we (ok, I) rescued the cake by tossing the driver out of the van and taking over the wheel, we (ok, I) ended up “volunteered” to steal the perfect flower for her wedding. from a group of monks – which involved disguising as one and fast talk about balance and the cosmos, kung fu’ing one’s way out of the temple and shaking off the cops at speed post-heist.

The car wasn't too worse for wear at the end of the day, all things considering...
The car wasn’t too worse for wear at the end of the day, all things considering…

Controls and bugs-wise, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag.

I was really impressed to find that the game auto-swapped between keyboard controls and gamepad controls without much of a hitch. This means the tutorial prompts for keys actually stay pretty relevant, rather than the usual case scenario of trying to figure out exactly which keyboard key was mapped to button X or Y on a gamepad.

For a PC port, standard keyboard and mouse controls functioned fairly well and felt quite similar to a slightly clunkier Batman game for 95% of the time… with maybe just a tinge of unpredictable lag when pressing left or right mouse buttons to punch or counter… right up to the point I got a gun and was asked to shoot something.

This is where it broke.

Left click refused to shoot. With any semblance of consistency. It would beep repeatedly rather than shoot.

I’m not sure if this was because I did have a gamepad plugged in also and was thus on auto-swap, possibly causing some conflicts, instead of switching permanently to mouse-keyboard in the options, but after some struggle, I defaulted back to the gamepad to get through the sequence.

This is rather annoying, since the one place mouse aiming would have really come in handy would be aiming a gun, but well, that’s why I own a USB gamepad, for dealing with the vagaries of PC ports.

hijackedtaxi

Then there were the repeating cases of the accidentally hijacked taxi, due to the same button being used for Hiring a Taxi (press and hold) and Hijack a Vehicle (just press.)

Moral of the story: Try not to stand near the front doors of a taxi, and make sure the conversation option is available, before hitting the button. Else you will end up chauffeuring yourself instead of getting someone else to do all the work.

Taxis, when they work though, are a pretty handy waypoint system for a negligible cost – useful for when one is too lazy to drive through Hong Kong traffic with highly dubious AI to get to the next waypoint.

I had a couple of audio skipping issues or the game tries to switch between fullscreen and windowed mode by itself, usually occurring after playing the game for a while – which could be due to my toaster’s poor specs as usual. Restarting the game or hitting Alt+Enter to switch back usually fixes it. Your mileage and luck on Sleeping Dogs playing nice with your hardware may vary.

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But when all is said and done, despite the little niggles that would prevent me from paying full price for this game, I find myself wanting to know how the story is going to end.

Which ultimately reflects pretty well on Sleeping Dogs.

For Extra Difficulty, Struggle With Controls or Concepts

The best way to empathize with complete newcomers to the MMO genre who are not so much concerned with high level concepts like ‘levels’ and ‘xp’ but are struggling with the more immediate concerns of “how do I move” and “how do I look around” and “why can’t I hit this thing that is hitting me, halp” is to put yourself into a similar situation.

Like trying a sports game, for example, only to find out that each NPC is separately modeled to have different areas of strengths and weaknesses.

I guess that’s why my attempt at one of the Madden games when I was in a mild fascination with American football phase failed rather miserably.

Mind you, I live in that majority of the world where football means kicking a round ball into a net at one end of the field. I did always find ‘soccer’ rather boring and individualistic, where the art of falling down and making it look like you’ve been fouled horribly was generally more exercised than teamwork. Watching the goalkeepers was the most interesting thing of the interminably long match of running up and down a field after a ball for hours as they at least had a role different from the other men on the field (Stop the ball, not kick the ball.)

So it was much more fascinating to discover that American football had teams with an intricate breakdown of many different roles – people who caught the ball, ran the ball, threw the ball, kicked the ball and those that didn’t even have the primary role of doing anything with the ball but blocked and interfered with people trying to do stuff with the ball.

It did, however, take some homework of reading the highly intricate rules online, slowly deciphering out scoring and everything else, before I could turn on the TV and not have a match be complete gobbledygook. I did eventually puzzle out enough to develop a casual fan’s appreciation of the game.

The PC game, though… Well.

Plays defeated me.

I could manage controlling one player on the easiest setting and bullrush my clumsy way through ten yards, more or less. Then all these complicated pages of the playbook would pop up with no explanations, Xs and Os and dotted lines and there would be a time limit to select one of them. Randomly picking plays and going ahead with whatever the hell I decided to do in the moment worked about as well as you might expect.

This month’s infuriating difficult game attempt is another go at Dark Souls.

I’m not much of a console player. A long time ago, my ISP had a free PS3 promotion if you contracted with them for 2 years, and well, one was -already- paying for internet monthly anyway. It was a well-timed promotion because Heavy Rain was a PS3 exclusive, and god, did I want to play that game badly. While haunting the local games store for a copy of Heavy Rain, I saw a decently priced copy of Dark Souls and decided, what the hell, let’s see what the difficulty hype was all about.

That very first attempt was pretty much a disaster.

First, there was the encounter with the Abyss Demon, armed only with a broken sword hilt. Yes, I am aware in retrospect that it is meant as a lesson in running away being the better part of valor. I can see the design now, what with the brightly illuminated doorway and all that.

At the time, I had bought into the hype that you could defeat anything, as long as you reacted properly. A dozen deaths feeling out its patterns later, I had indeed found the exit door, but dammit, I didn’t WANT to run away.

I’m doing 4 damage to this thing each hit! If I keep behind him, he doesn’t hurt me! Surely there must be some kind of masochistic achievement award for actually defeating this thing earlier!

Several more dozen deaths later, rubbing in the fact that I didn’t have much skill with the controls and that it was damned difficult to consistently stay behind this boss without getting clubbed into nonexistence, I was getting motion sick and very tired of stone textures.

With the bitter taste of defeat in my mouth, I finally ran away to continue the rest of the tutorial. Except that didn’t get very much further besides killing a few skeletons, and then running in circles, completely lost and unable to figure out how to get past a bunch of locked doors. I couldn’t even go back to play with the Abyss Demon again because a locked gate had slammed down behind me.

After the better part of half an hour or more, I may have finally googled for help, only to realize that I’d missed a new hole in the wall that had been knocked open by a round boulder rolling down some stairs. Good grief, was this a game I was going to have to play with a walkthrough constantly in hand?

Talked to NPC, unlocked door, killed more skeletons, killed Abyss Demon at properly intended time, zoned to next zone.

Where one was promptly greeted with arrows and flaming projectiles and proceeded to plummet to my death trying to dodge them.

I stopped that play session there, having had enough motion sickness and repeated deaths for the day. And never quite felt compelled enough to power up the PS3 specifically just to play it again.

Cycle forward in time to now.

I like to think that playing GW2 has given me a new appreciation for watching mob animation tells, trying to understand their combat patterns and practicing getting the timing right on appropriate button responses (like dodging or parrying, etc.)

I do also own a copy of Dark Souls on the PC, having picked it up for cheap during one Steam or bundle sale or another.

Perhaps it was time to give it another go.

The PC port of Dark Souls has received some criticism for being a rather lazy port. The default screen resolution isn’t great, all the in-game tutorial messages are hardcoded to still show you Xbox buttons rather than whatever controls you’re really using (which makes everything a fun guessing game of hmm, which key represents the green B or the yellow Y?) and the default mouselook camera is alarmingly wonky.

Best played with a gamepad, say the majority of forum commenters.

No problem, I have a very functional Logitech Dual Action gamepad that has stood me in good stead playing PC ports like Indigo Prophecy and various Japanese RPGs.

I gamely chop, run, spin, block my way through the first zone, slowly dredging up from the recesses of my memory all the moments I remembered from my first playthrough. I notice with some pleasure that my GW2 experience has given me better observational skills with regards to combat animations, but this increased observational prowess also applies to myself… and my failure to appropriately press the buttons my brain is telling me to tactically press.

Dodge now! Strike now! No, not -that- strike, the other one! Block. BLOCK! Not parry! Oi, what buttons are your fingers pressing?!

The struggle extends to navigating menus. Firstly, the default controller keybinds are not mapped intuitively to my particular gamepad. The instructions on screen say ‘press start’ or ‘press select’ to bring up some menu or other. I hammer away at my start and select keys, button 9 and 10, and nothing happens. Trial and error reveals that I have to press down on my right thumbstick to bring up the menu.

I’m used to PS3 controls where pressing the bottommost button selects and the rightmost button cancels. Except here, the rightmost button selects, and trial and error again reveals a different button cancels.

I flip open the keybind settings to see everything is mapped onto keyboard keys and doesn’t apply to the gamepad. Aaaargh.

Now, of course, I could slowly and patiently use the Logitech provided profiler to remap all my gamepad buttons to match whatever twisted configuration Dark Souls is using, and then tweak it again so that it feels more intuitive for me.

But it also occurs to me that I’m not that in tune with a controller either. While I can coordinate movements using the left thumbstick while controlling camera with the right thumbstick, they’re not as smooth as they could be with WASD and mouselook. Surely some of that lurching causes accidental hits that might be avoided, not to mention increases my motion sickness queasiness when the camera isn’t acting like I expect it to.

So I put down the gamepad and try it with mouse and keyboard.

Which actually has potential. I move better and more confidently.

Except the mouselook is jittery and I’d like to block with -this- mouse button but the in-game keybinds don’t seem to support that, and a dozen other key binding niggles interfere with any more enjoyment of the game and desire to progress.

On the bright side, players have come up with unofficial fixes for this poor PC port.

Except now I have to stop the game, figure out which fixes I want/need, download the fixes, apply them, test and troubleshoot problems and so on.

One fix, DSfix, fixes the poor screen resolution.

But oh, remember to turn off AA first or you’ll get a black screen. So I start the game, turn off AA, then stop the game. Then apply the fix.

Another fix, DSmfix, fixes the mouse camera issues for those who like to use mouse/keyboard controls. Note the M for mouse. Small, but crucial difference.

I start the game to test again, and while the screen resolution fix is working beautifully, the mouse fix doesn’t seem to have kicked in. Stop the game. More forums and readme.txts later, it turns out I have to edit an .ini file to have it included as well.

Start the game. Ahh, now the camera is moving at a more suitable speed for mouse look. And the mouse fix has also provided a nice customizable GUI for mouse keybinds and an intuitive default setting.

Except… I run dual monitors and my mouse is escaping from the Dark Souls full screen window when I look to the right. When I left click to attack, I end up alt-tabbing out to desktop, with rather fatal results in the now minimized window.

Wut. I try windowed mode, but the cursor still runs off and I have to keep moving it back to the left again. It’s almost playable already, but for this last little niggling detail! I gamely try to progress a little further in the game this way, but it’s distracting and throws me off. *sigh* Stop the game.

More forums searching and reading later, I finally find a fix that involves editing the dsfix.ini and enabling a ‘capture cursor’ setting.

Phew.

Now I can finally start PLAYing the game, right?

I’m putzing around in the Undead Burg, finally feeling like all my deaths are at least fairly earned mistakes and experimenting with various tactics to deal with differently armed skeletons.

An invader has arrived in your realm!

Wut?!! Okay, I sort of had the impression that PvP was possible in this game if you were connected online (and there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to shut off Dark Souls’ connection either) but I also had the impression that it would be LATER, not when one was in the second zone armed with starter gear.

I knew that I had one item of some kind in my inventory that had text along the lines of send an invader back to their realm, but it was the only one I had and hadn’t the foggiest idea of how to use.

So I just waited.

In strolls some burly guy outlined in red with the LARGEST FUCKING hammer I have ever seen, and probably all kitted out in ‘finished the game’ gear.

*sigh*

I just hold down block and wait for inevitable death.

It’s not like I really have anything to lose. I’d already been dying twice in a row repeatedly to second zone skeletons.

Guy gestures a few times, tries to say Hello.

I haven’t the heart to tell him that I don’t even know how to use the gesture menu. Just kill the noob and get it over with, eh?

He circles me, probably wondering if this is some kind of elaborate trap. Or maybe just laughing too hard to fight. Or taking pity on me. Whatever.

Eventually, he hits me twice with the hammer (hey, holding block prevented me from getting one shot!) and then casts some kind of massively pyroclastic spell that fills the whole screen in flames.

Well, it’s a change from getting stabbed to death by skeletons, I guess.

After getting shot in the back by various archers, then getting gibbed by the Taurus Demon, which solidifies the suspicion that I’m really going to have to play this game with heavy reference to a walkthrough, it occurs to me that I don’t even have the faintest clue what the enigmatic words “Reverse Hollowing” and “Kindle” mean when I sit down at a bonfire, and what does Humanity do anyway?

I quit and save the game, then start googling for a Dark Souls manual. I find some player tips and a wiki instead, which are likely more helpful.

It is then I actually learn that I managed to invite the invader in by having experimented with Reverse Hollowing once, which had the effect of making myself look human. Well, that was totally obvious.

Not.

I’ll be playing Dark Souls again. But not until I read several website’s worth of information, tips, advice and walkthroughs, I suspect.

I was really just expecting execution and reaction sort of difficulty, rather than all this homework.