Sleeping Dogs is an interesting game for many reasons. It was originally pitched to the world as True Crime Hong Kong before being canceled by its first publisher Activision and then revived and picked up by Square-Enix. The name was changed to make it a new IP and here we are. The game also accomplishes what many fans of Grand Theft Auto have been demanding for years. The game is set in Hong Kong, as the old title might have given away. Finally it’s an interesting game because this has been one boring summer, so let’s see what’s shaking in the Far East.
You play the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop with a history. You emigrated to the United States after being born in Hong Kong, but have now returned after things didn’t work out quite right. You have taken a job with the Hong Kong police force to infiltrate one of the Triads in order to bring them down. Soon you are thrown into a cell where one of your childhood friends is currently, and an old friendship rises to the fore. Before long you are making your way up the ranks of the gang, but not without alarming your superiors in the HKPD. It turns out you’re very good at being a gangster. As the body count rises and all out war seems to erupt around you, you have to find a way to keep yourself on the right side of the law while protecting some of the friends you’ve made along the way.
Like each of the GTA games was inspired by different movies, Sleeping Dogs is supposedly a homage to Hong Kong cinema crime dramas. However, since I haven’t watched very many I can only judge the story on what I’ve seen. The story here is solid but seemingly lacking in choices. I’ll delve further into that later. For now, let’s just say the story wasn’t bad at all. It just gets confusing at times because people you’ve only just met once can become integral to the story moving along later in the game.
The voice work is AAA grade here. There is no shortage of Hollywood either. Emma Stone voices a character, as does Lucy Liu. James Hong, the veteran actor Hollywood calls on when an old Asian guy is needed, makes an appearance as (you guessed it) an old Asian guy. Tom Wilkinson throws his voice into the mix too.
The main character of Wei Shen is voiced by Will Yun Lee, who does a terrific job of sounding like Nolan North. It’s not fair, really I know that, but North has been in so many games recently that when I heard Mr. Lee I just figured it was him again. The performance is actually quite good, full of anger and hope, friendship and enmity. Not his fault the guy sounds like Nathan Drake.
The sound effects are not bad. There are a limited number of guns in the game, so the fact that there are only what sounds like three or four different sound effects for them all isn’t so bad. There is one type of assault rifle, one shotgun, one pistol, and one submachine gun. That’s all I managed to encounter anyway.
The music is not bad, but it’s not to my taste. The in car radio has a number of stations that should suit most people’s needs, just not my own. What music there is sounds terrific, so it’s not a quality issue. I especially like that when you step into a Bismark, which is essentially a German luxury auto, Flight of the Valkyries plays on the radio. It’s a bit cliched, but I don’t care.
The ambient sounds of Sleeping Dogs really helps to sell the game as a living city. Everywhere you go you hear snippets of conversations about things. Sometimes that means hearing about mundane things like lovers’ quarrels, other times you’ll hear about a mission you just did. It’s quite engrossing. The absolute best though is to walk out of a clothing store and hear someone heckle your choice of clothing. Brilliant.
The graphics in Sleeping Dogs can range from underwhelming to totally perfect. The scenes where you are dealing with somebody in person tended to be a little disappointing for me. I’ve seen much better. The faces just lose me. Officer Shen looks fine, but all of the secondary characters tend to look a little rough around the edges.
You can customize how your Shen dresses. Clothing options range from hoodies and wife beaters to suits. You can add a baseball cap, necklaces, and bracelets, as well as different shoes. Some of these items may even help you level up faster, as they may give a bonus to different attributes. There are also whole outfits you can put together and get points for wearing.
Some accessories look better on the character model than others. Some should not have been included at all, as they degrade the look of the character. That’s not fashion snobbery, that’s graphic snobbery. It’s like some of the bling is low res compared to a high res character. It stands out when you see it on Wei during a cutscene, for example.
Driving around town on the other hand is handled really well visually. The moment you get into a car and are driving through Hong Kong at night, look out. The city comes alive with neon. And if it starts to rain as it often does in the game? Just amazing. The cars look stellar too. OK, not all of them. But the ones you’ll likely be driving? The super cars? Fantastic.
So being a sandbox game, there are a number of different minigames that the developers had to wrap their heads around. To begin with the game tries to make the distinction of not being Grand Theft Auto by not focusing on gun play for a large part of the game. If you’re going to advance in the game you’ll need to brush up on your Kung Fu, or at least your character will. You, for the most part, will have to brush up on pressing the square button. I thought at first that the game was trying to take some inspiration from the Batman Arkham games. You punch with the same button, block with the same button, and can fight numerous enemies at a time. But Wei is no Batman. The best I can say about it is they tried to emulate Arkham‘s combat style, but in the end each new combo I learned seemed to focus on pressing the square button one more time, and it just got a bit too overwhelming.
So on to the driving. Sleeping Dogs relies heavily on its driving mechanic. There are a number of missions where you must race across town to do something. Nothing unusual there. What has been added is the rather large number of races you can participate in. Unlike Grand Theft Auto where the races were usually just a tacked on thing, here it seems to be intentionally built into the game from the beginning. As soon as you purchase your first car you find out what racing class it belongs to. The races, once you can access them, are unlocked and shown on the map when you have a vehicle that can participate. And thankfully you don’t have to go back to your garage to get a car if you decide you feel like racing. Just pull up to the icon and select the car you want to drive as though you were at your garage. Very slick.
As much as the game relies on its driving, you will also find yourself running and jumping a lot. Fortunately the game took some inspiration from Assassins Creed. Only some, mind you – you won’t be running along wires to cross the cityscape, nor will you be jumping from towers into haystacks, but you can free run. In fact, in order to succeed in many of the missions you’ll have to. So as you’re chasing the guy who just stole your wallet, you’ll need to jump over things, jump and slide over other things, sidestep people who are in your way, that kind of thing.
As you progress through the game you can complete missions for the Police and for the Triad. As you do so you will earn points that will help you level up two separate skill sets. While doing missions for the police you will be graded on how much damage you cause to the city, if innocents are killed, etc. When you are doing Triad missions you’ll be judged by how violent you are, basically. It’s more complicated than that, obviously, but that will give you an idea of what to look for when being judged.
Finally, I’ll talk about the camera system for a moment. For the most part it’s pretty good – unless you happen to be driving. At high speeds the camera shakes a little. Not a lot, just uncomfortably so. I’m sure the intention was to convey the feeling of speed, but what it actually conveys is the feeling of “let’s slow down before I vomit”. And then when backing up a vehicle, the camera just goes completely bonkers. Just don’t touch the joystick, that will make it worse. Learn that and you’ll be fine. Better yet, just hold the handbrake and do a donut until you’re facing where you want to go. Much simpler.
Being a sandbox game, there are a few other minigames you can get involved in should you feel bored. There is a gambling establishment that lets you play Mojang Poker. You can also bet on cockfights. And there are the races which can be found everywhere you go. You can also put your fighting skills to the test in various fight clubs located accross the city. These are similar to the challenge rooms in Arkham Asylum, but without the electrified floors and timers. Well….so far anyway. Maybe they like it freaky in Aberdeen. I don’t know.
And then there is the karaoke. Early on in the game you are taken to a night club. There you must impress a hostess to be allowed entry into the VIP room. And the only way to do that is to sing a karaoke song. You don’t actually sing. Rather, the mechanic is similar to how singing looks in Rock Band minus you straining your voice to reach those notes. Instead, you move the analog stick in the direction required to hit the notes – up for high notes, down for low notes. It’s not especially difficult at first, but it gets harder the more songs you unlock.
You can also go on dates with some NPC characters. Doing so leads to bonus rewards. Dating one girl will unlock the ability to find all the security cameras around town. Dating another will help you find the different treasure packs that are scattered about town. Dating more than one at a time can prove problematic. And here’s where the game breaks down a little. You go on one, maybe two dates with a girl. And then she disappears from your phone, and you can’t call her without her on your phone. So you move on when another option presents itself. And then out of nowhere the first one shows up again and demands to know why you’re cheating on her. I don’t know, I found it amusing. But if I’m going to be accused of cheating after one date, I want the option to say no to a date.
Also, as I mentioned above there is the racing element to the game. You can choose from different classes of cars, as well as different classes of motorbikes. The tracks are marked by flares, and are for the most part the races are simple enough. Stay the the hell away from obstacles like light poles or food vendors, don’t crash into walls or oncoming cars, and ram your opponents off the track. That’s one other thing I should mention. While driving cars, there is a specific ramming mechanic which you can use to stop escaping enemies or to evade the police. It comes in handy during the street races as well, but it only works in the cars. Who says you have to win without cheating?
There is no online or local multiplayer option, but there is a social club feature. You get a score for every mission you do, and certain things like how long you can drive without damaging your car is compared to people on your friends list, much like it was in SSX. Beat their score and you’re now number one on the list. It’s not as engrossing here as it was in SSX, but you still want to be first.
The game does tend to do a good job of not being frustrating. I’d say on the whole the game leans towards being easier than harder – but not all the time, of course. The only thing I had consistent trouble with were the grappler enemies when fighting hand-to-hand. My preferred fighting technique in the game was to punch enemies until they could be grabbed and directed into environmental attacks, such as putting their head through a TV, or into a toilet, or whatever was handy. Grappling opponents cannot be grappled, and they are very good at grabbing you, so fighting them was often a chore. I can’t really blame that on the developers though. They do give you the option to choose how you want to upgrade your character, and certain attacks are more effective against some opponents than others.
A whole lot of this game feels very much like Grand Theft Auto. I realize as a GTA clone that’s kind of expected, but I mean, Saints Row is a GTA clone and it has its own identity. Just Cause, Red Faction, pick an open world sandbox game and you’ll see similarities. Sleeping Dogs, though, seems to go out of its way to be a game that is as close to Rockstar’s efforts as possible. The story seems to flow in much the way it does in GTA, and the characters are all caricatures in the way they are in GTA. The gun battles would feel right at home in GTA 3. Even the cover of the game seems designed to make you think it’s at least related to the GTA series.
That’s not to say the entire game is a ripoff. It’s not. Where GTA is crass and upfront about everything, Sleeping Dogs is subtle. There are no TW@T internet cafes, no system of bribing cops by driving over floating icons. There are cabs in the game, but they exist only for stealing. Apparently there’s an option to hire one, but I never succeeded in doing so. If you do happen to steal one, just park it for a bit and watch what happens.
There is also the setting, which has never been done before in a game as far as I can recall. Hong Kong is an interesting choice, one that I’d love to see more of in games. From its tightly packed markets to its majestic shoreline to the social dynamics, it’s very original. There is no mention whatsoever of the political situation, which was probably wise, but it might have helped to explain why there was a British person giving me orders as the head of the police in the middle of Asia.
The game certainly kept me playing, and being a sandbox game it does carry the constant threat of distracting you from your goal by showing you something new around every corner, like a ramp you’ve never seen before or a new fight club to dominate. That’s actually one of the issues I had with the game. Not the distractions, exactly, but the fact that if you’re on a mission and you happen to drive through an area where a drug bust is occurring, your mission will change because the game thinks that’s what you want to do. Also on the mildly annoying front is the GPS that cannot make up its mind. The game will often give you conflicting information about what the best way is to get from one part of the city to the other. Start going one way and suddenly the GPS says go this way. Just ignore it, eventually it will accept that the way you’re going is the correct path.
If you like your sandbox games then nothing in Sleeping Dogs will make you regret playing it. It might not be the longest game ever, but what there is will be enjoyed.
If you don’t like sandbox games, then good news, you don’t really have to play it as a sandbox game. There’s no reason you can’t just go from story mission to story mission. Sure there’s some driving in between, but it’s not that bad.
If you’re opposed to seeing some rather graphic deaths though, I might suggest avoiding this one.
Right, so, violent deaths. The game is pretty tame to start off, but as you progress in the game things start to get a little more violent. Then it gets a little crazy. Finally it gets a whole lotta crazy. I’m not going to spoil it, but this isn’t the M rated game to be finishing next to Mom. Or Dad. Or little Suzy.
Graphics: Very Good
Control and Gameplay: Very Good
Addictiveness: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Very Good
FINAL SCORE: Good Game
Short Attention Span Summary:
An enjoyable experience that suffers from a feeling that maybe it could have been even better. Certainly not the worst game you’ll play this summer.