Enter the Fist.
Boy, this game has one hell of a history, beginning life as an original title before having the “True Crime” title slapped onto it, going through years of development as a reboot of the notoriously mediocre series of PlayStation 2 games, to being canceled by Activision a mere few months before being finished due to lack of faith in the game’s ability to garner sales. Flash forward a couple months and Square Enix pops in to save the day, buying up the game and dropping PlayStation 3 kart racing developer United Front Games as well as Square Enix London into the project. A development hell only seen by the likes of Duke Nukem: Forever cools off with the release of Sleeping Dogs in August of 2012, and lukewarm sales and a lack of hype that put a dent in Square Enix’s profits didn’t do much to help prove Activision’s decision to drop the game as a bad move. Sleepy sales aside, Sleeping Dogs proves to be competent enough to stand in the ring with the big boys like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row and it certainly surpassed my expectations for what Square Enix London and United Front could deliver.
Cliche Done Right
Sleeping Dogs takes place in — you guessed it! — Hong Kong. You play as Detective Wei Shen, a Hong Kong-born San Franciscan police officer sent back to his home town as an undercover cop for the Hong Kong PD. Early into the game you hook back up with old friends and get embroiled in the Sun On Yee, a branch of the Chinese Triads. As the story progresses, Wei Shen finds himself facing complex trials that force him to decide if he’s willing to go all the way to keep his cover secure and convince everyone in the Sun On Yee that he’s the real deal without losing himself to the criminal lifestyle, and if he’s willing to throw out the law he’s sworn to uphold to do so. The typical undercover cop drama storyline throws you a curve ball with such premises as “Good Writing” and “Believable Characters.” I found myself conflicted multiple times while playing through the game; there’s no good vs. evil in the story of Sleeping Dogs. It’s easy to see why the police officers want to stop the Sun On Yee, but it’s also hard not to see them as the bad guys when they’re forcing Wei to use his friends’ trust to throw them behind bars.
Familiar, Well-Executed Gameplay
The gameplay itself on the very surface is reminiscent of the original True Crime titles as well as other similar open world action games. Mission markers decorate your map designating where you can go to do various different events, from story points, side missions, races, fight clubs, karaoke bars, drug busts, and all sorts of other varying activities. You can visit the parking garage to get one of your own cars or bikes to drive off in, or you can go the more exciting route and carjack some helpless old lady’s $80,000 sports car. The combat focuses mostly on the hand-to-hand and controls a lot like the Batman: Arkham games. Blocking and throwing various punches, kicks, and assorted combos feels very fluid and well designed, leaving you with that action movie hero feeling. If an enemy decides to throw a punch, he’ll glow red, allowing you to time your block button and counter him, leaving most fights against multiple enemies to sitting there and waiting to tap your block button until everyone is knocked out. That said, the environments are littered with vividly entertaining environmental kills, all the way from smashing a guy’s head in a car door, impaling him on a swordfish (I’m serious), drowning him in a fish tank, to throwing him from rooftops or into furnaces.
The driving feels great. It doesn’t have that Forza simulation feel, but it’s not turning on a dime. United Front Games’ previous titles include ModNation Racers and the more recent LittleBigPlanet Karting and the cars in Sleeping Dogs handle wonderfully as a result. The vehicles have a tight arcadey feel, but at the same time you don’t feel like you’re a pallet swap away from drifting around Wario Raceway and avoiding Koopa shells. The cart racing influence is obvious in the driving with mechanics like the ability to quickly tap a button and push in a direction with your analog stick or mouse to perform a swift bash with your car, sending pursuers, racers, or just random taxi cabs flying off the road and potentially exploding in a ball of flame. This keeps the racing exciting and competitive and has a great Burnout Paradise takedown feel to it. Sleeping Dogs also packs a moving carjack mechanic that’s similar to that forgetful Wheelman game with Vin Diesel in it from a few years back where you can open your door, pull up behind a car you want and time will slow down, allowing you to hit a button prompt and jump from your car to theirs in true action movie style.
One might accuse the developers behind Sleeping Dogs of lacking creativity — with the many features and mechanics borrowed from other games — if they weren’t bundled together so nicely. Below the simple surface, there’s a lot of good ideas in Sleeping Dogs. Hearkening back to the days of Double Dragon, Wei Shen can visit various restaurants, food stands and other assorted places of commerce to spend your endless flow of Hong Kong Dollars for things like buffs to melee damage, health regeneration, and “Face Points”. Face points are a reputation meter that dictate how popular Wei Shen is, and naturally decide how many different shirts he can buy from the dozens of clothes stores scattered across the city. It’s refreshing to see a lot of small tasks that would come off as pointless in games like Grand Theft Auto to become significant thanks to the buff system. Imagine if you could buy an energy drink in GTA that would let you jack cars faster, or if coaxing a hooker into your car did more than drain 20 dollars off your 15 million. Sleeping Dogs takes perfect advantage of these usually pointless events and makes the game world feel more realized. The fictionalized world of Hong Kong is also rife with collectibles, and actually gives rewards for them beyond, “Yay, you got them all, here’s an achievement!” One example includes new abilities for the jade statues that you’ll be collecting for your former master, uncovering small bits of Wei Shen’s past in small digestible chunks before receiving some training where you’ll learn how to use the combo you just unlocked. The hand-to-hand combat is mixed up with differing types of enemies. Grapplers are hard to grab on to and require quick button presses to escape, while brawlers can’t be interrupted if they’re in the middle of winding up an attack so they’ll have to be countered. Adding to the cop/gangster theme, there’s also a police/triad meter that fills up based on the kinds of actions you do, rewarding you when you level them up. Damaging property, assaulting civilians and police officers, and generally doing unsavory tasks will lose you points with the HKPD, though it doesn’t seem to matter much one way or the other as completing story missions will pretty much balance out any sort of mayhem you cause while free roaming.
The fictionalized version of Hong Kong that serves as the world for Sleeping Dogs is impressive. A great large-scale atmosphere brought together with a visual aesthetic that’s easy on the eyes and the hustle and bustle of the city marketplaces, streets, and alleyways are driven home with superb sound design. The smaller details aren’t perfect and a few of the characters appear to be trudging through the uncanny valley, but the overall feel combined with the fact that United Front put out an HD texture pack for high-end PC rigs makes for an above-average experience. United Front really went all out in supporting and optimizing the PC port of Sleeping Dogs with all sorts of advanced options that’ll allow you to run the game on a wide range of hardware; great news for the budget PC gamer or perhaps the laptop gamer on the go. The story is delivered to you in a mostly noninvasive way and it was interesting and engaging enough to keep me from feeling like I was forcing myself to sit through the cutscenes or skipping over character dialogue. There were even a couple cutscenes that were so great I almost wanted to reload my save and watch them again.
Don’t bring a gun to a fistfight.
The gunplay in Sleeping Dogs is comparable to the hand-to-hand combat in pretty much every other GTA clone: stilted,boring, but still functional the majority of the time. Thankfully in most cases it’s wholly optional and actually may be a bit of a bad idea considering how much police attention gun shots seem to stir up in Hong Kong. The firearms of Sleeping Dogs don’t feel like they have much kick to them at all. It feels unnatural and the only way it’s ever any sort of convenience is when the game ends up slowing down time in some John Wu-style table slide or when you’re forced into a gunfight with wave after wave of assault rifle-wielding gangsters. These almost always take place in secluded areas during missions and are thankfully few and far between.
Where’s the charm?
As I said earlier in the review, the world of Sleeping Dogs is immersive and has an authentic feel, but even with all of the sights, sounds, characters, and events going on, there’s still a lack of charisma that the game feels like it’s trying to capture. The world is huge and full of things but it still somehow manages to feel pretty hollow and forgettable, barring a few iconic Chinese action cinema locations. The radio stations have a tough time finding a personality behind them, leaving the radio DJs sounding bored and lifeless. I couldn’t help but find myself passing up on the endless stream of Chinese rap for my own music while I played. These issues aren’t a huge problem at all and I feel like it may just be a personal thing I’ve picked up from a childhood full of playing countless hours of every Grand Theft Auto game, a curse even the most solid of free-roaming titles tends to get stuck with in this day and age.
Being that this review is coming only four months after the games initial release, I find it a bit disconcerting that Sleeping Dogs already has over 20 separate pieces of DLC, totaling out at a larger price tag than the actual game itself. Most of it appears to be pretty mundane stuff such as outfits, masks, cars, and some are just plain cheats like the Red Envelope Pack that adds a million dollars to collect in-game. It’s obviously a move by Square Enix to regain some money from the lackluster sales and I’d personally skip over most of the added downloadable fluff, with one exception: Nightmare in North Point. Nightmare in North Point is the Halloween DLC that takes on a more light-hearted tone compared to the rest of the game, with cheesy B movie scenes all pulled together by the fact that the opening mission has you rescuing ladies and fighting hopping Chinese zombie demons. A pretty unique experience for seven dollars, I must say.
In the case of Sleeping Dogs, the pros far outweigh the cons. If you can put the occasional stale moment aside, it’s a a great game that ties a bunch of good ideas from other games into an enjoyable package that’s worth your time. United Front’s first step into the free-roaming brawler puts a lot more on the table than most other open world games out there and to dismiss it as just another GTA clone would really be a true crime.
Review Platform: PC