You would be remiss to say that Sleeping Dogs looks an awful lot like a game trying to cash in on the hype leading up to a certain other open-world game. In that respect you would also be selling the game immensely short. Sleeping Dogs is, in fact, the planned follow-up to the True Crime series before it changed developers (and eventually publishers) before landing on store shelves. Most games going through that kind of developmental hell never end up making it to retail, let alone being anything worth talking about. Sleeping Dogs defies the odds to deliver one amazing experience that everyone should check out.
The game drops you in the shoes of Wei Shen, an undercover cop attempting to infiltrate the Triad organization without breaking too many laws. The last thing I expected when getting into the game was a solid narrative. I was pleasantly surprised when Sleeping Dogs dragged me into its seedy underbelly and didn’t let go. A lot of this has to do with the spectacular voice acting. There are some major names here including Emma Stone, James Hong and more. Wei Shen is voiced by Will Yun Lee, who does an amazing job of conveying the struggle his character has to go through balancing the two sides.
I was completely engaged from beginning to end with the characters. Missions such as helping out the Triad family members, to busting drug peddlers on the street really developed Wei Shen’s character. Combine that with the incredibly risky mix of English and Cantonese tossed into the mix, and you have something that feels authentic and very well done. Characters will constantly throw in Cantonese phrases in the midst of a sentence that are then subtitled below. It creates an accurate experience that is definitely appreciated.
When you get right down to it, I like to think of Sleeping Dogs as an action brawler set in an open world. I don’t like the idea of most open-world games sacrificing the basics for a larger scope. Sleeping Dogs feels like it was designed as a brawler to begin with, and then sprawled across the massive city of Hong Kong in the game. The combat feels very much like the Batman Arkham games with grapples, attacks and contextual countering. You can also slam enemies into environmental objects for some gruesome, albeit extremely satisfying instant kills. For the most part, combat works extremely well. You can collect statues around the world and return them to your sensei who will reward you with new combat moves. This is a running theme in Sleeping Dogs, as nearly all side missions and collectibles are tied to earning new abilities and perks.
The main missions have you straddling the line between being a cop and getting in deeper with the Triad. You have a total of three experience bars within the game and all are upgraded in different fashions. The cop and Triad meters are based on the main missions. For example if you are doing a Triad mission you are graded on how brutal you are with the thugs, while slamming into pedestrians or destroying property will decrease your cop points. Each mission then scores you and adds the points, but also opens up a free play option to go back and try for a better score. What I like most are once you level up you get to spend one point on a new ability. Triad focuses more on combat while the cop meter allows you to earn things such as stealing cars with a slim-jim to avoid alarms and giving you more distance when action jumping from car to car in chases.
The third bar is your Face meter. This is basically the consensus of the people around you, and what they think of you. Upgrading this bar is achieved by doing favors (side missions) for citizens, netting you bonuses such as longer health regeneration from food to prolonged combat bonuses. Everything in the world is tied to leveling up Wei Shen in some form or fashion, which is good considering the game doesn’t offer any sort of difficulty option. Those looking to play it casually should be warned, this game is not a walk in the park. Taking a few hits from thugs in a fight is enough to drain that health meter. You can visit Health Shrines around the city (another collectible) and after so many, you’ll get a health meter bonus. All of these things are imperative to stay alive in Sleeping Dogs’ version of Hong Kong.
There is plenty to do within the game, but when compared to other open-world endeavors the run time may seem shorter. If you complete all it has to offer you are looking at between 20-25 hours. That is certainly nothing to scoff at, but you have to look at it more as an action game than an open-world adventure. One sour point worth mentioning for me was the camera. Being able to run and hop over obstacles with one button press is nice, but not when the camera swings around causing you to run into a wall. The same happened with the driving. Taking a more arcade approach is appreciated, but when the camera acts up, you will constantly scratch against walls or worse yet, crash into vehicles.
Combat also present a small inkling of problems until you level up your skills and learn the timing. Mashing the buttons works fine until enemies appear that block everything and force you to counter and grapple. Countering is simple but nailing the timing can become a pain. It also doesn’t help that tapping the counter button prematurely results in a wide open Wei Shen for a good 2-3 seconds, at least until you upgrade it. This lead to more deaths for me than anything else in the game. When combat works it makes you feel like you are in a Jackie Chan movie; when it collapses, it gets frustrating.
Visually the game looks good, but nothing stellar or revolutionary. United Front’s interpretation of Hong Kong is definitely smaller than most open world titles, but also much more alive. There are always tons of people walking around having relevant conversations. The transition between day and night are excellent, and the rainy days are the best. The game definitely immerses you into its world. Where it falls apart are again the camera and some weird glitches here and there. Still, this is a good looking game when you consider the scope.
Sleeping Dogs was a game that no one thought would ever see the light of day. Even after that no one thought much else about it, considering its track record of being tossed around. This makes it that much sweeter that it turned out so well. If you enjoy the genre and, like me, love a good Hong Kong action flick, this game is a must own. It does so many things better than most open world games; things we definitely take for granted. Sure it has some rough edges, but the overall experience is more than worth taking.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.