Sleeping Dogs – Review
Those who have been following Sleeping Dogs since its revival will likely know of its previous incarnation. When first announced to the world, United Front Games’ title sought shelter under Activision’s umbrella as True Crime: Hong Kong, the third entry in the open-world crime-em-up series that would hopefully reinvigorate the dormant franchise. However, a little over a year after the big reveal, the title was cancelled; the reasons being that Activision couldn’t foresee an outcome where their investment would return a profit and that the game wouldn’t be able to compete with the genre’s top dogs (pun not intended), with CEO Eric Hirshberg adding that “it just wasn’t going to be good enough”. Luckily the folks at Square Enix could see a potential hit and having played the finished product it’s not difficult to see why.
Credit where it’s due, there is an element of truth in what Activision said – sort of. With games such as GTA IV and Red Dead Redemption ruling the open world roost, you’ve got to be a developer of Rockstar proportions in order to compete. Nevertheless, saying it wasn’t going to be up to scratch was overly harsh and completely untrue, and while GTA V can rest easy, Saint’s Row 4 and Just Cause 3 should watch their backs.
So with the history lesson over, what exactly is Sleeping Dogs? If you haven’t sussed it out already, other than an excuse to dole out poor jokes about letting sleeping dogs lie (none of which you’ll find here), Sleeping Dogs is an open-world crime thriller set in Hong Kong (thank God it’s not New York for the umpteenth time). You play as Wei Shen, an undercover cop tasked with the unenviable job of bringing down the Triads from within. No mean feat, eh? Naturally, Hong Kong cinema has been a huge inspiration on the team at UFG, as have about half a dozen games, with martial arts, parkour, and adrenaline-fuelled gunfights and car chases (often at the same time) all present and correct. It’s a concoction of existing and exciting ideas that translate into Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay just as well as you’d hope because everything here feels rock solid.
Take the hand-to-hand combat for instance. Clearly taking influence from Rocksteady’s Batman games, Wei can attack, counter and grab his opponents in a simple yet relatively deep combat scheme in bust-ups that always see the odds stacked up against him. All he needs is a cowl and a cape and you’d almost be forgiven for thinking that Bruce Wayne had relocated to Hong Kong. I say “almost” because Wei can’t quite move with the same fluid grace that dear old Bats can. But, as compensation, in a move reminiscent of Volition’s The Punisher game, Wei’s ace up his sleeve is the ability to utilise the environment to comically/gruesomely murderise his way through the onslaught of thugs that constantly queue up to die by his hands.
Wei’s more than capable of adding double joints to an assailant’s arm or leg without a moment’s hesitation (providing you’ve unlocked the corresponding moves), but the joys of combat come from grabbing hold of some poor hoodlum and spying any objects in the vicinity that flash red when a new fight breaks out, indicating said object can be used as an instakill instrument. Highlights include slamming an unfortunate soul onto a pallet of upturned swordfish heads, stowing somebody’s face into a furnace, and splattering a guy’s innards with a car engine. Throw in a diverse range of melee weapons (from knives to umbrellas to… er… fish) and enemies that require different tactics to take down and you’ll find that this is no poor imitator of Rocksteady’s superlative combat system. UFG have really nailed it, and a good thing too because it’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing.
What you’ll spend the least amount of time doing in Sleeping Dogs is, oddly and refreshingly for this kind of game, shooting. It can be anywhere in the region of three to five hours before even getting your grubby mitts on a gun for the first time, and even then don’t expect the bullets to start flying beyond the odd mission and car chase here and there. That’s no bad thing, though, because not only is it a testament to the variety packed into the story’s twelve-hour running time but it also makes it more special when the guns do finally come out to play.
It would’ve been easy for Sleeping Dogs to simply turn into a stop and pop cover shooter at these points, and sure enough you can play it that way if you so wish, but Sleeping Dogs encourages a more aggressive approach on cover shooter conventions. Vault over any waist high object with a tap of a button and slow motion will kick in, allowing Wei to pick off targets with one slick headshot after another, thus extending his burst of bullet time. Technically, it’s possible to clear an entire room with a single vault.
In a neat flourish, slow motion also activates when shooting from the driving seat, bypassing any fiddly controls needed to keep your tyres on the tarmac and your target in your sights. Some of the most satisfying moments come from shooting out a pursuer’s wheels and watching them gloriously spin out of control, flip over in the air, and burst into a ball of flames as they crash land back into the ground. It’s a trick GTA and Saint’s Row could certainly learn a thing or two from. Unfortunately the actual driving fares less well, with a distinct lack of physics and little variation between the feel of different vehicles. Still, bombing around Hong Kong in the fastest car you can find is still pretty fun, and handbrake turns feel spot-on, all things considered.
Hong Kong itself is stuffed to the brim with things to do, sights to see, and items to collect, as you’d expect from such a game, potentially doubling your playtime. There are favours to complete, street races to win and health shrines to pray at (every five rewards you with a health upgrade, vital for later missions) and, what’s more, these activities feel more than just mere distractions. They’re genuinely worthwhile to take part in, and not just because they reward you with cash to buy new items and XP for Wei’s three upgrade paths. You’ll find it strangely compelling to snoop out every health shrine, police lockbox and Jade statue in the city too and, thoughtfully, the map screen will highlight all that you’ve found in your previous travels – just another neat touch implemented for the purpose of making life easier, such as the aforementioned slow-mo when driving and shooting, being able to temporarily boost your strength and defences by eating and drinking, or well-placed checkpoints during missions (something else GTA needs to learn from).
You get the notion that UFG have looked at every open-world game currently out there and identified the small annoyances that permeate virtually every one. It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise really, considering the team is built up of veterans from studios of the genre like Black Box, Radical, Volition, and even Rockstar. Such a vast and experienced pool of talent was bound to take note of the criticisms of their heritage to help avoid most of the same pitfalls in their legacy. Sleeping Dogs does occasionally fall into the trap of the ‘drive here, kill X amount of enemies, drive back’ mission structure, but when it does the narrative ensures that you’re motivated to see it through. Wei’s story of serving the law while keeping his cover intact is a captivating one, aided by a decent script and equally impressive voice talent from the likes of Will Yun Lee (Die Another Day), Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins), and the very lovely Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man).
There isn’t anything particularly wrong with Sleeping Dogs, but I felt that there was one missed opportunity. What with Wei being an undercover cop, it would have been nice for some moral dilemmas to present themselves at key junctures in the story – simple binary choices that would either help strengthen Wei’s cover or uphold the law would suffice, and for the outcome of those choices to have some form of effect on the plot and gameplay. They don’t exactly have to be choices big in scope like in Mass Effect, and neither do the impacts necessarily have to be game changers, maybe just alter certain events like in GTA IV, but nonetheless an insight into the fragility of Wei’s predicament on the player’s behalf would have surely strengthened the game’s quality. The closest we get to this are a handful of police cases to solve and individual XP bars for Cop and Triad points, the former awarded for keeping collateral damage to a minimum (thankfully only during missions, phew) and the latter for being as brutally aggressive as possible to enemies. It’s better than nothing at least, but food for thought for the sequel perhaps.Pros
- Rock-solid core mechanics
- Plenty of variety
- Bone-crunching, wince-inducing combat
- It’s not set in New York. Yay!
- Driving physics could do with bumping up a couple of notches
- Some moral choices wouldn’t go amiss
Sleeping Dogs will probably always be primarily remembered as the game that nearly never saw the light of day, and if that was the case then it would have been a severe injustice to the team at United Front. While it can hardly be accused of being the most innovative of games, pinching ingredients from some of the industry’s best (Assassin’s Creed's free-running, Batman’s brawling, and Max Payne’s bullet-time for starters), and true enough these aspects can’t quite stand up to the original material that inspired them, it’s rare for an open-world title of this nature to do so much so right. It’s 2012’s biggest dark horse and has come out at the perfect time too, heralding the end of the annual summer videogame drought while releasing smack bang between Saint’s Row: The Third and GTA V. If you’re looking forward to that game as much as any sane human being should, then Sleeping Dogs is the perfect fix for you.
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