It’s raining dogs out here
Yep, this hiatus on posts was entirely because I was too busy having insane amounts of entertainment with the recently-released Sleeping Dogs. Seriously, if you are on the fence about getting this game or not: Go and buy it right now. And try to avoid spoiler-stuff, because the story, while not exactly fourth-wall-breaking like Spec Ops: The Line (and fairly ‘classic’ if you know your Hong-Kong triad + martial arts style action movies), is really well executed. Remember how I wrote that I hope this game turns out to be the right mix of GTA4 and SR3? Well, turns out I was wrong. This game is not “a more fun GTA4 / a more serious saint’s row”. This game is a better GTA4. Not the Grand Theft Auto we remember fondly – the insanity, over-the-top-ness, the wild fun with jetpacks, hovercraft, and everything in-between those two. Sleeping Dogs is the game that Grand Theft Auto Four: This Time It Is Serious actually wanted to be. You want a criminal-action-drama story set in an open-world environment that has great characters, cinematic (in the best sense imaginable) camerawork, a reasonable amount of gameplay/story integrity? This is exactly that. I mean, it is great and you should buy it because it really is so very very good. I can’t emphasize this enough. The work that the developers did on this, it really needs to reflect in sales. The gaming industry cannot afford to lose these people and their creative ability.
Also, this game looks gorgeous. It is technically good-looking, though not superbly so (on PC with the high-res texture pack), but it has an amazing art design. And the best indication of that art design is that this game finally made drenching rain into something that makes everything look and feel better.
There is, of course, the purely technical “got to have all the shaders!” aspect of it. The rain looks natural – as far as a videogame currently can look natural – enough to never feel like an artificial device to hide distant objects or anything, and it has a really pronounced impact on the game world’s looks. The thick-as-monkey-hair neon signs get a whole new dimension (figuratively… We’re not really in 4D here) to them during rain times, with a lovely haze around them to really sell the ambience. The streets get literally slick with water, reflecting everything on-scene. Character clothing – not just yours, but every NPC’s at that – turns drenched and glossy. Cars gain a new level of sleekness. In short, technically the rain looks stunning.
But there’s more to it than pure “omg graphics!” adulation. The way I saw it, the rain was as much a story device as anything. It works as both a statement about the game’s city of Hong Kong and it’s people as an ambience-establisher, and it also pulls double-duty in trying to make the entire game (not just the cutscenes, but everything) look movie-like. Remember the street-scenes in Blade Runner? That’s very much the look this game is going for – except with more colour. And I appreciate that.
Grand Theft Auto 4 tried to pull of a grim-and-gritty world by making it bleak. It drained colour, drained saturation at every opportunity it could get, to make things appear ‘serious’. It was such a terrible mistake for that. It ended up being dreary. Well, maybe Rockstar was going for that look. Maybe. Somehow I doubt it. Because that’s the sort of artificial manipulation that comes across as unreal. In real world, colour does not disappear. Vivid overpopulated cities do not turn ‘monotone grey’ whenever the slightest cloud obstructs sunlight. That lack of authenticity is just an example of how GTA4 completely misses the angle they were fishing for. It’s not that Sleeping Dogs doesn’t artificially change the visual look to set a mood. The difference is, Sleeping Dogs does it correctly. It clearly draws inspiration in other visual arts – cinematography, photography – to do so, as opposed to sticking with the stock-and-standard videogame methods of “colour-filter everything until it is piss-yellow or something!”. And that inspiration from other areas does not harm the game one bit. In fact, it is a massive benefit. By making the look and feel of the game more cinematic, Sleeping Dogs has an easier time of getting away with a very movie-like plot.
Fair’s fair, I can’t say whether the rain effects throughout most of the game are random or not. For me, perhaps I was just lucky, but most of the rain-scenes seemed to coincide with the more shady, troubling side of the plot – the interactions with and working for the triads. The cases where you are doing more on-the-line policework, they didn’t seem to create that particular type of mood-via-environment. But, even if it is a coincidence, even if it’s not the case for most of the game, near the finale the rain is definitely a framing setpiece. On the few last missions, the often-present downpour becomes more and more pronounced, and at a particular point of the end-game it’s quite literally a rainstorm – neatly framing the circumstances your own character finds himself in. I won’t say it explicitly because spoilers, but it really is a moment much like out of Kane And Lynch 2 and Max Payne 3, including a careful dose of additional visual effects to portray a state of mind. But it is because of that careful dosage, because of that escalation of effects at the key moments, that the game’s plot truly really nests itself in the consciousness. If anything, Sleeping Dogs is the perfect example that you don’t need a touching music with pianos and Inception-style BWAAAAAAAAAAMs to make the player feel what the character is feeling. It can be just as – if not more – achievable on a visual level. Even on a third-person perspective. Even in a game that by its very nature demands some leeway of disbelief. Sometimes, all it takes is just a really talented team of visual artists. And a bit of rain.
~X2-Eliah would like to remind you that this game is really worth buying. It is, in his exhalted opinion, the Deus Ex: Human Revolution of open-world GTA-like games. Not only is it good in details, it feels great. And yes, this post is partially an excuse to post pretty pictures. But, it doesn’t make anything I wrote any less valid.