Triads and Tribulations
As I've said before, Sleeping Dogs' visuals are solid, but not overly technical. Seeing raindrops hitting the ground and great depth of field is countered by a lack of tweening in animations and poor mouth articulation. Motion captured cutscenes stand in contrast to the hand-animated motions during combat and a fairly solid framerate definitely bogs down at times. There's a kind of ramshackle mess to the visuals, and while they don't all work in concert, they definitely balance each other out, leaving a game that feels very much like a first effort sandbox (which is is; United Front's only previous work was on ModNation Racers). Still, despite the uneven nature of some parts, there's never a sense that the game is expressly broken. Stumbling at times, sure, but not in any way unable to ultimately convey what it's trying to do with some measure of confidence.
Sound-wise, though, things are much better. The aforementioned voice acting is truly top notch, but that also extends into the game's radio stations, which regularly feature all-Cantonese DJs, a station dedicated to traditional music, some western hip-hop, a rock channel and plenty of easy listening and pop thrown in too. It's mix that nicely demonstrates the way in which Hong Kong stands apart from the mainland, mixing English and Cantonese into a kind of free-flowing soup that I know for a fact is quite authentic. More than that, though, it gives the world so much flavor, contrasting the familiar with something altogether new, and there's enough Cantonese happening that you're constantly reminded you're a visitor to this place.
One could complain that there's a bit too much insertion of random Cantonese into conversations (many of the Triad members speak accent-free English, but will drop in the odd, redundant word that triggers the subtitles), but I'm not really one of them. Personally, if I'm playing a game that takes place in a different country, the default should be that language -- it's just that Hong Kong happens to be one of those places that really does intermingle two languages all the time.
I could go on raving about how good the main mission design is (and it truly is great; with no repetition and plenty of variety to the gameplay and locales), but I do want to single out a moment toward the end of the game that provides one of the best late-game pushes toward a conclusion that ultimately felt pretty flat I've ever had in a sandbox game. Most of the time, the plot loses its way, but here things really do feel like they're building toward something, and you will want to see things to the end after Wei ends up meeting a rather nasty dude out of the blue. Hell, I could spend another three hundred words commenting on the way Wei's panting while running matches his footfalls, just like when people actually are sprinting, or the amazing comments on the clothing (a few favorites: "Defy convention. Defy the odds. Defy Logic." and a shirt reading "The most expensive t-shirt you can buy." followed by a slightly differently colored one that reads "The other most expensive t-shirt you can buy."), but it doesn't matter.
All that really matters is that you understand for all the bits that could -- maybe even should -- have brought Sleeping Dogs down, they only manage to add a kind of goofy charm. So the animations pop here and there? You just snapped a dude's arm, cracked his friend's leg, pitched a dude off a ledge and then tackled and disarmed a guy, taking his gun and unloading on a few more guys. It's moments like this that offset any kind of lasting impression of weirdness. This is a game that clearly takes pride in offering a peek into a world that hasn't really been done justice in games before, and for that (and plenty more) it deserves high praise. It's a damn good thing this game was rescued, because you really can't keep a good dog down.