As many of you will already know, Sleeping Dogs narrowly avoided being a True Crime title which Activision would never have let us play. Then Square Enix came along, snapped the game up, slapped on a new name (they didn’t buy the True Crime name) and put it in our hands. After over 20 hours of high speed chases through narrow alleys, countless gory brawls, explosive shoot outs all over the iconic city of Hong Kong, and playing an undercover cop who is far too handsome and lacking in concrete morals, I’m pretty bloody happy that the necromancers over at Square Enix raised it from the dead.
Like all compelling cops, Wei Shen is a loose cannon, a hand over your gun and badge loose cannon. He’s also an utter bad arse, what with all the deadly martial arts training and the ability to take a plethora of punches, knife wounds, and gun related injuries before he succumbs to unconsciousness. After leaving Hong Kong as a youth, he returns to his birthplace as an undercover operative with one goal — to take down the dominant Triad gang, the vicious, colourful Sun On Yee.
Sleeping Dogs is instantly familiar, making it easy to get into, but mildly disappointing. You’re in a big city, there are a lot of cars to steal, you perform missions for criminals — we’ve seen it plenty of times. Surface deep it’s Grand Theft Auto in a more exotic location, but it doesn’t take long before that layer is peeled away and this open world romp reveals itself to be so much more.
Hong Kong plays a big role in making it a more distinct experience, though for more reasons than the obvious visual differences between it and the typically American cities we tend to see in these open world titles. The clash of the Orient and Occident is prevalent, with Chinese street vendors shouting out in Mandarin and English; the radio stations blare a mix of rock, dub-step, pop, classical and Chinese ballads; and fellow Triad members will yell and curse with American colloquialisms before muttering something in their native tongue. Combine this with the city’s aesthetics — the gleaming financial centre, and the grotty, bustling markets selling cheap knock offs as less than savoury types bet on poultry combat behind closed doors — and it’s at once comfortingly mundane and also extremely alien.
The denizens of Hong Kong make the stay pleasant, as well. Though Wei Shen makes many enemies in the Sun On Yee as he climbs his way to the top, the villains of Sleeping Dogs are wonderful to hate. United Front Games have put together a series of absolutely detestable rogues, which contrast starkly with the many sympathetic characters. Those likeable criminals are what makes Wei Shen’s job all the harder to continue — several of those he’s setting up for a fall become endearing companions and brothers in arms. Voice work is generally exemplary across the board, and quite a few well known actors lend their vocal chords to the proceedings.
There’s no doubt about it that we’re meant to care about these gangsters, and despite being frequently reminded that I was playing a cop, it was easy to celebrate my successes within the Triad over my ability to close a case or betray a new friend. Wei’s put under increasing pressure throughout the game, becoming paranoid and prone to outbursts. Although these instances are generally emphasised only in the cut scenes and through dialogue, allowing players to fight, drive, and explore to their hearts content without having to worry about dealing with depression, there are still some well designed reminders that Wei is becoming unhinged. When he wakes up in the morning — inexplicably still wearing his full attire from the day before — he’s a fidgety nervous wreck, twitching and talking to himself like a man about to snap.
For those of you seeking action and battle, rest assured that Wei makes other people snap, as well — specifically their bones. Combat is, uncharacteristically for… what were we calling these again? Crime simulators? Or was that just The Daily Mail? Anyway, combat isn’t usually the strong point in this genre, but Sleeping Dogs offers an incredibly robust combat system, and a melee focused one at that. It’s a system that will be familiar to anyone who has taken Batman: Arkham Asylum/City, but it also takes some cues from Yakuza and The Punisher with the often brutally violent environmental take downs. We’re talking frying peoples’ faces off, or putting them in ice-chippers.
It’s not quite as fluid as Arkham City, but it’s incredibly satisfying, especially given its bloody and aggressive nature. Wei can also pick up weapons like knives and wrenches, even a fish. You can kill a man with a fish. Mull that over for a second. Every moment is reminiscent of 80s action flicks, or Hong Kong martial arts offerings, with a circle of villains ganging up on the hero, yet waiting patiently to take their turn to attack, and the whole time the hero deftly counters their blows with speed and grace. Wei just injects a bit of savagery.
Firearms are significantly less fun to employ, and thankfully they are used sparingly. Unfortunately, those times are often moments of intense drama and important key scenes, and the waves of enemies and quick succession of deaths detracts from the experience, and just makes it feel like a bland shooter contained within a martial arts title. They are used to much better effect during high speed car chases, where shooting out tires causes vehicles to launch up into the air, and come crashing down in a blazing fireball. It’s quite the show; it’s easy to pull off too, as cars are extremely manoeuvrable, even at high speeds, and time slows down to a halt when firing a storm of bullets and your fellow drivers.
The missions don’t really offer up any gameplay surprises, though their connection to the story arcs made me eager to play more; there are a few occasions where they deviate from expectations, however — especially when Wei is working directly for the Hong Kong police department when he isn’t impersonating a gang member. The good Samaritan cop adopts disguises, goes on stake outs, bugs offices, gets video footage, and takes pictures of criminal shenanigans; he’s a very busy boy. More often than not, Wei’s trusty mobile phone does most of the work. Somehow, his handy device can crack safes, codes, decrypt passwords, generally all manner of crap. It’s convenient, but also a wee bit lazy.
As Wei completes missions and defeats foes he gains experience in a variety of categories, as well as being able to unlock new combat moves by finding missing jade statues for a martial arts teacher. His Triad experience is increased by performing violent actions and working through missions that aid them, his cop experience is increased by busting criminals, and helping the local police department. I failed to see the benefits of most of the upgrades, and the multiple trees are pointless considering the ease with which you can unlock everything by the game’s end. It gives a slight sense of progression, but I really see no need for RPG type mechanics to be employed in this case – it reeks of fluff. There’s a third one, Face, which is meant to represent his reputation, and while it doesn’t unlock any moves or abilities, it does give Wei some passive bonuses and store discounts. Discounts for more clothes! From bright yellow lycra jumpsuits, to a straw hat and Hawaiian shirt ensemble, Wei is always dressed to impress.
The moral implications of the undercover lifestyle is dealt with extremely well during story sequences, though it can be a bit heavy handed at times with Wei’s nightmares and all the talk of honour and family; unfortunately, this doesn’t translate to the greater game. The only actions that have any impact are the scripted ones, and you can happily slaughter innocents in your car with limited repercussions. So you might lose some cop points? No big deal, you get plenty. It could be argued that this leaves everything up to the player, they can be a good cop or a bad cop, and they only have themselves to answer to, but without consequences I felt that many of my actions were hollow and disconnected from the rest of the game.
Wei manages to come across as brave and heroic most of the time, a not so easy task in light of his temporary affiliation with the Triad, yet he is still an extremely flawed individual. It would have been easy for United Front Games to rest on their laurels and let us see his failings as just the pressure of the job and his thirst for revenge, but we also get to see another side of him that isn’t a gangster or a cop seeking vengeance — he’s an utter bastard when it comes to women.
Several ladies are available for Wei to date, and surprisingly the dates manage to tie into the greater narrative very well, and add to the game on the whole, but every relationship ends abruptly and without real closure. These women are underdeveloped characters, but it wouldn’t make more sense for Wei to spend more time with them after getting some bedroom action; he’s just not interested. Wei mentions that his lifestyle doesn’t leave much room for romance, and that’s certainly a fact, but it’s clear that he’s rather manipulative and ever so slightly sociopathic. It makes him less likeable, but a lot more believable.
Sleeping Dogs has defied my expectations at every level. The pacing is the best I have ever seen in a game of this ilk, the combat is of superior stock, and several characters — especially the cleaver wielding matriarch, Mrs Chu — will stick with me for a considerable length of time. It may not be without its issues, but they rear their head rarely and in very short bursts before being consigned to distant memory. Notably, the PC version might be one of the best ports I’ve seen in years. Few modern games can really exploit my rig, but Sleeping Dogs pulled out all the stops; with the high definition texture pack released at launch, it’s a stunning realisation of a gorgeous, multifaceted city. Now I just need to find the time to 100% this bastard, the collectables are rather prolific.