Sleeping Dogs has had quite an eventful development history. Originally called True Crime: Hong Kong, the game was unceremoniously dumped by Activision several months before release. Luckily, Square Enix was there to pick it up, build on the original foundations and provide us all with a pretty great game. Whilst hardly a revolution and in many ways a patchwork of various design ideas from other titles, Sleeping Dogs blends all its components into one well oiled package. It’s a combination of solid combat, shooting and driving components with an exotic locale and a great storyline.
You play as Wei Shen, a hardboiled American cop experienced in undercover operations. Returning to your childhood home of Hong Kong, you’re tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee triad, Hong Kong’s most powerful criminal organisation. Of course this raises all sorts of trouble as you struggle to balance your responsibilities to the police, whilst still maintaining your cover as a gang member. As you fall deeper and deeper into the inner workings of the gang, and the situation on the streets starts to deteriorate, that balance becomes ever more difficult. Especially as you grow closer to the criminal, but entirely likeable miscreants you’ve been tasked with infiltrating.
Needless to say, the plot is dramatic, brutal and full of moral ambiguities. Ably told by a great cast of Hollywood and Hong Kong actors, it’s highly reminiscent of some of Hong Kong’s better crime dramas like the Infernal Affairs series and the works of Johnnie To, which incidentally I highly recommend as some of the best gangster films in existence. Seriously. Election 1 and 2 kicks all kinds of ass. That brief tidbit of filmgoing advice aside, the fact that you’re an undercover cop raises an interesting gameplay mechanic: cop and triad points. Keeping collateral damage and civilian casualties down to a minimum earns you cop experience. Being as brutal to your enemies as possible earns you triad points. Both are used to level up on separate skill trees that earn you nifty perks and abilities.
Speaking of gameplay, Sleeping Dogs effectively combines the concepts of several other games to form some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, but in a good way. Not a way that punishes its creator for their hubris. The close combat system for example, which dominates much of the game, is incredibly reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games. But what separates the undercover cop from the vigilante are gloriously brutal environmental attacks. Grabbing an enemy and smashing him into an often lethal hazard never fails to satisfy. One particularly memorable instance involved swordfish. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so grotesque. For vehicles, the driving mechanics are rock solid and racing is reminiscent of old Need for Speed games. The ability to action hijack, or launch yourself from your vehicle onto another in order to steal it in true action hero style, and the ramming button (allowing you to sharply slam into pursuers or the pursued) are also both welcome additions to the open world driving fare.
For gunplay, which happens rarely as guns are not particularly plentiful (the emphasis is mostly on mad kung fu skills), it’s the usual take cover and shoot at people implementation. However what sets it apart is the slow motion aspect that activates when disarming opponents, leaping out of cover, or aiming out of a moving vehicle. Vaulting over a barricade and taking down a group of foes in bullet time is pretty cool… But speeding along a highway, aiming out your window and watching as the world slows down for you to take out the tyres of your pursuer, sending them flipping over in a fiery wreck? Now that’s both incredibly handy and satisfying.
All of this is set in a well designed Hong Kong; a relatively exotic locale and a pleasant change from the usual American metropolises that sandbox game fans are so used to. Street vendors hawk their wares. Neon lights are everywhere. The background noise a combination of English and Cantonese. Whilst not an entirely accurate depiction of the city, it does capture much of its spirit, makes the entire place a joy to traverse. Sure the map isn’t the largest in the open world genre, but it’s still densely clustered, with a variety of areas.
Narrow streets and seedy back alleys. Gleaming skyscrapers and exclusive boutiques. Dockyards filled with houseboats and junks. Winding mountain roads. All filled with a gamut of miscellaneous tasks. After all, what sandbox game would be complete without a long list of extras to complete? Side missions to perform, races to win, knick knacks to hunt down, gambling, cars and clothes to buy, and of course, karaoke. Sleeping Dogs also features a social hub, where you can earn awards for anything from smooth driving to the longest car jump. There’s quite a bit to do here. I’ve already put in 23 hours and finished 75% of the game, but I expect I’ll be here a little while longer.
That said, there are a number of issues. It’s not the most graphically brilliant of games and there are times in the storyline where new names or faces will be thrown in with very little explanation forthcoming. Also, something that some people may find irritating is the fact that you can’t really adjust the camera angle when driving. Yes, you can pan it around a bit, but leave it alone and the angle always snaps back to the default. The result? Some pretty jerky, headache inducing stuff. While I rarely needed to adjust the angle, whenever it was necessary it did became a bit of a chore.
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