There’s nothing quite like watching an underdog come from behind to shake up the status quo. Sleeping Dogs has done that. The game started as an original IP and was picked up by Activision to be a reboot of their True Crime franchise under the name True Crime: Hong Kong. Unfortunately for Activision, but luckily for everyone else, the publisher lost faith in the game and cancelled their plans to release it, which paved the way for Square Enix (we are all Square Enix fans this month) to pick up the game half a year later and ultimately release it under the title Sleeping Dogs. Most games that go through that kind of adversity end up half-finished messes or more than likely, never get released at all. Sleeping Dogs manages to not only buck that trend but also distinguish itself from the other two open world titans, Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row. More than that, it puts both of those franchises on the defensive, raising the bar on just what players will expect in the future from other open-world games.
• Developer: United Front Games
• Publisher: Square Enix
• Available on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 & PC
• Release Date: Available now
Sleeping Dogs is heavily inspired by Hong Kong cinema. The influences from films like Infernal Affairs, Hard Boiled and others are apparent throughout. The game feels like a giant love letter from developer United Front Games to the city of Hong Kong and the many action films its produced. Players assume the role of Wei Shen, a police officer from San Fransisco who has moved back to his birthplace, Hong Kong, to take part in an undercover operation targeting the Triad called the “Sun On Yee.” His childhood relationships with members of the Sun On Yee make him the perfect man for the job.
Of course Wei has his own personal reasons for coming back to Hong Kong, and during the course of the game the lines between right and wrong, cops and robbers, good guys and bad guys blur. It’s a story brimming with intrigue, betrayal, brotherhood and vengeance. In a genre in which the story is often diluted by the open world of the game itself, Sleeping Dogs hits a high mark for storytelling.
The skeleton of Sleeping Dogs will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played a GTA or Saints Row game. Players are given a large city to roam around in, with story missions buoyed by numerous side activities, all displayed on a world map that has become standard for the genre. Hong Kong is your playground, and while the format may be familiar, the city is not. Rather than playing around in the tediously familiar faux cities of New York or Los Angeles, Hong Kong is full of tiny alleys, crowded markets, beautiful temples and bustling boulevards. Even something as simple as driving on the left hand side of the road really adds to the “feeling” that you are roaming around a city very different from the North American inspired standard.
Story missions come in two flavors: Police and Triad. Since Wei Shen is an undercover cop, players will have to help police investigations when he is not busy climbing the ranks of the Sun On Yee. Completing police missions earns Police XP, which unlocks new abilities in its attached skill tree that include more accurate firearms or the ability to steal shotguns from the trunks of police cars. Completing Triad missions earns Triad XP, which also unlocks new abilities in its skill tree. Different types of XP can be earned from the same missions and things like killing civilians or causing property damage will be subtracted from Police XP rewards.
Besides Police and Triad XP, the game has a third XP system called Face; basically your reputation in terms of how the people of Hong Kong view Wei Shen. Doing favors for citizens, racing, and completing certain events earns Face XP. Unlike Triad and Police XP however, players have no choices to make; the more XP a player earns, the more benefits will be unlocked in the Face skill tree, which include the ability to have a valet deliver a car or make the effects of food or drink last 50% longer. While the entire game world is open from the start, completing story and side missions will slowly unlock more missions and side activities, as well as other benefits like displaying the location of collectibles on the mini-map.
The final skill tree is not based on XP. Instead players must find Jade Statues hidden throughout Hong Kong and return them to the martial arts school where Wei trains. Each statue earns Wei a new melee combat move. Players can also return to the school at any time to brush up on their skills.
Triad, Police and Face XP can be boosted by wearing certain items. Clothes provide bonuses to the amount of a specific type of XP earned from completing Triad or Police missions or provide damage boosts and other perks. Accessories like bracelets and glasses boost Face XP. Players can mix and match or choose from a large assortment of preset outfits. Visiting Massage Parlors also boots Face XP rewards. Food and drink buff health or damage for a fixed amount of time.
Unlike most open-world third-person games, Sleeping Dogs is not all about firearms; rather its core focus is on melee combat. Wei Shen will routinely fight anywhere between 3 to 10 or more bad guys with his bare hands. It may not be the deepest fighting system ever, but compared to other open world games like GTA or Saints Row, it’s the new Bruce Lee. Akin to the fighting system found in the recent Batman games, melee combat is all about counters, light and heavy strikes, throws, grapples and follow-ups. The system is organic and is introduced to the player in a way that ensures even the least skilled player can reap the benefits of new moves as they become available. Best of all, the enemies themselves use a variety of styles to keep players on their toes. Simply mashing buttons will not win you a lot of fights past the first quarter of the game. Enemy types have their own strengths and weaknesses, which require the player to change up his or her choice of moves in order to defeat them.
On top of the numerous combos Wei has at his disposal, many objects in the environment can be used to finish off enemies. Toilets, fans, table saws, balcony railings and more can all be used by Wei to lay down some series punishment. When combined with the core fighting system, the result is some of the most brutally fun combat to be found anywhere, open world or not. The melee combat is a big part of what makes Sleeping Dogs so appealing, and despite the massive amount of throw-downs Wei will walk into, the system never ceases to please.
Hong Kong is not an American city, which means every gangster and his mom is not rocking an AK-47. Firearms are rare in Hong Kong, so they are usually reserved for the larger climatic events of the game and car chases. While the basics are the same as its contemporaries, neither GTA nor Saints Row has the best gunplay, Sleeping Dogs adds some nice touches to their shooting systems. Leaping over tables and cars or diving out of a window will allow the player to trigger a slow motion bullet-time effect, which when added to the overall feel of Hong Kong, really makes you feel as if you’re in a John Woo film. The gunplay is equally strong when behind the wheel, as Wei will also trigger this slow motion effect when he leans out the window of a car to shoot out the tires of pursuing vehicles or snipe drivers. The system is a lot of fun whether you are driving the car or you are riding shotgun.
The slow motion makes the shooting a bit easy, especially given the ease with which Wei can shoot out tires, essentially taking down a vehicle in one shot, and group multiple headshots together before the slow motion ends. Even so, the effect is wonderful to behold as cars go flying end over end, exploding even as new enemies plow through the debris, or entire rooms explode in a hail of gunfire as Wei hits gas cans and other volatile pieces of the environment. Players will actually encounter more knives than guns during the course of the game. While guns have limited ammo, knives have a finite amount of durability. Players will only be able to kill a few enemies before their knife breaks. It’s often ideal to throw the weapon for an instant kill, after killing one or two foes, rather than let it break. Players can also wield fish, purses, hand bags, briefcases and more as weapons for a short time.
The driving in Sleeping Dogs is as tight and solid as any of its contemporaries. It’s the city itself that really makes the driving special. The very first vehicle players are given is a motorcycle, and many players will come to prefer riding a bike versus driving a car because of the nature of the roads in Hong Kong; tight, winding alleyways are ideal for losing the cops or evading Triad gangsters and the highway, with all of its ongoing construction and obstacles, requires a bit more precision than most games in the genre. Like almost everything else in the game, Sleeping Dogs adds a nice touch to driving that sets it above its competitors. The ability to hijack any vehicle while driving is a lot of fun and can be especially handy should the players current vehicle take too much damage. It may not be as dramatic as Just Cause 2‘s hijack system, but it works well.
When Wei is traveling on foot, he takes his cues from games like Assassin’s Creed and other free-running, parkour-inspired titles. Wei can leap, slide, dash and jump with the best of them. Leaping over a table towards armed enemies can result in instant disarms and kills. Timing button presses just right to climb fences or jump from building to building is important in chase sequences while also looking very cool. The free-running system is yet another way that Sleeping Dogs adds a little something special to a facet of gameplay often overlooked by other games in the genre.
No game is perfect, and a game with a development history like Sleeping Dogs is bound to have issues. The most instantly noticeable negative, especially on consoles: the visuals. Storefronts are often simply still pictures plastered on a wall, and NPC character models can seem more like stiffly moving mannequins than people. The entire game shows a lack of visual polish — which is not to say the game is ugly. It still has many impressive vistas and beautiful locations, but when it comes to visuals, Sleeping Dogs falls behind what other open-world games have been able to produce.
Besides the visuals, the game suffers from the same bugs that plague every open-world game ever made. Sometimes the game just gets confused, resulting in weird animation glitches such as falling through floors and riding motorcycles upside down for a few moments. None of these issues is constant, and it’s hard to say Sleeping Dogs suffers from them any more than GTA or Saints Row did upon release. During the course of reviewing the game, I encountered only two instances of the game hard-locking and requiring a restart of my PS3. Given that I have received the Platinum trophy on PS3 version, that’s hardly a major negative. Subsequent patches will no doubt alleviate some of the bugs and glitches from the game, even if the console versions are unable to take advantage of the higher resolution textures of the PC version.
Sleeping Dogs may not have reinvented the open world genre, but it surely has come almost out of nowhere to roundhouse the status quo. The story is superb, especially if you’re a Hong Kong action fan. The all-star cast of actors deliver solid performances backed up by an actually enjoyable soundtrack despite most of the more famous (and painful) songs being found in the karaoke bars. The melee combat is addictive; the shooting is spectacular, even if a bit too easy; and the driving is engaging, fast and fun. United Front Games has managed to add something special to almost every aspect of Sleeping Dogs, resulting in a game that feels like a breath of fresh air in a genre that had become very predictable. The fun factor for this game is simply through the roof, completely overshadowing its lack of visual polish and random bugs. If Sleeping Dogs came from behind to wow players and shake up the competition, a sequel will no doubt be among the most highly anticipated games; right up there with GTA V and the new Saints Row game (or in my case, even higher). Whether you’re a Hong Kong cinema buff, an open-world game addict or just curious what the game has to offer, players owe it to themselves to pick up Sleeping Dogs, one of the most entertaining games released this year.