I Want to Talk About Sleeping Dogs

sleeping-dogs

The last game I finished in 2012 was the Square-Enix published, Sleeping Dogs. It had a long, troubled development cycle, as it started as an original title, then became a third installment in the True Crime series. Remember those? I never played them, but they always seemed interesting to me — a Grand Theft Auto-style game told from the perspective of an undercover cop. The game was cancelled by Activision-Blizzard and never came out. Square-Enix bought the publishing rights six months later, and it was retitled as Sleeping Dogs. Due to the development cycle this game went through, it was assumed that Sleeping Dogs wasn’t going to be a very good game. When games go through these sort of bumpy trails, it’s not at all uncommon for it to be a disjointed, broken mess. Duke Nukem Forever was almost old enough to vote by the time it was finally released, and who knows if The Last Guardian or Final Fantasy Versus XIII will ever be shipped to retail. With this in mind, Sleeping Dogs had no right to be good.

The truth is, this game is excellent.

I’ve never been a huge fan of open world games. I play them from time to time, and have had a lot of fond memories playing the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve never properly finished any of them. I always felt weighed down by the mission structure and the poor combat systems. They were always full of good ideas, but those ideas were lost among hours of useless filler. A Grand Theft Auto game can take around 40 hours to finish the story content, and even then you still have many hours of other content you can play through. Somewhere in there would lie a decent, 10-15 hour story, but the constant introduction of new mechanics or gameplay types just dragged progression to a crawl. I distinctly recall the awful pacing presented in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where there’s a touching, cinematic funeral scene, and the vibe is immediately broken up by a tutorial mission teaching you how to ride a bicycle. Sleeping Dogs offered me exactly what I wanted: a consistent, 10-15 hour story, with maybe up to two dozen hours of ancillary content that I can do later.

Immediately you’re thrown into the world in the midst of a drug deal gone wrong. You’ve gotta run from the cops, but end up quickly cut off and arrested. In an interrogation room, it is revealed that the player character is an undercover cop named Wei Shen, who has been assigned to infiltrate a band of the Triads called the Sun On Yee. With his assignment in tow, Shen meets up with an old friend in the holding cell, and begins his journey. I wasn’t sure if the game could hold up as it progressed, but as it stood, I found this to be a very strong opening scene to set the stage. Unlike a GTA game, there’s no artificial hindrance forcing you to finish a specific block of the city’s story content before moving onto the next. The world is open to you from the start, and you’re free to roam about as you see fit.

One thing I always try and do when I play a game like this is to not be a horrible human being. I’m careful about killing pedestrians, I try not to actively steal cars, opting to use the vehicles provided to me along with using taxis where applicable. I just don’t want to cause an absolute ruckus, because as I’ve said before, I don’t have the mean streak to just start murdering everyone in sight. Sure, it’s fun to go on rampages from time to time, but as I’m progressing through the story, I try to keep the insanity in check. Playing the role of an undercover cop, I found this to be much easier than usual. I was able to keep count, and during my 12 hours of playtime from the start to the plot’s conclusion, I only killed three pedestrians, accidentally at that. I only stole four vehicles, and spent a lot of time alternating between the motorcycle provided to me or the classic sports car given to use in street races. Any other time, I’d use whatever the mission had to offer.

There’s no large disconnect between Wei Shen’s personality and the one applied by the player character. His loyalty to his job and his devotion to the Sun On Yee is tested and referred to frequently. Wei Shen has problems and has a history. Unlike a character like Niko Bellic who perpetually talks about getting out of the life he’s in, and then proceeds to kill hundreds of people, Wei Shen has demons to deal with, and it helps to present him as a more realistic, interesting character. His loyalty to the Sun On Yee is tested fairly early. It is assumed he is a cop, so he has to gun down some of the enemy triad to prove otherwise. Clearly Wei isn’t happy about this, but does what needs to be done to uphold his cover.

If you just play through the story, it was nearly five hours before you acquire a gun. Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on unarmed combat, using a system similar to Rocksteady’s Batman titles. The system is well put together, and I was worried that focusing so much on unarmed combat would make the shooting segments suffer. Thankfully, when I finally had a gun, the shooting was more than competent, playing like a cover based, third-person shooter. I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to push my way through more of Grand Theft Auto’s lackluster shooting mechanics. Even then, the shooting segments were limited, and were mostly reserved for large, setpiece moments. Firearms aren’t as easy to come by in Hong Kong, so having that as a story point helped the immersion.

Sleeping Dogs set out to provide a specific vibe, and absolutely nailed it. Between the lack of guns, driving on the left side of the road, and having multiple stations that were entirely in Cantonese, it was easy to get immersed. It’s a big reason why I feel like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City stands above the other games in that series. The overall 1980s vibe really helped seal the deal, something that the more modern entries never did for me. I often took the long way home while driving around Hong Kong, doing my best to uphold traffic laws, and cruising around town, listening to Cantonese club music. I fell into this world, and when it ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave.  It is a game that does what it sets out to do: it tells a concise story, and then gets out of the way, something I hope that Rockstar will learn with the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V.

This is a game that was overlooked by many, but it is completely worth your time to check it out, especially if it goes on sale for cheap. I can’t recommend it enough.

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Yep, still here.

I was meaning to pick back up on writing regularly after life wound down toward the end of November. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky. My work schedule got thrown off considerably, and I’ve been stuck working nights for the last week. I’ve still got one more week of this, so I’m sleeping during the day and working through the night. I haven’t been able to write near as much as I’d like. Most of my free time has been spent trying to play video games, and to get caught up on this year’s releases. I’m currently working on Darksiders 2, and I’m trying to find a comfortable block of time to go back to Dark Souls. I’m also playing  a lot of Persona 4: The Golden, and loving every moment of it. I have a lot of things I really want to write about, but time hasn’t exactly allowed for it. It really sucks.

To add insult to injury, the NaNoWriMo project had to be abandoned after making it about a fifth of the way into it. The main file with over 10k worth of words got corrupted, so I lost a lot of progress. I still have a lot of my notes, but going back and rewriting all that I had done just took some wind out of my sails. I’m still a little bummed out about that, but it isn’t the end of the world. Perhaps I’ll go back to it at some point, but for now I’m really just not into it.

In other news, I just bought a brand new, in box Game Boy Micro, something I’ve been wanting for a long time. I’m very excited about it, even though it cost me slightly more than I wanted to pay for it. I love the Game Boy Advance, and portables really are the best way for me to play video games these days. After selling my DS Lite, I haven’t had a way to play my GBA games, and the Micro is just a really cool piece of tech. It’s really cool in a gadget sort of way. It is a Nintendo portable that will stand the test of time as far as design goes. Really, I’m just excited to replay Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow again.

I haven’t been completely quiet though. I did write a review for New Super Mario Bros. U, which was a new experience. Reviews aren’t my strong point, and they’re something I’m gradually trying to get a better grasp on. I also wrote a very revealing, personal piece about Catherine over on the Destructoid community blogs, but I didn’t feel quite right posting it here. I’m still writing, and I’m still trying to find time to fix a layout for new blog stuff. It’s all a mess, one that will hopefully clear up a little bit after the holidays.

I’m still alive. I want to write more, but time isn’t on my side. Regular updates will resume, presumably around Christmas. I have a lot of catching up to do. At the very least, I’m going to try and post something when I get my Game Boy Micro, if only so I can take some nice pictures of with my DSLR and put those up. I’ll be back!

I Saw the Sun: A Lot of Words About Dark Souls

Death in video games has always signified that we failed at whatever task we were presented with. If you die, you respawn at an earlier point, knowing a little more of what you’ve gotten yourself into. With each successive attempt, you’re likely to get a little further, and eventually, you’ll conquer whatever stands before you. Over time, death in video games evolved to a point where it had no real consequence. You die, you respawn to the previous respawn point, and continue on your merry way, as if nothing ever happened. Lives don’t figure in as much anymore, and whatever was dead the first time around is very likely still dead. Through this, you push through the game and are given that sense of satisfaction that comes with success, even if it was easily earned. This is a common thread with most first person shooters, though other genres are not immune to it. The current generation of gamers are used to this, even expecting it. A game that forces you to actually have consequence for your failure to succeed has become something of a boon in the industry. It all links back into the idea that video games have become this giant Skinner box experiment, but that really is a discussion for another day.

Continue reading “I Saw the Sun: A Lot of Words About Dark Souls”

Going Underground

My life continues to get more and more hectic lately, so of course, I haven’t been able to update. I’m not happy about it, but work and other obligations have crept up, and this sort of writing just hasn’t been working out for me. It sucks, but what can you do?

So, I have a very big project that starts tomorrow and this blog is going to go dark(er) for a month. I’m starting up my NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) entry tomorrow. I wanted to enter last year, but just didn’t have the energy or creative idea for it. This year I’ve got a great idea, and I’m really excited to get to it. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50000 word novel by the end of the day, November 31. It’s more about quantity than quality, but as someone who desperately wants to make a career out of writing, I’m putting my best effort into this.

I doubt I’ll be updating over the month of November, which sucks because I really wanted to implement all the new things, but I might post a few updates here and there about how the novel project is going. If I’m happy with the initial results at the end of the month, I’m going to spend the next couple months editing and doing at least one rewrite. After that, I’m going to consider self-publishing my work to Amazon, if only to put it out there. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, so I’m hoping I can make it work.

I guess I’ll at least talk a little about what I’ve been playing lately. I finished Code of Princess on 3DS, and it was a lot of fun. I wish there was a little more to it, but I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of it. Since then my free time has been divided between Dark Souls, which I just bought on PC, and Final Fantasy: Four Heroes of Light. I’m greatly enjoying both of them, and I just picked up the PC version of Sleeping Dogs yesterday, so I’m going to try and start that up in the next day or two. I’ve yet to play a lot of the big titles from this year, and some of them I won’t even get to until early next year, if at all. I tell myself that someday I’ll get to the Mass Effect series, and someday I might play the rest of the Assassin’s Creed games, but with the amount of substantial free time I have, my gaming is usually best confined to portable systems. My 3DS has become my best friend lately, offering me something small and enjoyable I can play in bed each night before falling asleep. At the rate I’m going, I might finish Final Fantasy in a couple weeks or so, but those sort of games really lend themselves to be played in short bursts.

The rest of my year basically consists of getting through all these games I’ve amassed lately, the Wii U launch, and Persona 4 Golden. I’m doing a review for Persona 4 at Substance TV, so that’s going to be my priority during Thanksgiving break. I’m taking that whole weekend off of work, so there will be a lot of Persona in my future. Can I finish it in a week for review? I guess we’ll have to find out. It’s been a long time since I really heavily mainlined a JRPG. Persona 3 actually took me a little over a month to play, as I’d just chip away at it an hour or so at a time. It wasn’t until I got near the end that I started putting a lot more time into it.

I don’t want it to go completely dark here during the next month, so I’m really going to try and at least put something up once a week, if only to prove that I’m still alive and that things are happening. Like I said, I was really hoping to get a new layout and everything implemented, but it’s just not working the way I want it to yet. I don’t really like doing these sort of “yep, still alive” posts, since I know I don’t exactly have a regular readership, so I’m mainly doing them for my own sake. I don’t want to feel like I’m completely ignoring this blog, because I’m really not trying to. Life has just been getting in the way lately.

Album Review: Less Than Jake “Greetings and Salutations”

Hailing from Gainesville, Fla., Less Than Jake have been at it for two decades, and despite a few minor changes to the horn section, they have always had the same core lineup. The result is that they are clearly very comfortable in their own skin. They know where their strengths lie, and they have never been accused of being over ambitious. Pop punk with brass and ska rhythms aren’t the most complicated of punk rock conventions, so with “Greetings and Salutations,” the band sticks closely to their guns.

The album opens with “The New Auld Lang Syne,” throwing everything fans expect into the mix. It is rounded out by a singalong chorus that declares “do your worst/I’ll survive another year,” acting as a mission statement for the rest of the record. Less Than Jake have always been about anthems of small town life, and escaping to bigger, better things. Their previous album, “GNV FLA,” was seen as a return to form, and this new release uses it as a foundation for a solid progression forward. The songs are catchier, and at times, the brass resembles the more relaxed tones it took on during 2000’s “Borders and Boundaries.” Everyone gets a chance to shine on this album in some way or another.

The biggest problem with the record is that while the tracks are great individually, they don’t work as well in the concept of a full length record. Despite the attempts to assemble it as a single studio LP, the songs still feel like a pair of EPs mixed up and arranged into an album sequence.  Fans of the band will recognize the majority of the tracks from the two EPs released late last year, and earlier this spring, along with a pair of leftover tracks from the recording sessions. That’s not to say this is a bad release, because it isn’t. Both EPs of material are excellent, standing up with some of the best material the band has ever released, though it’s obvious to see why the other two tracks were initially left out. While not immediately up to par to the rest of the release, both “Flag Holders Union” and “View From the Middle” stand as nice, uptempo pop punk numbers that get better from repeated listens.

“Can’t Yell Any Louder,” formerly the opening track from the earlier EP, stands defiantly with it’s chorus of “I tell myself tonight is mine/so I’ll hold my head up high/I’m never moving backwards/I don’t think I can yell any louder,” and Less Than Jake forges onward, hopefully for another twenty years. It’s been a busy anniversary for the band so far, and they seem determined to do it all again.

My Undying Love for Less Than Jake

In the last ten years, my tastes in music have rapidly changed. I’ve expanded and gone off on weird genre tangents, ranging from Japanese post-rock to the greatest offerings east coast hip-hop had to give me. Every day I’m finding new bands to dig into. I’m always looking for something new to keep me going, and most of all, keep me interested. In high school, this really wasn’t the case.

Around 2000, I finally started developing what I considered a taste in music, or at least something that I could associate myself with. I fell into punk rock, and it really defined a lot of my high school experience. I found myself interested in all of these bands that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 introduced me to, and as I’ve said before, that game really lit a fire under my ass. Music finally meant something to me. I digested all I could find, and to be honest, I don’t listen to a lot of those bands all that much anymore. Less Than Jake has never been one of those bands. I love them more today than I ever did when I was a teenager. I think this is due to a lot of the songs making a lot more sense to me now than they did back then.

The first time I even heard this band, I didn’t know what to expect. Ska-punk was a new genre to me, something I didn’t yet understand. Their most recent album at the time was 2000’s Borders and Boundaries, an album somewhat removed from the sound they are typically associated with. I was wasting time on the internet, looking up bands, and I knew people on IRC who were into this “ska band,” so I decided to give them a look. The first song I heard was a track from Borders and Boundaries called “Kehoe,” and I think I fell in love in an instant.

I was initially thrown off by the horn section, but I quickly got over it. It was that first verse that said everything I really need to know about life at the time.

Ideals are like opinions, beliefs just like tradition 
Sometimes both are not enough.
Faded stickers and crumpled flyers, 
They’ve become the reminder that there’s an anthem in us
That fits the flag we’ve flown for years.

Now, over years I’ve learned that Less Than Jake really don’t sing about a lot of different topics. The majority of their songs are about living in a shitty situation and making the claim to better yourself and get out of that terrible hole you’ve sunk into. It never mattered to me. I’m 26 years old, and I still feel this way every day of my life. I don’t really know what I’m doing, and I’m doing all I can to survive from day to day. Their songs still mean the world to me, and instilled the belief within me to just be myself. It’s exactly what I needed to hear.

I can still recall going to the mall one evening and picking up their Losing Streak and Hello Rockview albums. I would pick up Borders and Boundaries a few weeks later, and would eventually pick up the rest of their primary discography. I was hooked, and I needed to hear everything I could. I finally got to see them live in 2003, and since then I’ve seen them about ten times. This is a band that helped me become who I am, and helped give me hope during the worst days of my life. I wrote their lyrics in my school notebooks and quoted them frequently in my old Livejournal.

I found out fairly early on that the lyrics were all written by drummer, Vinnie Fiorello. He never struck me as a very impressive drummer, but I found solace in his words. Even as their songs treaded over similar themes, they always seemed to find a way to keep it sounding fresh. I read interviews with him where he was asked about how he wrote his lyrics, and he mentioned that he would write individual lines on everything from napkins to post-it notes, and he kept them in a shoebox. He would assemble similar lines together into stanzas, and hand them off to guitarist Chris Demakes and bassist Roger Manganelli. This method always seemed to work for them, but as they’ve grown as a band I can see Vinnie’s lyrics take a slightly more straightforward, less fractured structure to them.

They are set to release their next album tomorrow (or January for a physical copy), which is comprised of a pair of EPs released earlier this year and late 2011, along with a pair of unreleased tracks to top it off. The songs have been arranged into an album, and having heard ten of the twelve tracks, I really feel like this is some of the strongest material they’ve released in years. For a band that’s been around for twenty years, they keep on doing what they do, and they are still very good at it. Not only are they releasing this album, but they are also planning on releasing a full length album of new material next year! I’m really excited about this, and despite missing their show nearly a month ago, I’m making it a point not to miss them the next time they come around.

I may have gotten into a lot of odd music over the last few years, dabbling in noise rock and bizarre ambient experiments, but I will always love this band.

The Plan

Okay, so I”m working on setting the plan in motion, and I pretty well have it figured out (for now, at least) what I’m going to do with this blog.

Here’s the deal: first of all, there’s going to be a name change. I have one in mind, but I haven’t finished setting it all up yet, so I’m not going to reveal that yet. I like the name “minusworlds,” but I feel like it limits my discussion to video games. I said previously that I wanted to move beyond writing about just video games. The truth of the matter is that my brain is a radioactive wasteland of useless information. I might not be able to tell you all that much about math, but if you want to know why Jetsons: The Movie is a terrible film, I can go on for a while. I’ve been tossing around ideas to do a re-watch of a television series or something and write up each episode, just to do something different. I know the updates here have been sparse, but I assure you, it isn’t for lack of content ideas. I’ve still got plenty of those.

Next up, I’m realizing that with the resources I have at my disposal, I could likely do some interesting content that isn’t just writing based. I’m tossing around the idea of doing video or audio of some sort. I haven’t really locked down a solid concept for these things, but the idea is intriguing. I think it’d be a lot of fun, so it’s definitely something to explore. With that in mind, I have considered morphing this blog into a portfolio of sorts, acting as my own personal web portal that links to all of my Internet diatribes. That is still very likely to happen, though I’ve been really thinking about something else entirely, which would make turning this blog into a personal portfolio unfeasible. I’m actually considering hassling a couple of friends into contributing some pieces, making this into my own miniature community.

I’m still mulling it over. I haven’t decided which way I’m going to take this. Truthfully, I do want to take the writing element in a more critical, serious direction. That’s not to say that my horrible sense of humor would be going anywhere, but I do feel like there’s more I can do instead of just rambling about these bizarre, existential crises that video games cause me.

The hard part about all of this is something I briefly explained in the last update. I’m stressed out a lot, and sometimes I just can’t write. It gets hard to focus, and I don’t want to force these pieces to come out. Since I’m not posting regular news updates from publishers or something, I’m far more free to just write about what I want. I’m not exactly held to any sort of deadline, but sometimes, nothing comes out. My real life stress has a huge impact on this, and when I have bad days, I have really bad days. It’s something I’ve learned to live with for the time being. Writing makes me happy. It’s a challenge, and over the latter part of the summer I was able to watch my own style develop quickly. That was a really good feeling, and I’d prefer to keep that trend going. I know I can do much better, and I want to push those boundaries.

I’m going to think some of this over through the weekend. New changes should start going into effect on Monday or so.