Sleeping Dogs took a long time to get here; it started off as a True Crime game, was subsequently cancelled by Activision, and then picked up by Square Enix. Despite its troubled past, Sleeping Dogs manages to deliver a truly memorable, fun, and beautiful open world experience.
You play as Wei Shen, an undercover police officer from San Francisco who has returned to Hong Kong as part of an operation to bring down major members of the Triad – Hong Kong’s mafia. The premise isn’t exactly original, but it does set the stage for a gripping story with some pretty memorable characters, and events. There is some heavy stuff in this game, seriously.
What makes the story so compelling is the talent of the voice actors in conjunction with dialogue that could be mistaken for something from The Departed. Will Yun Lee puts in a stellar performance as Detective Wei Shen, playing it cool when speaking to ladies, giving orders in an authoritative tone, and letting out a guttural “fuck, fuck, fuck” when shit goes bad – real bad. In fact, most of the main cast feature excellent voice acting; especially Tom Wilkinson as smarmy Police Superintendent Thomas Pendrew, and Eddie Chen as Wei’s childhood friend Jackie Ma.
Being undercover means that you will receive missions from both sides of the law. You’ll help solve ongoing cases for Inspector Jane Teng, and complete tasks for Triad bosses in order to earn their trust. All the while your police handler, Raymond Mak, questions your loyalties. As you complete missions, your mobile phone (accessible by pressing Up on the D-pad) will be updated with news articles, police reports, and criminal records. Though not as comprehensive as something like Mass Effect’s codex, they do fill in a lot of backstory about Wei and the criminal world of Hong Kong. One of the most poignant and emotional facets of the game is present in one of these stories. I must be honest, I was genuinely moved.
A controller is definitely the way to play – I played this on PC with a wired 360 controller. Keyboard and mouse are perfectly serviceable, but the combat and driving controls really benefit from full analog control. Sleeping Dogs features fluid combat with a simple combo system: holding down the Left Trigger allows you to target individual enemies, with the X button for attacks, B for grabs, Y for counters, and an occasional A button press to initiate a roll or flying kick. As you complete successful combos, you’ll see the Face meter fill up. A full Face meter results in Shen temporarily regaining health and the intimidating his enemies – leaving them open for some devastating attacks. Hand-to-hand combat is not only fun, it is also extremely rewarding as you see Wei pull off some impressive martial arts moves in addition to some pretty brutal environmental attacks. You can also learn new moves by collecting jade statues for your old martial arts teacher or “sifu”. The gun combat isn’t anything special but it does play well. You can enter slow motion aiming when jumping over cover which allows you to clear a whole room of enemies if you’re fast enough. You aren’t introduced to gun combat until a few hours into the game, and by that stage you’ll be pretty proficient at defeating enemies using just your hands and feet. I found myself using hand-to-hand combat and only using weapons when required for specific missions.
You can unlock upgrades by levelling up three separate meters: the Cop (Blue) meter by completing Cop missions, driving safely and not harming civilians; the Triad (Red) meter by doing Triad missions, mixing up different combos during fights, and driving recklessly; and finally the Face (Yellow) meter which is filled by completing Face missions. Face missions are your typical open world side missions: you’ll beat up drunks for shop owners, race cars, and even take girlfriends out on dates. Completing dates updates your map with the location of collectibles such as health shrines that increase your health meter. In other games you would simply do tasks that are part of story missions and then promptly ignore them, but completing these missions earn you Face upgrades that boost the effect of food and energy drinks, and most importantly (for me anyway) they allow you to wear some pretty suave clothes. Hey, you’ve got to look the part right? My favourite side missions involved going to clubs and singing karaoke. The karaoke mini game is simple but enjoyable. There are a handful of licensed songs from the eighties and, depending on how well you do, Wei can pull off some pretty high notes or get drowned in feedback if he misses some big ones. It may seem like a gimmick, but it’s fun.
Driving controls are simple, and forgiving enough to not get in your way. It may not have the responsiveness of an arcade racer, but you can still have some fun power sliding around the city as you ram cop cars off of the road. As all of this is happening you’ll see a small counter that pops up in the bottom right corner of your screen. This is where you can see your progress in a variety of challenges against your friends. These challenges can vary from the longest time spent driving sensibly, the biggest jump on a motorcycle or even the most consecutive fly kicks. It gets pretty competitive, especially with some of the timed vehicle challenges. At any point while driving you can “action hijack” other vehicles by holding down and then pressing the A button when an onscreen indicator turns green. You’ll enter slow motion as you leap from your vehicle and man, does it look awesome. Proper action movie awesome.
As you drive around you’ll be able to listen to a variety of radio stations featuring both original and licensed music. Most genres are covered ranging from modern alternative rock and dance to funk and classical music. While this is expected in a game of this type, what I really latched on to was a song called “Yellow Fever” by fictional Hong Kong pop star Vivienne Lu (Lucy Liu). I don’t know why, but the fact that there was an original song created for the game, and performed by one of the characters in the game just blew my mind! I found myself driving past mission locations just so I could let the song finish – yes, I am crazy like that, it is just that good.
Driving past a mission point wasn’t a problem because the game features a simple but helpful feature: at any point you can click in the left thumbstick to cycle through your available missions. Your map updates to show the shortest route to a mission’s location and then off you go. No fuss, no need to set routes by selecting missions from a map screen. It’s brilliant and it will undoubtedly be introduced in future open world games.
The PC port is terrific with Steamworks to handle saving and achievements, native controller support, and a whole heap of options for people who like tweaking graphics settings. Sleeping Dogs is a joy to look at. The game runs incredibly smoothly, even on a two-year-old mid-range GPU like my GTX 460, and the free high resolution texture pack makes everything even more sharper. If you have an especially beefy GPU you can crank up the settings to “extreme” while running full anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion. This makes the city of Hong Kong look incredible, even if it is not one hundred percent accurate. Furthermore, cutscenes are rendered in-engine and the character models look excellent, with expressive faces that actually match the dialogue they are speaking. Wei’s movement looks realistic as he vaults over obstacles, jumps out of vehicles and even when just walking around the city. However, it can be a bit jarring when characters are running scared and then just casually enter a vehicle. Other issues are ones that are not unique to this game, an irritating example being the way that in car mission dialogue is cut off by exiting and reentering a vehicle or even when reaching a mission location. Exiting vehicles also restarts the current song playing on the radio – this is especially annoying because some of the songs are quite lengthy. One particularly hilarious glitch occurred during a cutscene when a motorbike as doing circles in the middle of the street without a rider.
Sleeping Dogs is by no means a perfect game: it suffers from a few nagging problems, but they don’t detract from an overall impressive package. Its gripping story, excellent gameplay, and beautiful graphics ensure that you’ll remember it fondly, long after you’ve finished playing it.
This game was reviewed on the PC.