For those that closely followed the development of Sleeping Dogs, it seemed for a time that this beast would never awake from its slumber. Originally announced in 2009 as True Crime: Hong Kong, a rapidly escalating budget and release delays ultimately resulted in the game’s cancellation by Activision-Blizzard in 2011. Into this drama enters Square Enix, a company whose recent years have been characterized more by inspired decisions in publishing (Deus Ex: Human Revolution), than development (Final Fantasy 13.) Square purchased the troubled game from Activision-Blizzard, re-coined it Sleeping Dogs and saw through its completion. For that, gamers should be grateful. Sleeping Dogs is likely to be one of the most surprising games you play all year. Despite a history that would suggest a problematic development, SD is an impressively complete package and deserves your attention. Whereas there was once a time when open world crime dramas in the spirit of GTA cluttered retail shelves, gaming has moved on to newer obsessions (military shooters and zombie….everything). At times, Sleeping Dogs feels a bit like a relic of gaming from the earlier part of the decade, albeit one whose quality lies in its gameplay, not simply hollow nostalgia. In a time when even Rockstar has moved away from this style of game, Sleeping Dogs is an excellent example of how open world crime sandboxes are still relevant and immersive.
In Sleeping Dogs, you play Wei-Shen, a native of Hong Kong who has spent the last decade or so hiding from his past in San Francisco. Returning to Hong Kong as an undercover cop, Wei-Shen smolders with a personal and professional mission to dismantle the Sun On Yee, a prominent Triad family with its finger on the pulse of crime in the pearl of the orient. As both an undercover officer and a gangster, Wei-Shen must balance his allegiance to both families, a burden that translates to both story and mission structure. Story and side-missions are split between the two factions (Triad and Cop), with a leveling meter and corresponding perks for each. In addition, a third “Face meter” tracks Wei-Shen’s general reputation as a badass in the city. While the natural progression of the story will see Wei-Shen’s cop meter max out without too much effort, but the Triad and Face meters will require a more concerted effort by completionists in order to cap and unlock the deeper ends of their respective skill trees.
Combat in Sleeping Dogs comes in the form of martial arts fisticuffs and cover based shooting. Sleeping Dogs separates itself from GTA and the like by placing a much heavier emphasis on hand-to-hand combat than shooting. Fortunately the fighting engine is more than up to the task. Working with a similar framework as the counter based combat of Rocksteady’s Arkham games, Wei-Shen typically finds himself single handedly disarming and taking down large groups of rival gangsters. By collecting hidden Jade statues, Wei-Shen can train under a kindly master and learn increasingly elaborate moves, counters and disarms. While not all of these moves are practical, by games’ end, the player can walk into any confrontation and have an absolute joy as a one-man Triad wrecking machine. When gunplay is called for, Sleeping Dogs presents a surprisingly adequate take on cover based shooting. Guns and ammo are in surprisingly short supply in Hong Kong, however, and it can be difficult to adequately arm up before a side mission that requires you to be armed to the teeth. Fortunately, Wei-Shen is capable of multiple bullet-time emphasized disarms that allow him to arm himself at the expense of his startled enemies.
Driving is similarly exhilarating and well handled in Sleeping Dogs. Racing through the neon streets of Hong Kong at break-neck speeds in any number of fictional vehicles is a rush. Hand break use is in full effect, and the cars control with convincing weight. Vehicles are strangely resilient, however, and take far more abuse before erupting into flames than you may be used to in similar games. Wei Shen carjack or purchase automobiles for his personal collection from various shady car dealers across the city. While the menu of available vehicles never quite reaches GTA levels, it does span sedans to sports cars, motorcyles and boats (although you can leave your frequent flyer miles at home as air transportation is not a factor on the small island of Hong Kong.) Wei Shen does bring a new “hell yeah” moment to 3rd person driving, as he can action high jack a vehicle by jumping from one to the roof of another at break-neck speeds. Multiple feats such as driving at top speeds without collision or taking down a number of combatants without sustaining a blow are tracked by the game and posted against online leader boards, for those with a competitive streak. Long after completion of the story, the city is full of things to do for those now yet ready to say goodbye to this lively city.
The virtual creation of Hong Kong on display is suitably varied and full of life. From the seedy docks to the loud night-markets, United Front has put together a convincing representation full of things to do when you are not pursuing story missions. Taking a cue from the Yakuza games, street vendors hawk fish-balls and noodles to refill your health or provide combat perks. Karaoke bars allow humorous rendition of karaoke staples like Love is a Battlefield. Whether building up your face in the various fight clubs, countless street races, cock fights, mahjong poker or stealing coveted cars for a Triad car dealer, it is very easy to spend the majority of your play not specifically advancing Wei-Shen’s story but fleshing out your experience in Sleeping Dog’s world. These side missions also tie into the Triad vs Cop loyalty theme. One of the more prominent of pass-times is also one of the least successful, however. Wei Shen helps to clean up the streets by hacking local surveillance cameras, identifying drug suppliers and sending in the cops. Unfortunately while the initial combat encounter in these three-stage missions is fun, the camera hacking and surveillance mini-games quickly become repetitive and predictable. The games’ token gesture at dating simulation falls similarly flat, with a sum total of 3 girls who can be wooed and inevitably lost after two dates and never heard from again. Wei-Shen, on the other hand, is more developed. He is customizable in appearance and accessories, and watching his gradually earn increasingly more luxurious homes adds a nice sense of personal progression. Clothing can be purchased, found, or earned with story missions and the man who starts the game in a tank top and tenement apartment can finish it in a designer suit and penthouse, if you so wish.
The story of Sleeping Dogs takes heavy cues from the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs and its westernized Martin Scorcese adaptation, the Departed. As such, the game is presented in an impressively authentic amount of Cantonese and English. While Wei Shen and several of the supporting characters prove to be likable enough, the plot never really surprises and ends precisely with the climax and denouement you saw coming from the beginning. While it is certainly not a poor story, the truth of the matter is the virtual city is more of a compelling character than anyone in it.
Graphically, Sleeping Dogs looks to be a game several years and several re-boots in the making. While at times (and typically at high speeds), the world inspires, closer inspection shows many rough edges in textures, lighting and animation. While this does not ultimately detract from the experience, those looking for cutting edge visuals will not likely be impressed. From an audio standpoint, Sleeping Dogs is generally more successful. Cars have suitable engine strain, guns have pop, the crowd noises are full of life, and the voice acting is commendable, in whatever language it is conveyed. The multitude of radio stations and programming available during driving does not have the diversity (or appeal) of similar offerings in grand theft auto’s, however, this is likely the result of a similarly trimmer budget.
In the end, for a game with such notoriously troubled development, Sleeping Dogs does a surprising number of things well. It is rare to see an open world game that simultaneously succeeds in filling a large world with character, enjoyable hand to hand combat, serviceable cover based shooting and thrilling driving mechanics. Even the great GTA falls arguably short at one or two of these. While Sleeping Dogs will not likely outclass the impending next installment in that venerable franchise, it certainly brings with it the proud heart of an underdog. As such, this newly awakened dog is more than worthy of taking out for a long walk.
Fun Factor: Good old fashioned open world driving, shooting and fisticuffs are as fun as they sound, if not more so.
Difficulty: On par with most games this generation, Sleeping Dogs is meant to be seen through to the end, as such, you will die occaisionally but there is very little consequence for failure other than having to retry the mission.
Length: Variable based on your interest in side missions and simply inhabiting the world of Hong Kong. The main story probably will bring you to 12 hours. Double that if you are an enthusiastic tourist.
On the Negative Side: Story and characters don't bring anything new to the genre and the game engine wears its long development time on its sleeve.
Bang for your Buck: An increasingly rare example of a single player game that justifies its full retail price on its own merit without the insecurity to tack on an unnecessary multiplayer suite.