To say that Sleeping Dogs has had a tough time of it getting to retail would be a hell of an understatement. Blighted almost the entire way through its development, with problems including a couple of major focus shifts as it was picked up by Activision to be part of the True Crime series, and then again when it was dropped by Activision and picked up by Square Enix, the fact that we it has been released at all this year is a minor miracle.
If you’re not familiar with the premise of the game, it’s a third person action adventure title taking place in a sandbox world which puts you in control of Wei Shen, an undercover cop placed into the heart of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, with the intention of rising through the Triad ranks to take it down from the inside. If you think of titles like Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, you won’t be too far from what’s on offer here, albeit with a much more serious tone.
Storyline plays a huge part in the Sleeping Dogs experience, so it’s only right that we give credit where credit is due. The action is set to a well paced script, featuring a huge cast of characters, the majority of whom are extremely well written and performed. Protagonist Wei Shen has recently returned from the United States, and is quickly placed into an undercover position, working for the Hong Kong Police Department. Given the danger that he has placed himself in by taking the job, it’s imperative that his true identity remains hidden. This means that the cops are more than willing to bust you for any shady shenanigans you find yourself getting up to – and you’re going to be involved in some seriously dodgy stuff here.
As the story progresses and Wei Shen gains respect and infamy, the game’s story expands to borderline ridiculous levels. To say that it’s huge is an understatement, and although the bulk of the campaign can be completed over the course of a few prolonged sessions, there’s much more to the mythology of Sleeping Dogs to discover through side missions and exploration.
Like all sandbox games, Sleeping Dogs walks a fine line between offering the player enough to keep them busy, and offering so much that the game lacks focus. Fortunately, it finds itself on the right side of that line more often than not, even if there will be times where you get a little tired of the by-now generic “go here, do this, come back” missions. Ultimately, you’re looking at anywhere between 18 and 30 hours of gameplay here, depending on your skill level and the amount of time you spend exploring – so by today’s standards, you’re getting a hell of a lot of bang for your buck.
When it comes to gameplay, Sleeping Dogs is no slouch for the most part. The game’s hand to hand combat is fun more often than not, although there are times where a lack of responsiveness slips in which could ultimately cost you your last remaining bit of energy, forcing you to retry the mission. For the most part though, the combat is responsive, enjoyable and innovative, with a whole host of environmental interactions available to finish off your beleaguered opponents. There really is nothing quite like sticking an enemy’s face into an extractor fan to end a gruelling battle.
The combat system controls are nice and simple, allowing for fluid battles. You’ve got a regular attack button, which you can hold for a strong attack, a grapple button to take hold of your enemies and lead them to their doom while sporadically punching them in the face to remind them who’s the boss, and you’ve got a counter attack button, which will interrupt the attack of your enemy before unleashing a powerful attack to ground them. Combos feature heavily, but there’s not a huge amount of variety to be had with so few input options available, nevertheless once you start to get your hands on some weaponry, you’ll have plenty to keep you entertained.
As you play, the game awards you medals for your achievements. While they may not appear to be all that important in the grander scale of things, they’re a great way of tracking your progress and spurring you on to try new side missions or approaches to gameplay that you may otherwise have ignored.
As with any sandbox title of its ilk, you’ll be doing plenty of driving around the city in Sleeping Dogs. GTA players will be familiar with the hijacking based approach to procuring new wheels, as if you happen to see a car you like the look of, it’s there for the taking if you can liberate the driver from his or her seat. There’s quite a difference between the various vehicles too, from minivans with the turning arc of cruise liners, to the nimble and nifty motorbikes right the way through to souped up sports cars.
The game’s driving mechanics are spot on, with plenty of scope for breakneck speeds, tight hand break turns and even drifting, which comes in particularly handy during the various street racing sections on offer. For a game with so much focus on travelling on foot, and scaling obstacles in a decidedly parkour manner, the development team at United Front must be commended for such great work on the vehicles.
The game’s levelling takes a three pronged approach. As you complete missions you’ll be awarded XP points to your Cop, Triad and Face meters. The more XP you build up in each of the categories, the more missions you’ll unlock. Essentially the Cop and Triad meters equate to behaving well, or breaking the law during your missions. Driving safely and not indiscriminately killing pedestrians is a good way to build up your Cop meter, while being a savage, violent thug often helps to fill the Triad meter. The Face meter on the other hand is all about how you treat the game’s vast army of NPCs. Help them out and do favours for them, and your reputation will increase among the city’s residents, which in turn makes your life easier, and offers additional side-missions for you to conquer.
While this kind of levelling system has been seen before, it certainly helps to echo the major theme underpinning Sleeping Dogs – that of morality. At the end of the day, Shen is still a cop, and despite his deep cover, he can’t afford to get pulled into the criminal underworld too much. It’s a fine balancing act and one that’s helped by some great writing and vocal performances, as well as some dramatic twists and turns as the storyline unwinds.
Visually Sleeping Dogs is quite the looker. It may lack some of the shine of some recent titles, but all in all it’s an aesthetically pleasing title. From the contrast between the gaudy neon signs of Hong Kong’s commercial districts to the occasional glimpses of trees and grassy areas, through to the detailed street vendor stalls and high rise buildings, there’s little that doesn’t hit the mark. In terms of graphical direction, the game does a fine job of portraying the difference between the haves and have nots within a bustling metropolitan cityscape. To make things even more appealing, as you play through the game you’ll unlock additional areas of the city, each with a unique look and feel. Even if it’s not a wholly authentic replication of Hong Kong, it does a fine job for our money.
On top of the single player side of the game, there’s also a healthy multiplayer aspect available. While it doesn’t include competitive or cooperative play, the fact that you’re able to take on your friends’ best times and achievements within the game really does add an additional level of depth to the gameplay. If you’re a stats whore, then you’re really going to get a kick out of this aspect of Sleeping Dogs.
Given the fact that it’s up against some stiff competition within the genre, most recently including the excellent Saints Row: The Third, and many people’s favourite Grand Theft Auto IV, Sleeping Dogs does a hell of a job of making itself stand out. The storytelling, voice acting and overall feel of the game coupled with some great gameplay mechanics, a huge amount of missions to keep you busy and solid presentation marks it as one of our favourite titles of the year. Even if you’re wary of sandbox adventures, this is a title worth checking out sooner rather than later!