Developer: United Front Games, Square Enix London Studios / Publisher: Square Enix / Played on: Xbox 360 (Also available for PlayStation 3 & PC) / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs]
If you consider Grand Theft Auto III to be the starting point of the modern open world action game, 11 years is more than enough time for the genre to mature. It’s one thing for a sandbox game to offer different kinds of gameplay modes and mechanics; it’s another for such a game to pull off most (if not all) of these features well. This maturation of the genre also means delivering stories that are just as compelling as the urban playgrounds that complement these narratives. Such is the case with Sleeping Dogs, a game that not only delivers the aforementioned gameplay goods but does it against the visually intensive backdrop of the modern, gritty metropolis of Hong Kong.
Sleeping Dogs’ protagonist is Wei Shen, a cop selected to go undercover and infiltrate a Hong Kong triad organization known as the Sun On Yee. The story flow follows the same ‘rise to power’ progression of many Grand Theft Autos although the added undercover premise brings another narrative layer, the kind heavily influenced by Hong Kong crime dramas like Infernal Affairs.
Wei’s personal stake in this is partly revenge-motivated and introduces the familiar theme of potentially losing one’s self in the undercover persona. The signs show up around the halfway point of the game, where Wei expresses both genuine loyalty toward his fellow gang members and rage when things take a bad turn. Yet, this theme doesn’t dive further than that and you never really get the sense that he’s truly in danger of losing himself, although some cutscenes want you to think that. This all makes the ending that much more of a pleasant surprise, one that feels like a resolution but still allows for the possibility of a sequel.
Even with a story that takes about 11 hours to complete Sleeping Dogs’ tale is concise, perhaps too concise in a few parts. Wei’s promotion up the ranks feels somewhat rushed and a couple supporting characters’ storylines feel underdeveloped. Where this concise narrative approach works is by not focusing heavily on the revenge element. You learn about it early and it’s referenced from time to time. You’re aware of Wei’s emotional baggage but—to the writers’ credit—the story never needs to rely on overly dramatized scenes of vengeance. The writers wisely focus more on immersing you into Hong Kong’s underworld, while also giving a number of supporting characters ample screen time. There are also some expository scenes regarding classic Asian themes of brotherhood and the importance of family, though the exposition stops short of being too heavy handed.
The method in which Wei improves his abilities is ingeniously tied to the story’s theme of duality. He has separate experience bars, one related to his performance as a cop, another for when he completes goals as a gangster. Where Sleeping Dogs transcends being a GTA clone is in how well the game allows you to transition from different modes of play seamlessly. When speeding away from rival gangs or cops, you can make things easier on yourself by sticking your upper body out of the car and fire back at your pursuers’ tires. If you’re really outnumbered, it might be best to focus on thinning out the enemies in a shootout. Fans of Max Payne will certainly love hte action as there are numerous opportunities to show off some slow motion-assisted stylish gunplay, whether it’s while jumping out of a car while firing or leaping over cover to surprise enemies.
Speaking of jumping out of cars, carjacking in Sleeping Dogs is a joy to perform. And we’re not talking about your standard on-foot car thefts; here you can jump from one moving car to another moving vehicle. There’s actually an ongoing series of optional missions where you have to do just that, as there are a number of stolen bank vans that you’re asked to recover.
Whether it is exploration or combat, Sleeping Dogs gets many of its features right, but where it truly shines is in its melee gameplay. The game’s martial arts component nearly has the ambitious depth of Shenmue yet with the accessibility of Yakuza. Sleeping Dogs even takes a page from the latter by featuring highly effective environmental takedowns, say if you want to knock a guy against a wall, shove his face into a ventilation duct, or slice his head in half with a table saw. Yet what really makes the melee combat addicting is its counter system. This single-button move prevents an incoming attack, giving Wei the chance to get in a couple hits in the process. And the game makes it easy for novices as the attacker will be glowing red, signaling that this is a counter opportunity. Moreover, this feature doesn’t dumb down actions for the experienced brawler; there are many challenges to face in a given fight, whether it’s a double-digit enemy count, the inclusion of a few heavy set grapplers, or thugs with the balls to bring a knife to a fist fight.
Those who get into fights enough times just might discover an underlying rhythm to this kind of combat. You might start off each encounter with a series of basic punches and add the occasional heavy attack to break an opponent’s block while always being observant of the next strike to counter. Having such a routine will actually get you quite far, though it certainly helps to stop by every available health shrine (to increase your maximum health) and learn new moves at the training center.
In between Wei and his current story objective is a wealth of many typical and unusual urban open world diversions. Most of these are worth the time, not only as fun distractions with monetary rewards but are also beneficial to Wei’s skill growth. Whether it’s a street race, an impromptu gun battle against rivals or collecting money from dead beats, there’s a lot to do.
Drug busts feels especially rewarding since those missions involve three components: 1) drive gang members away from a particular area by assaulting them, 2) hack the surveillance cameras once the coast is clear, and 3) use the monitoring system from your home base to spot the drug dealer. This multi-step design makes these enforcement sections engrossing; it’s just too bad that the third stage often uses the same drug dealer character model, so making the arrest is hardly a challenge.
This kind of variety in Sleeping Dogs is topped off by the game’s dating feature, where Wei has the opportunity to woo select women he meets during the story missions. This is actually one of the more underdeveloped features of Sleeping Dogs as you only get one date with each woman. To Wei’s credit, these girls are pretty darn easy to impress. For instance, dating Amanda involves taking photos of her for her travel blog; an easy job when the game’s picture taking mechanic is very forgiving. Each date focuses on a different gameplay mechanic, from singing karaoke to running a foot chase. Doing well not only finds Wei getting some action, but certain parts of the city map are revealed as a reward, making it easier to find cash-filled lockboxes and stolen statues.
There is also a minor asynchronous multiplayer component that can be addicting for those who like friend-based leaderboards. The best part is that you don’t have to exit the game and refer to an actual leaderboard menu. If you perform well and consistently enough, a pop-up will appear on the lower right side of the screen, letting you know how far you away you are from beating a friend’s score. This could be anything from consecutive kills to continuous time spent driving at high speeds without hitting anything.
By today’s open world game standards, the Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs isn’t an especially large map though there is an abundance of taxis if you get bored of driving. The prevalence of accessible alleys and the packed skyline in the background does give the illusion of a dense, labyrinthine city. It’s spread out across four districts that will be familiar to natives of Hong Kong and there are no loading times when transitioning to any of these four areas. That’s especially significant when United Front Games managed to include enough detail to make its vision of Hong Kong convincing and immersive. There are countless grimy walls you never want to touch with your bare hands, an aged look to much of the architecture, and a quintessential Hong Kong style visual bombardment of neon signs. As a result, Sleeping Dogs’ framerate never surpasses 30 frames per second, but this is more than acceptable for a game that lets you do so much and with no slowdown.
The audio work on Sleeping Dogs strikes a fine balance of context-sensitive original compositions and an impressively wide selection of licensed music. The multi-layered percussive music heard during chase sequences might sound overused, but it still works in giving these pursuits a pulse-pounding feel.
It’s easy to tell that the studio put serious thought in adding Cantonese to every possible area without alienating Western consumers who don’t want to read subtitles. Story characters spend most of their time speaking English, while Cantonese is saved for when they get emotional. It doesn’t take long to pick up on a number of obscenities, the kind you wouldn’t want to say in front of respectable Chinese elders. The majority of the urban NPCs have a lot of Cantonese to yell at you if you steal their car or nearly run over them with your bike. And many of them sound convincing and authentic, whether it’s with a native Hong Kong accent or if they’re a mainlander.
You can call Sleeping Dogs ‘Grand Theft Auto For Busy People’, an open world action game where everything can be beaten and unlocked in about 25 hours. You just might find yourself with the compulsion to find the next lockbox, race, or drug bust immediately after the credits roll, since the game gives you the option to work towards 100% completion after beating the story. Not since Just Cause 2 has it been so easy to transition to and from different modes of play, which makes completing assignments that much more enjoyable. Wei’s story of underworld infiltration and the related subplot does not feel fully fleshed out, but still hits the essential beats of an undercover tale with just enough tension and dramatic turns. Like Red Dead Redemption, Sleeping Dogs is one of those rare open world action games that strikes a balance between the focused, story driven appeal of The Getaway and L.A. Noire and the sandbox immersion of the Grand Theft Auto series.