Name: Sleeping Dogs
Genre: Open-world crime-sim
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
After languishing for a few years in development hell, Sleeping Dogs is finally here. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s landed in fighting-fit shape. Read on to find out how it compares to the many great games it shares the open-world genre with.
Sleeping Dogs has had one of the most colourful development cycles in recent history. Originally revealed as a brand new IP called Black Lotus back in 2008, publishers Activision suggested it be re-worked and re-branded as the lasted installment in their flailing True Crime series. By December 2009 it had been revealed as first True Crime: Hong Kong, and then simply True Crime. A series of delays saw the game pushed back to 2011, before being cancelled altogether in February of that year with Activision reasoning that it was “just not good enough”.
For a few months, things didn’t look good. But fast forward to August 2011, and the game has been picked up by publishers Square Enix, rebranded once more as the Sleeping Dogs we know today and has a smattering of Hollywood talent attached to it.And against all the odds, Sleeping Dogs has turned out pretty damn good.
It does however wear its influences on its sleeve however, taking a pinch of Assassin’s Creed here, a dash of the Arkham Batman games here and liberal helpings of Grand Theft Auto style criminal activities throughout. While it never manages to hit the same heights as the games that most obviously inspired it, the Sleeping Dogs whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The story is a familiar one. You’ll take the role of undercover cop Wei Shen, who in his youth was friendly with people who would later grow up to be members of the Triad gang Sun On Yee. Shen’s out to stop their nefarious activities, without having his lawful motives uncovered. It’s a fairly rote storyline, but delivered very well. A-List voice over talent including Emma Stone, Lucy Liu and Tom Wilkinson give good performances, and despite being formulaic, the story flows to some genuine highs.It’s helped in part by the Hong Kong setting. It feels lived-in and looks for the most part (aside from some dodgy lip-syncing and texture pop-in) wonderful. Street markets bustle with life, neon-lights give a sleazy glow to rain-slicked streets, and Shen can send all manner of little objects flying as he races through the streets. Incidental chatter from pedestrians and lead characters alike, falling from English into Chinese Mandarin languages adds an authenticity to the four fictionalised Hong Kong districts lacking in other open-world titles.
As with many open world games, Sleeping Dogs gameplay is made up of mostly three pillars; driving, melee combat and gunplay. Of the three, fisticuffs come out best.
While there is plenty of variety in the number of cars available to drive, they all feel boxy and lack satisfyingly weighty physics to make the game’s many car chases all that rewarding. It’s more Mario Kart than Gran Turismo, and while arcade-style handling can sometimes suit open-world games, Sleeping Dogs takes itself a little more seriously, with a more realistic take on joyriding perhaps a little more appropriate.Likewise, shooting mechanics aren’t the most polished we’ve seen, with a clumsy system that’s a bit useless at close range. Jumping out of cover sees a slow-mo effect kick in though, which is a nice reference to the OTT John Woo films which Sleeping Dogs often mines.
Shooting clearly isn’t Sleeping Dogs’ selling point, which developers United Front Games obviously realise going by the limited ammunition on offer. There’s good reason for this though, as melee combat is genuinely satisfying. Taking its cues from the rhythmic, prompt-based action of the Batman Arkham games, Shen uses martial arts skills to take on upwards of 10 foes at a time. Mixing environmental finishers in with combo strings and reversals, it’s very satisfying, and well animated. We never tired of bringing a storefront’s shutters clattering down on the head of an enemy, and there’s a fair amount of variety in melee weaponry that can be picked up and used. Throw in an Assassin’s Creed style free-running system, and it’s soon clear that being unarmed and on-foot is the best way to enjoy Sleeping Dogs.
Mission structure closely follows the blueprint of the Grand Theft Auto system, with Shen travelling to waypoints to pick up missions of increasingly more daring nature. Missions are good fun, but it’s likely you’ve seen most of what’s on offer here before. From car chases to car-jackings, shootouts to beatdowns, deals gone bad to follow missions where your target can’t be allowed to realise he’s being tailed, they’re familiar to anyone whose played open-world titles before. As with most of Sleeping Dogs, they play and are presented well, but there’s nothing ground breaking here.What is slightly more unique is the way that Shen levels up. There are three strands which the protagonist can pump experience points in (Triad, Cop and Face), each building up independently dependant upon your actions. For instance, causing property damage, harming civilians or being particularly violent adds to your Triad score, which lets you improve fighting skills and the use of melee weapons. Being more considerate and lawful improves your cop rating, adding to your driving and shooting abilities. Face is a little more abstract; it could be easily called “Respect” too. Awarded for helping civilians, finishing side quests and being a generally cool dude, it gives you access to classier clothing and gear. Balancing these three experience trees is quite an interesting exercise; driving carefully to a mission in order to earn Cop points, and then brutally beating a gang leader for Triad points, it encourages you to get into the sometimes-conflicted mindset that Shen finds himself in.
A little smaller than the Liberty City of GTA IV, Sleeping Dogs’ open world is no-less densely packed with things to do. You’ll bet on cock fights, date girls, buy new clothes and power drinks to buff your stats. These add little to the overall game, but again are good for world-building and the odd distraction from the main story when you veer off the beaten track.
It’s a shame then that online modes are limited to merely leader boards and stat chasing among friends. GTA IV and the Saint’s Row series lived long beyond their single player campaigns ended thanks to fully-featured multiplayer modes, which are missing here. We’d certainly have loved to have seen the melee combat turn up in a competitive online mode. Either way, you’re left with a lengthy 20-25 hours campaign, which itself can be extended considerably if you take the time explore the corners of the sizeable world.
We didn’t have high hopes for Sleeping Dogs going into this review, and while it hasn’t completely blown us away, we’re pleased to find it’s grown into a rather fine open-world game despite its troubled development. It doesn’t break the mould, but strong story-telling, fun combat and a well-realised Hong Kong setting won us over. At the very least it’s set the bar that the forthcoming Grand Theft Auto V has to clear. And for a game that very nearly didn’t hit shelves at all, that’s high praise indeed.
By Gerald Lynch | August 14th, 2012