Not every game has a smooth and easy path from inception to completion and Sleeping Dogs is not an exception. However, its development cycle is a bit more complicated than most. Originally developed as a totally new open-world IP in 2008 (entitled Black Lotus), publisher Activision decided to rather slap the True Crime name on it in hopes of boosting appeal and so it evolved into True Crime: Hong Kong. But (due to what can be now called questionable business decisions) it was dropped and forgotten, only to be eventually picked up by Square Enix. With some license complications and trimmings/adjustments, Sleeping Dogs was released 4 years later. But was it worth all the trouble or should these sleeping dogs be left doing just that?
Taking place in a fictional, but near authentic version of Hong Kong, players jump into the shoes of Wei Shen: a San Francisco police officer sent to Hong Kong where he is assigned to the Organized Crime/Triad Bureau. There, his assignment is to infiltrate the Triad organization known as the Sun On Yee and bring them down. But as the game progresses, Wei learns that it isn’t as easy as it seems and he’s forced to prove himself to both the police and the Triads. The blatant brutality and unethical activities that he’s forced to participate in while undercover contradicts the codes the badge swore him to follow and it’s this conflict which tears him up mentally and the lines that he once knew become less and less clear. Through your 20+ hour experience, you’ll meet many interesting characters brought to life by stellar voice actors who all add weight to the campaign in some form or another. Wei himself is a complicated character in his own and this combined with an incredible and fresh story leads to a very engaging experience that every gamer needs to partake in.
Anyone familiar with John Woo will feel at home playing Sleeping Dogs as the game bares many similarities to the famous director’s style: awesome fight choreography (which applies to games too, you know), big action scenes and even slow-mo shootouts. Driving is simple but offers players the ability to ram and “action hijack” other cars, which is a contextual one button mini-game where Wei leaps from his car to the other and steals it in a spectacular manner. And if you find yourself preferring to take a pleasant walk through the city, you can jump and climb over/onto mostly anything available. If the slow pace gets to you, Wei is well-versed in free running and can maneuver over obstacles in a stylish manner at a tap of a button.
Unlike other open world games though, hand-to-hand and object-aided melee conflict is greatly emphasized over firearms. Shooting enemies leads to little reward, but beating the living crap out of them using whatever weapon (knives, batons, clubs… purses, umbrellas) you get your hands on or even your environment to deliver violently bloody knockouts and finishers is sadistically satisfying. However, if you’re inclined to take up arms, the shooting mechanics work well and combining that with generic cover based combat, bullets can down an enemy as well as your fists.
The actual melee combat is simple and takes the Arkham Asylum/City route where the face buttons are separated into light attack, heavy attack, grapple and counter. Either quick presses or holding buttons in yields different results, yet, it doesn’t end there. Wei is a skilled martial artist, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. By collecting various jade statues scattered throughout the game, Wei can learn more combos and moves from his sifu (his teacher) and bring these into combat to better handle enemies. These range from disarms and takedowns to powerful bone breaking finishers. The only problem is the camera which is frustratingly stubborn. Whether it be combat or driving, it’s hard to focus on where you want to focus. I just scratched it off to Wei’s cop instinct to keep his eye on the road and a specific target that maybe reminds him of some bully he dealt with as a kid.
Leveling up isn’t limited to melee, though. As you complete missions, you earn either Cop or Triad XP which in turn allows him to unlock abilities specific to those categories. Cop upgrades allow Wei to hijack cars easier, earn less police heat performing certain actions, better weapon recoil and so on while Triad XP allows for the player to be more brutal in combat with better moves and bonuses. These are earned specifically by the way you act during missions. Damaging property and injuring/killing civilians docks Police XP while being viscous towards your enemies nets you more Triad XP. The ability to replay any mission exists so if you do not like the outcome, you can just retry it. It’s a diverse and welcome system that reminds you both that you’re a cop but also part of one of the world’s deadliest criminal organizations.
There is also Face XP which is awarded when Wei performs favours for the many people you’ll find in the game. The rewards for higher face levels equal to discounts from vendors, better clothes or vehicles and some combat related things like disarms during grapples and such. These favours are actually just mini side-missions and they vary greatly but are a great distraction.
Speaking of great distractions, that’s exactly what the vibrant city is filled with. You can bet on cock fights, buy a very wide selection of clothes or a new ride, sample some of the fine Asian cuisine or even sing some karaoke. There is also the usual collectibles in the form of lockboxes and health shrines which get you extra money and health boosts. And if you’re stressed from trying to find these, you can go and get a massage with a special ending (if you know what I mean…). These coupled with optional car theft, fight club and drug bust missions results in a decent amount of time to waste.
And if you somehow find yourself without anything to do even after these activities, you can do a multitude of things to add to the medal system (which awards Bronze, Silver and Gold for each activity) the game employs which involves both vehicles and combat specific things like longest jump, wheelie, car takedowns or longest killstreak, bones broke and consecutive attacks (e.g. Jump Kicks). There is no multiplayer component, but your final scores on these tasks can be posted online and attempted to be bested by friends and the other odd people of the internet.
As to how this all looks, the answer would have to be superb, darling. The city looks amazing and the character models are well rendered. After and during fights, both Wei and enemies get covered in blood splatter and it looks pretty badass. There are some areas where things will take a bit longer than needed to load, but it’s hardly noticeable. As is expected in any game, the enemy models are recycled, but at least they look good. It’s not really a gripe, but compared to the vast spectrum of NPCs, the developers could have made them look slightly more varied, but being Hong Kong it makes sense. Now I can imagine someone Asian defensively screaming “We don’t all look-alike!” Special mention needs to be given to the city and its inhabitants though because the vibrant and intelligent AI is the best of any open world game I’ve played. At one point, I stood and listened to two women gossiping about one’s boyfriend and his “performance” and had a good laugh.
In the sound department, the game delivers. Again, the voice actors do a great job and the NPCs sound as good. Guns, cars, running and other interactions are on par with what is expected. The 10 radio stations offered vary in taste and provide something for every gamer’s preference… Even those who love Chinese opera and soothing Asian instrumentals; nothing like being in an intense car chase while listening to the sweet voice of a 106 year old Chinese woman backed by the tranquil sounds of the mountains.
Sleeping Dogs is an absolutely must buy for any gamer. Providing an excellent story, amazing gameplay and a ton of things to do, it’s a wonder why this went by somewhat unnoticed. This is definitely not a bargain bin game and I might need to bring a few “acquaintances” I made through a certain organization along to knock some sense into those who think this is a title not worthy of their collection. Simply put: get this game now!