Big shoes, Small dogs
News, everybody! Square Enix is releasing a new open-world sandbox-action game, Sleeping Dogs! Wait… what is Sleeping Dogs? – Almost every game journalist at 2012’s E3. A new IP, vaguely based on the True Crime franchise, it seems – pretty risky as far as modern game industry goes. After all, True Crime isn’t exactly praised as one of gaming’s all-time greats. Now, of course, with the game’s release being practically upon us (and for those state-side, already released) and Square’s marketing team finally putting some effort into advertising their new creation, it is clear that Sleeping Dogs is not setting out to follow in True Crime’s footsteps. Nope – this game is going squarely up against the playing field that’s dominated by two giants: Grand Theft Auto 4 and Saint’s Row The Third. And that’s a tall order for a newcomer.
As far as GTA4 is concerned, there’s no argument that it has a massive grasp on gaming’s consciousness – and rightly so. Yes, there have been remarks that 4 was a betrayal of everything that made the grand theft auto games fun, that the game was a complete mess in terms of PC porting, and that its cinematic, thoroughly depressing story exemplified everything that’s wrong with modern gaming. Sure. All those sentiments, and many more, have been heard all across the net by now. So what? For every person spouting their outrage, there will be at least two more who are okay with the game. And it really does have a lot going for it. For one, it was among the first really big open-world action games that went for a graphical fidelity that’s “realistic” by modern standards. Yesyesyes I can hear you shouting “Ómg graphix whore” – give it a rest. Like it or not, visuals do matter, for sales and for establishing the game world. Rockstar’s rendition of contemporary Liberty City was, well, pretty stellar. Very detail-oriented, very memorable, if I dare say so, and very authentic-feeling. If I was able to play the game, I’d still remember the layout of Liberty City’s streets, shortcuts and points of interest. The same fidelity went into the characters as well – and, as many have argued, that’s what harmed the game. With a visual look that could finally sell “movie-esque” scenes, the entire approach towards character motivations and overarching themes was “make it depressing”. That didn’t work with the established gameplay the GTA games were known for… To use an often-stated example, your main character would lament killing a few people some ten years ago during a war, and happily drive over hundreds of people not two minutes later. And yet.. Maybe Rockstar was on to something. Annoying as Roman was, with the stupid phonecalls, when that cutscene happened (you know the one – the one that’s the result of a certain late-game choice), it really did gave me a pause. I may not have liked Roman, but I did care for him.
Saint’s Row the Third is almost an antithesis to the above. The plot and characters are all developed to be ludicrous, silly, funny and crude to the max. Gameplay is very forgiving and accommodating for just screwing around. Heck, the entire game was often described as “GTA done right”. And yet.. it wasn’t perfect either. While it was a step.. well, no, actually a massive jump.. towards forcing entertainment being the primary value, it was very much a fall back as far as memorable environment goes. The city in which all the insanity takes place.. it’s a cardboard cutout. It has plenty of glitter, sure, but just as with vajazzle on a Sussex sell-out, there’s no warmth, no soul underneath all the sparkle (Why the completely irrelevant analogy? Because that’s often how Saint’s Row the Third approaches humour – so it felt appropriate in a meta sense). To this day, I couldn’t tell you even the slightest thing about any specific part of Steelport (was it even called Steelport, I wonder). If there is a one-word description of the world of Saint’s Row, it’s superficial. There’s still a lot of “tragic death”, but it just doesn’t matter. The characters are so incredibly shallow and stereotypical – no doubt deliberately so, given the game’s overall tone – that it is extremely hard to create any sort of emotional attachment. And when the game tried to do a heavy-handed “Look at what you just sacrificed, was it worth it, you asshole?” in the final mission.. Well, it didn’t work. It had 0 impact. No matter how much the music calls out for a hero, you never felt like one – because heroes are there to save people, not jokes.
So that’s the playing field Sleeping Dogs (managed to forget about it? Good.) is trying to push into. On the surface, it seems that there would be no real place for it – you have the grimfaced superserious GTA4 bulldog in one corner, and the mischievous SR3 monkey in the other. And yet.. There is something Sleeping Dogs could aspire to. If it manages to merge the two sides together, if it can do a serious, touching story with characters one can form emotional bonds with, if it can pair that with gameplay that works as a fun outlet of “holy shit that’s AWESOME” moments.. Then it could become the new champion of the ring. Yes, it is a tall order. Especially for an unknown developer, for a new franchise, for a market heavily entrenched in the GTA/SR fangirl sidelines. And yet. And yet. It could be too much to ask. It could be too much to hope. And yet there’s still that glimmer of a chance. A chance that what we will see is the new Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The new San Andreas. The new benchmark against which an entire genre is measured.
~X2-Eliah has preordered Sleeping Dogs. Even if it is a failure, it is a brave step on the developer’s part – trying to muscle into a field with stellar behemoths already hogging the spotlights. It shows creativity – and that, above all, is what we as gamers should reward.