It’s no secret that United Front Games’ Sleeping Dogs travelled a bumpy road during its development process. What originally started as a brand new intellectual property became True Crime: Hong Kong before Activision decided to abandon its publishing duties altogether. After that, it wasn’t clear if the Hong Kong-based sandbox-action game would ever make it to store shelves, but it has, and we all have Square Enix to thank. The Japanese publisher believed in the project, and it certainly bet on a winner.
Presented within the game is a gritty, emotional and well-developed storyline that sees players take control of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong native who has returned to his old stomping grounds after moving to San Francisco with his mother and troubled sister. However, his return has nothing to do with rest and relaxation. After working as a police officer in the United States, Wei has been asked to go undercover within the Sun On Yee, China’s iconic Triads, in order to take the syndicate down from the inside. That’s because those in charge of the case believe he’s a great fit, thanks to childhood ties with some of the gang’s more notable members.
Over the course of 30 story missions, which include detective cases and Triad events, Wei must try to do his job without outing his position or hurting the residents of the neon-lit city. It’s a challenge that gamers get to experience first-hand, and it’s something that the character openly battles with throughout, thanks to tough decisions which must be made. Morality is a big part of this parcel, and it’s something that Wei regularly struggles with. As a result, what’s created is a very immersive character study, which sets its hooks in early and doesn’t let go until its explosive conclusion.
From start to finish, it’s easy to like the core campaign that Sleeping Dogs offers, although it came to an end in less time than I’d hoped. Not only does it play like a high-quality cinematic experience, but it presents a good mixture of gameplay, allowing things to remain engaging throughout what is approximately a 13-15 hour runtime. Even though the game borrows a lot from what Grand Theft Auto 3 established almost a decade ago, it feels like a new beast. That’s partially due to the fact that Hong Kong is such an interesting environment to interact with, but is also the result of an intelligent development which understood how to make a game that would stand out within an established genre.
Generally speaking, much of the presented storyline missions are comprised of just a few elements: combat, driving and detective work. The first facet on that list is definitely the most noteworthy because guns aren’t plentiful in this interactive version of China. Instead, Wei Shen must deal with most of his enemies by using his limbs, employing a myriad of kung-fu mechanics that were overseen by MMA fighter Georges St-Pierre. Beating guys up left, right and centre was a heck of a lot of fun, especially when certain environmental items became available for use. Throwing a thug into an electrical panel, roasting him on a stove or crushing him under something heavy almost never got old.
The downside to what is an enjoyable and expandable fighting system is the fact that it borrows from Rocksteady’s Batman games, though it’s not the first to do so. What that means is there’s an emphasis on counters. Whenever a foe is about to attack Wei he turns red, giving the player a chance to counter the move by pressing one button. It’s a necessary tactic if one hopes to survive, because much of the game’s combat is reminiscent of a chess match. One person attacks until the other blocks, then the other will try to attack. Though, with that being said, it’s important to note that the employed mechanics are certainly far from boring, although they can become repetitive during lengthy play sessions. Then again, it’s tough to get sick of watching Wei disarm an enemy, then use his melee weapon against him. Nor is it easy to get bored of breaking a thug’s limbs.
Later on in the game, bullet-based offense becomes a priority, but it’s only used sparingly up until then. The featured gunplay mechanics work as needed, and there weren’t any discovered issues, although there’s nothing remarkable about the way the cover-focused system plays out. You duck, then pop out and shoot, looking for moments of weakness where a slow-motion slide will give you a chance to take out one or two enemies before they even know what’s going on. However, using that Hardboiled ability became an afterthought after a while, as I found that popping out of cover and firing off a few shots was much more effective and resulted in a lot less health loss. The slow-motion effect doesn’t last for too long, and it tends to leave Wei in vulnerable positions.
Now, in order to get from one mission to the next, or anywhere for that matter, players must employ the use of vehicular travel. Cars, trucks and motorcycles can be stolen from citizens, but they can also be purchased. Whenever a vehicle is owned, it becomes available at all of the city’s manned parking lots, which makes it so that theft isn’t nearly as necessary as it is in other sandbox action games.
Going further, one is punished for stealing someone else’s mode of transportation during missions, which present a two-sided scoring and experience system. Taking out the trash with varied combat maneuvers and destroying enemy vehicles by ramming them or shooting out their tires earns Triad points. Conversely, attempts to avoid causing damage to the environment and its innocent inhabitants reward players with police points, although you won’t have to worry about destroying things when missions aren’t active. Furthermore, if you’re caught in the midst of an indoor mission, those deductions won’t really factor in.
The above-mentioned points accumulate into post-mission experience. Two meters are displayed, providing separate levelling opportunities. Each one caps out at level 10, with the reason being that each tree only has 10 available perks, including new combat maneuvers, better ammunition, a less noticeable way to steal cars and easier ways to action-hijack. Yes, you can jump from one moving vehicle to another, allowing Wei to hijack enemy vehicles or armoured cars. It works quite well, but isn’t anything to write home about, nor is it a major focus of the experience.
When it comes to actually being behind the wheel in Sleeping Dogs, there’s quite a bit of fun to be had. Simply put, speeding throughout the city is fun and the cars handle quite well, although some seem to be a bit too fast for their own good. There are close to 20 challenging races to enter, offering different vehicle classes a chance to shine, and their average quality is higher than what one would find in the Grand Theft Auto series. During some of those races, it’s important to stay away from traffic since one major slip-up can result in a loss. Attempting to race that clean sheet requires adept maneuvering and the knowledge that you’re supposed to be driving on the left-hand side of the road as opposed to its right-hand side. It’s tricky to get accustomed to doing just that, but it’s an authentic change of pace.
Finally, there’s Detective work. Since Wei is an undercover officer, he has access to certain technological perks. Those bonuses allow him to hack things, but they also provide him with a chance to triangulate cell phone signals in order to discover where important targets are hiding. While hacking is completed through the use of a simple but enjoyable mini-game, much like lock-picking and safe-cracking, traingulating requires more effort. First off, players must move to the middle of a geographical triangle. Next, they must check Wei’s smartphone for a repeating signal. After that, it’s time to jump into a car and find the bad guy. Of course, those instances quite often end with action-packed chase sequences involving foot-based movement and/or vehicular speed.
Before we go any further it’s important to mention that Wei is a bonafide badass, and not just because of his kung-fu skills or his ability to learn new moves by visiting a familiar dojo. No, there’s more to it than that. Simply put, he’s also a parkour master. Many on-foot chases erupted over the course of my play through, with parkour at the forefront of each one. At those times, keeping up with enemies, thieves and targets meant climbing uneven terrain and mixing that in with properly-timed jumps over gaps. Performing those moves well meant pressing the A button at the proper time, with failure to do so meaning a loss of cop points and a potential restart. Thankfully the latter one didn’t occur often, and I had fun with almost all of the chases. As a result, not only did this game offer me a new way to fight enemies in an open world environment, but it also offered me a new way to traverse the world, along with some crisp animations.
Once the story-based portion of the experience is over, players are left to explore its digital interpretation of Hong Kong, giving them a chance to complete any secondary objectives that remain incomplete. The list of available sub-missions is quite expansive and it includes more than just the aforementioned races. There are well over 30 favours to complete, as well as a similar amount of lackey missions for one of the Sun On Yee’s affiliates. Additionally, there are vehicles to find and deliver, dates to go on with multiple women, collectibles to find and open world activities to participate in, such as joystick-based karaoke and cockfight betting.
Completing secondary objectives provides gamers with Face Points, which essentially add to Wei’s social status. There are associated achievements, but a player’s Face level is important when it comes to the basic aspects found within Sleeping Dogs. Levelling up the stat is important if you wish to gain faster health regeneration, heightened amounts of damage, shop discounts or access to more important people. Plus, possessing a high Face level is important for those who wish to wear some of the city’s most fashionable duds.
Going further into the world of Sleeping Dogs, it’s important to highlight how much the city feels like a living place. There are tons of NPCs who go about their routines in realistic fashion, and they react well to Wei if he runs into them, either by commenting or taking out a cell phone to document his crime. Those same citizens run in fright if a gunfight breaks out and can sometimes get in the way. However, the most prominent ones are the merchants who sell Wei various types of clothing (some of which offer bonuses when worn in conjunction with others,) and food. Eating well is important in this game as it’s the main source of health replenishment. If you eat before a battle then you can receive enhanced health regeneration for a limited time, or even a reduction in damage taken. Furthermore, drinking an energy drink allows Wei to deal additional damage.
When it comes to replay value, United Front Games’ latest project delivers quite a bit, thanks to its above-mentioned secondary objectives and the fact that players can replay story missions at will. It’s also fun to just interact with what is a beautiful version of Hong Kong. Even if the map isn’t huge, it’s a good size for what’s offered. Every district is rendered in impressive fashion, delivering shiny and realistic-looking visuals that don’t shy away from colour. Then again, we’re talking about something that takes place in Asia, where the stereotype is that they love neon signs. Those look great, as do the digital people who walk underneath them. All in-game inhabitants animate well and rain causes them to bring out umbrellas, which adds a nice touch of realism. Wei doesn’t mind getting wet, though, and his clothes react to the water that they occasionally become drenched in.
Multiplayer is not available, nor is co-op, but Sleeping Dogs does not suffer as a result. This is a single player game through and through, which should not be held against it. Adding a second player would affect things in a negative way. Though, with that being said, there is an online social component where gamers can keep track of their friends’ mission scores, challenge accomplishments and earned medals. Performing lengthy wheelies, big jumps or damage-free drives earns folks scores and they’re kept track of within the Social Scene menu. Additionally, metallic awards are given out to those who excel at certain things, like using the environment to their advantage or performing a lot of counters.
On the sound design front, there’s a lot to take in, such as realistic sound effects, exemplary voice acting and an impressive soundtrack. All of those things add an extra layer to an already outstanding experience, giving it the polish of a triple A title or a well-made Hollywood crime drama. That’s especially true of the A-list voice acting, which features the talents of Tom Wilkinson (Batman Begins), Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Will Yun Lee (Total Recall). However, it’s important to not overlook the licensed tunes. There’s a great mix of those, including everything from soft Asian music to heavy songs from multiple Roadrunner Records artists. In-between those polar opposites are classical medleys, instrumental tracks and classic rock offerings.
Sleeping Dogs is an absolute triumph which contains only a limited amount of stumbles. Going in, I had high hopes for the game, but the full experience offered more than what I hoped for, and that’s saying a lot. It’s polished, well-made and incredibly enjoyable. If you’re a fan of the sandbox action genre, then you owe it to yourself to pick this one up. Don’t miss out on what will surely end up as one of 2012′s best games.
This review is based on a copy of the game that was provided to us for review purposes.