Passers-by stopped to witness what was unfolded, the lights of the market glistening above. “You don’t scare me”, said a nearby street vendor. Well, he quickly changed his tune following a brutal exchange between my boot, his “protection” and the metal casing of a phone box as he was scared enough to pay up what he owed. Welcome to Sleeping Dogs, a hard and sometimes brutal world within a marvellous and busy Hong Kong where you can more than take care of yourself.
There was a bit of worry surrounding the game prior to launch; having been dropped by Activision, back when it sported the title True Crime: Hong Kong, the game entered development limbo before it was announced that Square Enix had picked up the game and renamed it Sleeping Dogs. Any worry that was near was quickly dispelled as Wei Shen, our protagonist, was introduced during a black market trade before being discovered which lead into an escape scene which acted as a minor tutorial as well as showcasing the game’s slick movement.
An officer of the San Francisco Police Department, Shen is assigned to the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau to go undercover and infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad within Hong Kong. This unique take on the more traditional rise-to-power struggle in other open-world titles provides a new twist and multiple subplots; Shen struggles with between completing his mission as a police officer whilst also having to commit the crimes necessary to prove himself to the Sun On Yee.
This acts as the means for one of the game’s features – multiple levelling systems. Shen can improve certain attributes relating to three distinct areas: Cop, Triad and Face. Depending on the actions you take during missions depends on how your experience is awarded. Cop and Triad points intermingle with one another, with you earning points for both proving yourself to the Sun On Yee while not going too far in doing so. Drive carefully (no hit and runs, property destruction, etc) and you’ll avoid being deducted Cop rewards, but brutalise your enemies with some vicious environmental takedowns to earn Triad points. It’s an odd balancing act between the two, but one that forces you to stay on your toes and never tires. Meanwhile, Face is about being a citizen of Hong Kong. Assist merchants, chase down drunks, and generally help out those in need and you’ll earn points which not only unlock new abilities but also grants the purchase of certain cars and clothes.
Although the dual faceted approach is useful for gameplay features, it’s a compelling and engaging plot with twists and turns galore that really helps differentiate Sleeping Dogs from the competition. By playing as an undercover cop, you don’t have the same destructive and violent tendencies that the lead characters in say Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row do. Shen’s constantly torn between two sides as the lines between good and the greater good become increasingly blurred. Friendships are made and broken, whilst the power and moral see-saw that the ‘greater good’ brings is all too apparent.
As far as settings go, Hong Kong is up there with the most interesting. Bustling city streets packed with market stalls, serene temples surrounded by nature, lights like fireflies everywhere you look producing a beautiful blend of blues, reds and yellows, whilst all around buildings reach to touch the sky. It’s a shame then that there’s a collection of graphical frailties that rip you out of what can at times be a mesmerising experience. Lip-syncing is utterly dreadful, fringe characters generally seem lifeless and there are far too many visual glitches. Sleeping Dogs also isn’t the most visually pleasing game out there – although it’s by no means poor – so these errors are disappointing.
One of the most pleasing aspects on the eyes is certainly the combat. The reason the aforementioned street vendor eventually gave up his cash was that Shen knows kung-fu; not only that, but he’s rather good at it. Whilst guns are certainly used with Sleeping Dogs – and to brilliant effect – it’s close combat that takes the driving seat as you engage in some wonderfully fluid fighting. Combos, grapples, even roundhouse kicks are part of a superbly executed combat system that is both highly effective and incredibly enjoyable. The segments where guns take to the forefront are few and far between but act as the perfect breakers to keep gameplay fresh and exciting.
The same cannot be said for the game’s driving mechanics which feel like a hog on skates as you have next to no real control over the vehicle. There’s no sense of weight to hurtling down the highway or sense of realism as you get stuck on a curb. It doesn’t help either that the camera decides to throw itself around whenever it feels like it, making it extremely challenging to drive effectively.
“Welcome to Sleeping Dogs, a hard and sometimes brutal world within a marvellous and busy Hong Kong where you can more than take care of yourself.”
Environment takedowns, slow-motion shooting, parkour-esque traversal and even mid-chase car leaping are just a few of the aspects of Sleeping Dogs that make it clear that developers United Front Games at least tried to set it apart from the rest of the market. For the majority they succeeded in providing both an entertaining plot with some superb voice acting and thoroughly diverse and enjoyable gameplay. The AI is smart, passing-by NPCs have a sense of live to them and the city really does feel as though it’s living and breathing. There’s a series of collectibles to find which extends the already lengthy campaign, and the dash of multiplayer is offered through leaderboards rather than a separate experience.
Sleeping Dogs had a cloud over its head that threatened to rain on its parade. Thankfully it’s clever, well executed and immensely enjoyable. It probably won’t be the best game you’ll play this year, nor the most surprising, but it’s worthy of being mention up there. If you’re supposed to let sleeping dogs lie no-one told Square Enix and that’s undoubtedly a good thing.