Platform | Release Date
360, PS3, PC | August 17, 2012
Developed by United Front Games
Published by Square Enix
Welcome to Hong Kong, a vibrant neon city teeming with life, whose exotic locations and busy streets hide one of the most powerful and dangerous criminal organizations in the world: the Triads.
In this open world game, you play the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop trying to take down the Triads from the inside out. You’ll have to prove yourself worthy as you fight your way up the organization, taking part in brutal criminal activities without blowing your cover. Torn between your loyalty to the badge and a criminal code of honor, you will risk everything as the lines between truth, loyalty and justice become permanently blurred.
Ordinarily when I pick up a new open world game I expect to find myself accepting certain compromises not long after the disk has been slapped down in the tray. Compared to the granddaddy of them all, Grand Theft Auto, most titles within the sub-genre it spearheaded struggle to match the industry giant feature for feature. Sometimes the world will be small or filled with invisible walls and artificial borders. Sometimes the driving sucks, or the shooting. Sometimes – and this is a big one – the developers don’t get anywhere near matching the volume of content offered by one of Rockstar’s titles.
Sleeping Dogs has none of these compromises. Not one bit.
The hero of this uncompromising piece is Wei Shen, an undercover cop trying to muscle his way into the Hong Kong criminal underworld. Backed by some shady characters from the Hong Kong Police Department, he returns to the city he grew up in and is quickly forced to demonstrate his credentials as a criminal, save his cover be blown. Wei is more than just an undercover cop though – he’s a kung-fu kicking, free-running, pistol whipping, sports car driving, slow motion badass of an undercover cop.
This gives the developers all the room they need to justify the varied central mechanics. The driving physics are exceptionally good, and Wei’s free-running is easy to use while not being quite as pedestrian a gameplay experience as Assassin’s Creed. These two key strengths facilitate chase missions on foot and by car, the latter of which often leads to you frantically leaping from vehicle to vehicle or firing a machine gun from a hastily smashed window.
On top of this, Wei is a martial arts master, and while not running over rooftops or speeding down highways, you’ll find yourself battling against hordes of thugs and ne’er-do-wells. Rocksteady’s Batman games provide adequate comparison for how the fighting system works, but a greater focus on combos and limited-use melee weapons gives it far more depth. Fights often require you to manage a large group of opponents, using moves that spread them out or temporarily disable those with special buffs to overcome incredible odds. There’s far more fist fighting in Sleeping Dogs than there is any other kind of content, but its tactical depth keeps it entertaining from start to finish.
Far from it. Even as Wei Shen flips and kicks his way through armies of Triad foes, Hong Kong remains a consistent, brightly shining star. Authentically styled and brilliantly lit, the city is without a doubt the most engaging open world setting that I’ve visited outside of a Rockstar title. The streets teem with cars and people, many of whom engage in the interesting slice-of-life conversation that GTA’s pretenders so often forget. Spread across four key districts, each with its own distinct feeling, Hong Kong offers layer upon layer, back alley upon back alley, of exploration.
And Sleeping Dogs uses every square inch of it. There’s not a street or accessible rooftop that doesn’t house either a main story mission, one of the dozens of side quests and activities, or a collectable. The strong core mechanics and the buzzing Hong Kong setting constantly reinforce each other, ensuring every experience – even if it is just navigating a market to locate one of the lockbox collectables – feels engaging and fresh. United Front carefully and expertly blend the component parts of Sleeping Dogs, ably avoiding repetition and, instead, refusing to let go of the player’s attentions.
At times Sleeping Dogs recalls the original Darksiders, if only because its influences are clearly visible. However, while Sleeping Dogs borrows from the likes of Assassin’s Creed, it also crops from lesser known titles like the Midway tombstone, Wheelman. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t just imitate though – examples like the slow-motion infused cover mechanics on loan from Max Payne, or the Wheelman style car-jacking, improve on much of what their host games had to offer.
So, where the game imitates it often improves, and where it sticks to genre convention it matches the very best… except in perhaps one area. It only really becomes clear once you’re in the end-game, but there is an element of sterilisation within the environment. While there are no invisible walls, areas are often cordoned off in a way that they wouldn’t be if this was a Rockstar title, keeping you safe from nasty bugs. Not every fence can be leaped over, and even impressive car jumps are placed in locations that ensure you don’t end up somewhere you’re not supposed to. In the end game, once the main missions have been completed, your compulsion to explore beyond the clear bounds may become frustrated, but then so much activity is likely still spread across the map.
And so much of it is so good. In particular, I would happily pay for an expansion pack that offered more of the street racing. The winding mountain roads, lengthy highways and tiny back alleys seem built for the creation of high-octane street races. The game’s upgrade system, which rewards good cop and good criminal behaviour throughout the main missions, also offers eventual discounts on the highest level of cars. Once I unlocked the most powerful street machines, each of which handled beautifully, United Front couldn’t give me enough track to race on.
The upgrade system offers eventual access to various buffs to both Wei’s abilities and your life within the world of Sleeping Dogs‘ Hong Kong. Completing favour activities and street races will make you a better known and more able criminal, granting you perks to your ability to kick ass and get the most out of your money. This “Face” upgrade path sits astride a “Cop” and “Triad” line of upgrades, progress for which is upgraded via the aforementioned good and bad behaviour within main missions. A final, fourth upgrade path rewards the collection of twelve statues, and will expand your set of kung-fu moves once you visit the gym.
I’m still leaving out the added depth and buffs offered by street vendors offering food and drink, or performance perks added by combining certain types of clothing into a particular style, or how dates undertaken with certain female characters reveals hidden items on your mini-map. Breaking it all down, peeling back the layers, it becomes almost impossible to comprehend how something doesn’t tip the balance, but it really doesn’t. Sure, I would have liked more stuff to spend my money on, Scarface style, but I really can’t complain when under the weight of its wonderful diversity, Sleeping Dogs maintains a consistently excellent standard of execution.
The interesting plot keeps thing moving, although it doesn’t offer any twists that you won’t see coming. The important thing though is that it keeps up that momentum, pushing the player through Sleeping Dogs‘ acres of exploration and discovery. Even accepting its straightforwardness, United Front need to be commended for the great cast of characters they’ve pulled together, each of which has their own distinct identity and would be easily identifiable in the police line-ups they must likely frequent.
I was excited for Sleeping Dogs, even before it was renamed after Activision dropped it. Now, having played for hour upon hour within its world, I can’t find any justification for that decision. Activision should deeply regret letting this one go, as the developers have delivered an outstanding product that – and here’s the kicker for Kotick – I would gladly buy year-on-year. Visually magnificent, technically near-perfect, and deep beyond all expectations, Sleeping Dogs now sits comfortably astride Saints Row as a legitimate contender for the throne should GTA ever be toppled.
We might wait a long time for that to happen, but I’ll gladly spend it knee-deep in Triads, fast cars and Sleeping Dogs.