Featuring a land we haven’t explored before and a mix-up in the core gameplay department, Sleeping Dogs easily delivers one of the best open-world experiences we’ve been provided with this generation. Not molded after GTA nor intent on capturing the over-the-top vibe of the Saints Row series, Sleeping Dog establishes its own identity which features engaging melee based combat, action oriented driving, and a narrative that feels fresh despite treading in familiar territory.
+ Melee based combat is thought out and has the perfect mix of direct fun while still being challenging.
+ Hong Kong truly feels alive and is designed in a way that’s both fun to explore and simply look at.
+ The story goes into familiar territory but is entertaining thanks to some good writing and amazing performances from the cast.
+ Gun combat doesn’t feel tacked on and provides some nice bursts of variety.
+ Driving doesn’t feel like a chore nor do the secondary missions that are strewn about Hong Kong.
- The upgrade system for the fighting moves is a bit odd in how it’s presented.
- Some of the last few story missions feel out of place despite being fun to play.
Sometimes we encounter a bit of an inner conflict during our life. Things such as a work dilemma or a relationship problem may make us think deeply about what we’ll want to do and ultimately what side we’ll land on. But such things are trivial when compared to a police officer working deep undercover. Obviously we likely won’t ever know what such a thing is like, but it can somewhat be ascertained that even amidst a den of thieves, thugs, and pure criminals there’s bound to be some friendships created or even an ounce of compassion here and there. Such a thing is explored in Sleeping Dogs, the action packed open-world game which explores the ever seedy underbelly of Hong Kong – complete with karaoke, fast nighttime driving, and epic gore.
Over the years we’ve seen a lot of open-world games hit the market post GTA III but very few of them have actually been good. For every game like Red Dead Redemption or Yakuza 4 we have something like Gun and Mercenaries 2, which by no means are inherently terrible games but are far from providing a complex world that’s constantly fun to explore. With Sleeping Dogs we thankfully have an experience that is utter fun since it knows how to keep the pace going and more importantly doesn’t opt to provide complete realism or half a dozen different mini-games/gameplay mechanics that only offer a tiny ounce of enjoyment. Sleeping Dogs is complete fun start to finish and I would even go as far as to say it’s the best video game representation of Chinese cinema with an action origin.
The thing that most people likely know about Sleeping Dogs is that it features an undercover cop deep within the Triad organization in the hopes of shutting it down from the inside. Such a thing isn’t new territory at all even in the video game space as we’ve seen other undercover cop games in the past such as Driver. However, the story of Wei Shen (played by Will Yun Lee) is intriguing since it’s not the standard “Point Break” or “Fast and the Furious” type angle since there’s a personal edge to things. Other than growing up within a district of Hong Kong, Wei’s family was also affected by the Triads so his mission as a cop does have a direct personal motivation as well which simply grows stronger as the game continues due to his mere hatred of certain people and his desire to see those close to him stay protected, even if they’re on the wrong side of the law.
As potentially cliché as the story of Sleeping Dogs may sound, the narrative is actually both written and acted well. The substantial cast in the game does a wonderful job at making their characters feel alive, even if they’re a bit archetypical in nature and there’s just wonderful diversity when it comes to the emotional notes that are hit. A few of the characters in the game subtly go into the extreme made famous by Rockstar Games (they’re deplorable characters that are still loveable), but even then the cast does an excellent at giving their roles some dimension and character. The relationship between Wei and his childhood friend now turned small-time hood Jackie Ma (Edison Chan) was a real highlight for me as the banter between the two seemed natural as opposed to having that obviously faux friendship that we hear in other games. Even more there’s an authentic feeling of sorts since most of the characters throw in Cantonese phrases which gives the dialog that extra spark that likely would’ve been missing if the cast consisted of actors who didn’t fit the roles i.e. stunt casting through high profile celebs.
Some expected moments occur during the game such as the predictable death of a key gang member and the eventual inner Triad squabble for power once things begin to look shaky. But even with moments such as those the story of Sleeping Dogs is never completely predictable as it’s not written like a bad action movie. I won’t say that Sleeping Dogs is a prime example of narrative excellence in the video game action genre, but it does properly evoke the feelings of Asian cinema such as “Infernal Affairs” and early films from John Woo. Things never hit a moment of pure drama that is as captivating as something from a Johnnie To film like the “Election” series, but as a whole Sleeping Dogs does a good job at keeping things together without veering off too much in an attempt to tell an entertaining story.
Things definitely start off strong in Sleeping Dogs and maintain a brisk pace but the game does enter a weird spot in the last few missions leading up to the grand finale of the story. Without spoiling things, the entrance of new characters ultimately serve a minor purpose that could’ve otherwise been skipped but what was slightly disappointing was how the actual finale seemed rushed. Central plot points are tied up in the game, but it almost felt as if developer United Front Games needed to wrap everything up in five minutes as opposed to giving everything the proper time they needed to be told. Again I’m bound to secrecy as I don’t want to divulge spoilers, but a few elements in the closing moments of the game felt like they could’ve been expanded upon but weren’t, which in the end takes away from some of the dramatic impact that was to be had. Aside from that one small issue, I was greatly impressed with how the story was laid out and how impactful it ended up being since it does enter some moral grey areas.
What sort of drama I found Wei Shen in as he tried to defeat gang leaders was only one of the things that pulled me into Sleeping Dogs since the game is complete unfiltered fun. Playing Sleeping Dogs I had flashbacks to when I played GTA III for the first time since the game is laid out in a beautifully simple way since the missions and central elements are straightforward and don’t have any unrequired fluff to them. In a way I did have to adapt myself to playing Sleeping Dogs since it’s not exactly a cookie cutter open-world game in a sense. Yes, there are story and side missions to be completed, but the game does two things rather differently compared to its peers: it’s a melee based brawler and it instills the sense that you’re an undercover cop.
As much fun as it likely would’ve been to run amok in Hong Kong and shoot stuff up, Sleeping Dogs isn’t that much of a shooter. Various guns are indeed in the game as are missions that revolve around shooting stuff up, but the game is a brawler first and foremost. Given the setting of the game it makes sense as to why Wei Shen would beat fools up or use a knife to take them out as opposed to a pistol and thankfully such a thing is a joy to experience since the game did a great job at making me feel like a martial arts master.
With a system that is familiar to Batman: Arkham Asylum, Sleeping Dogs has combat that is easy to get into but at the same times is challenging to master since effortlessly fighting ten guys at once isn’t a complete walk in the park. With only one attack button, the game required me to be both patient and sharp as I fought foes, whether they were standard thugs with wrapped fists or those wielding knives. The whole point of the combat system is to wait for the enemy to make an opening, usually done by performing a counter-attack move, and then pummel them into submission. Early on the combat in the game did feel a bit simple as the attack combos were simple and Wei’s attacks are a bit average. But over time new moves were unlocked which opened things up tremendously as I was able to perform running jump kicks or even flip over the backs of enemy’s to get the jump on them.
The interesting thing about the combat is that even when I had upgraded Wei’s moves set the game never became too easy as to showcase how much of a badass I was becoming. I certainly got the sense that my moves were dishing out more damage, but the combat in the game constantly serves up a challenge, albeit one that’s fun to experience. The game has a score counter similar to the Batman games so trying to keep that going through landing attacks and counter attack moves is where the real fun comes from since it’s not an easy thing to do. Not all of the enemies are grand masters by any degree, except for a few special foes towards the end of the game, but they do put up a good fight and will actually double team Wei as opposed to doing the old action movie standby of waiting their turn to attack.
The only issue I had with Wei’s combat rested in how new moves are unlocked. Instead of gaining XP and purchasing moves over time, the game required me to collect several statues scattered about Hong Kong in order to purchase moves. While it may sound like the game becomes a boring fetch quest it isn’t that bad but at the same time feels like an awkward system to progress the fighting abilities of Wei.
Once I found myself done with the main story of Sleeping Dogs, which took me around twelve hours to complete, the game isn’t immediately over as Hong Kong does is a place in which one can definitely keep busy. Whether it’s singing a Flock of Seagulls song at a nightclub or simply collecting items, Sleeping Dogs does have some secondary missions that are worth having a go at. The core story of Wei can be extended a bit as there are a few police centric cases that can completed, but aside from that there are dozens of civilian missions ranging from catching thieves, helping people with some basic insurance fraud, or hacking into security cameras to complete a drug bust. None of the secondary missions are so huge that they match what’s presented in the main story, but they are worth playing, not just for the Trophy/Achievements they provide, as they do feature some fun scenarios and can easily extend the core experience into the 20 hours+ range.
With Wei often being outnumbered, at one point I fought at least twelve enemies at once, it takes real skill to chain Wei’s attacks together, constantly counter moves, and of course do the grand finale of environmental takedowns. Instead of keeping the action restricted to basic fisticuffs, Sleeping Dogs allowed me to use the environment to finish enemies off if I wanted to. While the base combat isn’t entirely gory as it doesn’t featured Red Dead Redemption/Max Payne 3 style gore, the environmental kills do show some graphic but entertaining violence.
It may sound like the environmental takedowns could make the game too easy since it assures an instant kill, but not all of the environments in the game feature them and enemies still need to be softened up and grabbed to be pulled towards a particular object. So it’s not a case of doing a punch, grabbing an enemy, and then pushing them onto a sword fish head to see the gory but laugh inducing result. I would’ve liked to seen more environmental attacks in the game or at least enemies try to use them on me, but what’s presented in the game is a good bounce pad for United Front to explore in future installments if such a thing happens.
Those who like to shoot stuff up need not worry too much as Wei is also pretty good when it comes to that as well. The game doesn’t provide non-stop levels that feature nothing but shooting, but those that do are tailored well and provide action that’s as visceral as the melee combat. Things are a bit easier since taking out an enemy by using a shotgun is less troublesome than going fist to fist, but the shooting controls feel good and don’t feel tacked on. Using basic 3rd person shooter controls, which in the case of the PS3 version includes using L2 to aim and R2 to shoot, Sleeping Dogs keeps things simple and for that I’m thankful since it provides a bursts of fun in which I could blow up the environment or do skillful headshots to take out enemies. The A.I. does exhibit a nice level of intelligence when it comes to the shooting stages as they do move about yet they aren’t skill marksman.
Some of the shooting specific stages are enhanced as they take place while Wei is in a moving vehicle, whether it’s a motorcycle or an expensive looking car of some kind. Driving obviously plays a big part in the game as it’s easier to great around Hong Kong when behind the wheel as opposed to walking around constantly. The foundations of the driving feel perfect as the cars aren’t floaty, don’t feel too heavy, and have defining characteristics which don’t range from “this is terrible” to “this is impossible to control and I want to kill myself”. So thankfully I didn’t have flashbacks to GTAIV once I got behind the wheel in Sleeping Dogs. Doing the required move of car drifting was a complete breeze as was pulling up my sights to shoot at nearby enemies cruising down a highway in the attempt to take them down for good.
I was even impressed with how easy it was to jack a vehicle by doing the rather unorthodox manuever of jumping from car to car. By pressing the X button while playing on the PS3 version I was able to have Wei hang out his car a bit, almost looking like he was ready to ghost ride the whip, and wait until he was in range to air hijack another vehicle. Going from vehicle to vehicle is pretty straightforward as there’s an arrow which indicated whether I was in range and from there it was a simple case of waiting for Wei to jack the ride and voila – I would have a new vehicle. Jumping from car to car may sound like a flashy way to acquire a new vehicle and I guess it is since it isn’t a central element of some of the story missions. But hey, at least United Front tried something new and in the process it ending up working instead of hindering the game.
Amidst all this action I found myself in I had to constantly do one thing: remember that I was playing as a cop. It would’ve been easy for me to enter the GTA mentality of anything goes, but Sleeping Dogs does a good job at reminding the player that they’re still an officer of the law by featuring both Police and Triad upgrades along with a corresponding level bar for each. Gaining the favor of the Police and Triads can be done by doing things within missions such as keeping civilian casualties and damage to a minimum while taking headshots, blowing up vehicles, and causing mischief made me gain more respect with the Triads. While it kind of evokes shades of Karma systems within other games, I found that the solution that United Front chose for Sleeping Dogs was fitting since it still allowed me to tailor the experience to my own liking while still limiting or at least recommending that you shouldn’t go running over innocent people. Of course if I wanted to I couldn’t run over people non-stop since the police would be on my ass, but seeing that I received a -20 point penalty on my Police level did make me want to be a better officer of the law in the long run.
Even when I was busy driving down Hong Kong on Wei’s motorcycle or slapping a man to death with a fish, I was constantly impressed by how Sleeping Dogs looked. For years a lot of gamers have been waiting for another game besides the Yakuza series to provide an open-world action game set in an Asian locale and thankfully the wait has been worth it as the digital recreation of Hong Kong is spot on. The city itself may not be a block by block accurate recreation similar to what SCE attempted to do back in the day with a digital version of London in The Getaway, but the character and vibe of Hong Kong is still there and more importantly it feels dense and in a few areas a bit grimy and dark.
Going into the game the main hope I had was that Hong Kong wouldn’t look too homogenized or like it was a basic cut out of something you would see recreated in a Western environment like a Hollywood back lot. With a keen eye for detail the team over at United Front Games has delivered a recreation of Hong Kong that looks like the real thing. From the neon signs in the business district to the dark back alleys I found myself driving through or the ever tranquil gardens that are present, Sleeping Dogs provides a city that feels alive and like it isn’t a convenient hub for a series a missions.
The visual fidelity of the game plays a big part in making the city feel alive since everything is simply nice to look at. A few things do look a bit soft here and there, but the draw distance is rather good as there’s no pop-up nor is there major slow down as the game tries to render things. Stylistically the game has good art design across the board as it’s not a complete hyper real experience yet it isn’t overly stylized in a way that’s almost distracting. Thugs follow a familiar design approach in their appearance, but the key locations and characters in the game are look good as they’re detailed and very well could make the jump to reality without things having to be tweaked.
As expected the game follows the usual routine of making sure the main characters are loaded with detail while the accompanying citizens and NPCs simply look ok. I never once saw a NPC on the streets of Hong Kong that was created with so few polys that it looked like a de-evolved human, but the disparity in quality is nonetheless noticeable. The only graphical downside I do have with the game is that the faces of the main characters aren’t that emotive so a few dramatic scenes fall a bit flat since the game can’t match the acting that’s being delivered.
Going through the ride that Sleeping Dogs delivered I feel like the game will be a dark house of sorts when this year is over. Being a new IP the game may not have the immediate draw in name recognition that other games do, but the quality is definitely there since Sleeping Dogs has delivered one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had the pleasure of playing in an open-world action game.
With a solid script, awesome acting, and loads of things to do like side missions or partaking in a meta game involving online stat tracking, Sleeping Dogs is a product that delivers an experience that while not original or genre defining is still complete fun that isn’t held back nor is it extended longer than it should last. If you’re in the mood for something different that will still deliver a heart pumping experience then Sleeping Dogs is the game for you.
A review copy of this game was provided by the publisher.