Sleeping Dogs has had a tortured development history. Originally a title in the “True Crime” series, Sleeping Dogs has taken the long way towards release, even being cancelled at one point by Activision. Now, with a new name and a new publisher (Square Enix), Sleeping Dogs has released, and it’s time to find out if it was worth all of the trouble.
The time put into this title is clearly demonstrated by how it looks. Hong Kong is rendered beautifully, and each of the game’s many neighborhoods has a unique look, from the bustling chaos of the Night Market to the docks of Aberdeen. The lighting and colors in the game give it a vibrant look that leaps off the screen. The character models are also nicely done, with cool details on their faces such as distinctive scars or, in one hilarious case, rampant pockmarks. While fighting, the animations are spectacular, and Sleeping Dogs looks like a Hong Kong action film, as your character Wei Shen gracefully transitions between moves, delivering believably powerful blows each time. The rain effects are stunning, and the lighting is spectacular. Driving in a thunderstorm at night and seeing the reflections of all of Hong Kong’s illuminated business and streets in the road is amazing.
However, for all of the beauty put into the gameplay and the game’s main cutscenes, there is some strangeness in the in-engine, incidental cutscenes. Characters move in ways that are inhuman, randomly waving their hands back and forth while they talk. Also, NPCs are at a much lower poly count than any of the main cast, and the game’s frequent highlighting of this during conversations draws unnecessary attention to what is the worst looking part of the game. While it’s understandable that not all aspects of such a huge game would look as good as the main characters and areas, a better job needed to be done in disguising these shortfalls. As it stands, they are readily apparent, and it breaks the immersion of the world.
Fortunately, there are no such problems with it comes to the sound. The voice acting is tremendous, with lively, interesting performances strewn all over the place. The dialog never falls into parody, and the way the characters seamlessly transition from English to Cantonese (Canglish?) is an awesome detail that will be familiar to anyone who has heard non-native English speakers have conversations in English.
The music is also spectacular, with each of the in-game radio stations offering up a different genre of music. The cool thing about the music in Sleeping Dogs, though, is how most of it has an Asian flavor. It is obvious that the developers at United Front knew they were making a game for Western audiences, so the music isn’t necessarily what you’d expect to hear on the radio in Hong Kong (Jadakiss?), but they included enough remixes or Western songs with Eastern influences that the line is ridden perfectly. It’s an accessible sound suite that pays homage to the location that it takes place in. Ninja Tune radio was the highlight for me, providing Eastern-tinted downbeat music to accompany my travels throughout the city.
The developers at United Front stated that they wanted to make an open-world game where all of the elements took center stage, with every mechanic being good enough to carry a game by itself. When it comes to the hand-to-hand combat, they have succeeded in that front, and then some. Taking cues from the most recent Batman games, Sleeping Dogs looks like a Hong Kong action movie, and plays incredibly well. The countering system is simple and fun, and the combo system’s rhythm is easy to get into. You’ll have success with button mashing, but the combat will be infinitely more fun if you take the time to learn how to do the higher-level moves.
Driving is also a blast, especially the motorcycles. While motorcycles in games like GTA looked cool, they were often not feasible for missions due to their sensitivity and proclivity to throw you off at the slightest bump. Sleeping Dogs is perhaps more unrealistic, but it’s much more fun when it comes to motorcycles, which quickly became my preferred way of getting around the city. Getting to top speed in any one of the game’s numerous classes of vehicle produces an awesome effect on screen which gives a great sense of speed. It’s exhilarating. It’s also cool to drive on the left side of the road, although it takes some getting used to.
However, there is some feature bloat that weakens Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay. For one, the game gives you the illusion early on that there will be minimal gunplay in the game, and while that was promising, you start to use guns about halfway through, and each gun section is less interesting than the one prior. The problem with the gunplay in the game is that we’ve seen 95% of it before. It’s cover based in the vein of Gears of War, and plays just like every other shooter out there, even managing to shoehorn in a Bullet Time mechanic that is activated by leaping over cover while aiming.
Also, there are strange side mechanics that worm their way into Sleeping Dogs. I could never figure out what the “Fast Talk” mechanic was, for example. I don’t think there was any possibility for failure, and it looks like it’s just in the game to give the player something else to do. All of the scenarios that it’s used in are unrealistic and could have been better done with a simple cutscene or just as incidental dialog. Gambling is okay, but you don’t even know it exists until much later in the game, so you can’t use it to build up your bankroll for purchasing things like clothes and cars. It doesn’t matter, though, since the economy in the game is broken. You never need the money you make for anything, and you make far too much of it just from doing missions.
I will say this though: Karaoke is awesome. It’s set up similarly to singing in Rock Band, except you use a controller to hit the notes instead of your voice. Hearing Wei sing “I Ran (So Far Away)” while strangers walk in and cheer him on will bring a goofy smile to your face every time, as will his hilarious air guitar during a guitar solo.
Sleeping Dogs tells a compelling narrative over its 10-12 hour campaign. Playing as Wei Shen, a cop returning home to Hong Kong in order to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, players will meet a host of characters both in the gang and in the police department. You actually make bonds and build connections with the gangsters, often feeling as conflicted as Wei might. The members of your gang are generally nice, and you become part of the family, even helping somebody pick up a cake for a wedding. On the flip side, your relationship with the police is strained. Players will identify with Wei as his frustrations quickly become yours.
The game also does a good job of never straying into parody and racial insensitivity. With one or two exceptions, the characters in the game are well-rounded people, with their own motivations and desires. Nobody is there simply for comedic fodder, although there are some funny characters. There’s a difference, and United Front realized that and has exercised respect and restraint when it comes to portraying the denizens of Hong Kong.
While the story is somewhat predictable, it’s emotional, and the well-rounded characters combined with nearly perfect voice acting sell it wonderfully.
Finally, what would an open world game be without collectibles and side-missions? Outside of the main storyline, there is a set of three “cases” that Wei will investigate during the game. The investigations themselves aren’t nearly as complicated as something like LA Noire, but they are interesting diversions. Beyond that, there are lock-boxes throughout the city which give you rewards and money, as well as “favors” that could range from spying on a girlfriend to delivering payment for some food.
Speaking of girlfriends, that’s the one element of the game that United Front failed to show much care to, and it makes me wonder whether or not they just ran out of time. You meet these girls throughout your missions, and they call you later on for a date. Typically you do some task with them that teaches you a gameplay mechanic, then you have sex with them and never hear from them again. I would have preferred the ability to actually try to build something with one girl, and receive bonuses for things like loyalty and giving her attention.
Finally, there are 12 statues hidden throughout the world, and each one needs to be returned to a specific dojo in the city. Upon returning them, you get a little bit of Wei’s backstory, and you learn a new combat maneuver. You see all 12 in the story missions, so I’d recommend picking them up when you get the chance, as it gives you some illumination on Wei’s history, and gives you access to better moves during melee combat.
Sleeping Dogs is a story about perseverance in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. Interestingly, that’s also the story of Sleeping Dogs. United Front was given a chance to finish their game after thinking everything was over, and it turned out to be one of the best games of the year. Sure, it has problems, and a little more mechanical focus would have been preferred, but I’m pleasantly surprised by just how high quality Sleeping Dogs is. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try to get used to driving on the right side of the road in real life again.
A copy of Sleeping Dogs on the PC was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review