Is Sleeping Dogs one of the “sleeper” hits (rim-shot) of 2012? Read on to find out.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developers: United Front Games, Square Enix London Studios
Release Date: August 13, 2012
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS3, Xbox 360
When I first heard about Sleeping Dogs it was called True Crime: Hong Kong. For those that don’t know, the True Crime series (True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City) are open-world action games in which the gamer plays as a cop as opposed to a criminal. The games focus on melee combat and gun-play. Sadly, like most other GTA-influenced games, neither of the games live up to their premise and are mired with repetitive gameplay and uninspired storytelling (SPOILER: The final bosses in the first game are a pair of dragons. Yes, dragons.) So, of course, True Crime: Hong Kong was announced I couldn’t have cared less. Even when Square Enix purchased the rights from Activision, changed the name to Sleeping Dogs and claimed they were taking the game in a new direction, I was still skeptical. Then the game was released. Then I played it. Then I realized I just played one of the best games of 2012, despite its flaws.
The protagonist for Sleeping Dogs is Detective Wei Shen. Shen was born in a Hong Kong ghetto, but moved to America at a young age and eventually became an undercover detective in San Francisco. He moves back to Hong Kong to work with the Hong Kong police in an attempt to thwart the organized crime syndicate known as the Triads. Shen has ties to the Triads, as many of his childhood friends are now members. There’s a growing rift between the different Triad families, and it’s up to Shen to infiltrate them and put their leaders in prison. Naturally, Shen struggles with living this double life, and finds it increasingly more difficult to perform his duties as a police officer as he dives deeper into the criminal underworld and develops friendships amongst some of the Triad members.
While the story is a common one that’s been told in numerous crime movies and TV shows (and a few video games), it’s nice to see it implemented so well in a sandbox action game. Not only is the story a good character study of Wei Shen, and features some decent intrigue, but it works with the gameplay. The fact that Shen is a cop makes it more believable that he would be willing to partake in criminal activity on his own as he has to ensure that everyone believes he’s a Triad, especially since Shen is finding the lines to be blurred between his life as an officer of the law and a player in a major organized crime unit. These primary story missions feature a nice mixture of car chases, shoot-outs, beat ‘em up action and escort missions. They’re fairly typical for this type of game, but they’re varied enough that they don’t become redundant.
Visually, Sleeping Dogs won’t blow any minds, but the textures are quite smooth and the city is gorgeous to look at. Hong Kong is filled with vibrant colors and features many scenic vistas to explore. The characters are detailed and move fluidly, as well. While the different areas of the game suffer from the “sameness” that other open-world titles suffer from (think Just Cause 2), United Front made sure to have at least one or two unique landmarks in each area that are worth visiting.
The streets are busy with street vendors that shout out sales pitches (“A man without a pork bun is never a whole man!” is one of my favorites), people talking and texting on their smartphones, couples kissing in the park, friends taking pictures of each other and lots of that lovely Hong Kong traffic. There’s even a few karaoke bars that Shen can hang out in and butcher classic songs. United Front did a pretty damn good job of making Hong Kong feel alive and the exploration rewarding.
The music adds even more to the atmosphere, as the score makes the more emotional moments of the story pack more of a punch and the radio stations pump out music that’s excellent for racing, cruising and car chases. Radio stations have been a staple of urban sandbox games ever since the original Grand Theft Auto and, while Rockstar still does it best, Sleeping Dogs does a serviceable job of recreating Hong Kong radio and introducing American and European gamers to some great Hong Kong music.
Like any good urban-action sandbox game, there are plenty of side-missions, activities and random events. The random events build up Shen’s reputation, or “face” as it’s called in the game. This adds an RPG element that allows for the Shen to unlock new clothing sets and vehicles. Unlike other GTA-esque games, however, the clothing sets actually provide boosts to things like melee damage and bonuses to “face” experience points.
The other RPG component of Sleeping Dogs lies within a collecting sidequest, one that involves Shen finding twelve statues that are hidden throughout Hong Kong. Each statue unlocks a new melee ability that Shen can use to overpower his opponents. While these gathering quests are very prevalent in other games like Sleeping Dogs, this sidequest offers a twist: finding the hidden statues actually fleshes out the story. Early on the game Shen meets up with his old martial arts instructor, and it’s this instructor that tasks Shen with finding his statues that someone has stolen from him. Every time you find a statue, you bring it back to the instructor where he’ll teach you a new melee ability. Upon delivering the statue, a cut scene plays where the instructor talks to Shen about his past, particularly about his experiences in America and what it feels like coming back “home”, a concept that Shen isn’t too familiar with. It’s this type of character development that really makes Sleeping Dogs stand out, and it really adds to the overall experience in a postive way.
It’s not just the statue fetching that unravels the story, either. The side-missions that involve Shen working directly with the police department reflect the overall narrative, plus they add an interesting detective component that’s a nice break from going to point a to point b beating people up or chasing them down on foot or in a vehicle. The random events, or “face” missions, add more to the narrative, as well, as most of them require Shen to help out one of his friends or a citizen of Hong Kong. This really strengthens the immersion and makes you feel part of the city.
The activities, though, are a disappointment compared to the other missions in the game. They’re all fairly generic (car boosting, debt collection, races, gambling activities, fight clubs), and don’t really add anything to the plot or reward the player with much other than extra “face” experience. Perhaps the most asinine activity is the “drug bust”, which requires Shen to go all over Hong Kong to break up drug circles by infiltrating gang territory and planting a bug on a security camera that is conveniently placed wherever these drug deals go down. Initially it’s kind of fun, but having to run back and forth form the drug deal locations to Shen’s apartment to access the security cameras becomes very repetitive.
The “dating” aspect of Sleeping Dogs is also a letdown. The women Shen goes out with (including an American girl voiced by Emma Stone) are in and out of the story instantly, with maybe one or two exceptions. A couple of the girls Shen dates I found to be rather interesting, and I wish the writers would have had them stick around longer. I suppose it is kind of nice to hang out with Shen as he gets used to his new/old surroundings in Hong Kong. It’s just a shame that the dates were only used for Shen’s character development, and not for adding more to the overall narrative. United Front really missed an opportunity, here.
Other than the story and the detective side-missions, the best part of about Sleeping Dogs is the controls. The melee combat is finely-tuned, and makes you feel like a complete badass taking down six thugs at once. The driving is also fantastic, which is probably due to the fact that a few of the developers that worked on the game are veterans of the Need for Speed franchise. Elements from Assassin’s Creed and Just Cause are present, as well, with the parkour style running and jumping and the cinematic “action hi-jack” that allows you to jump from one car to another at high speeds. The gun-play is pretty good, though maybe a little clunky. It’s pretty much like the gun-play found in the original True Crime games, as it’s very “John Woo” (I’m pretty sure there’s even an action sequence involving doves) with its emphasis on bullet-time, including jumping over obstacles in slow motion while blasting away bad guys. Seriously, as much as I love GTA, Rockstar could learn a thing or two about driving and combat mechanics from United Front Games.
Despite the bland nature of some of the activities and the predictable story, Sleeping Dogs is a gem. While it’s similar to other games of its ilk, it sets itself apart by delivering a solid character study set in a city that I feel is underused in video games, and by providing gamers with very solid, very fun controls. I’m pleased that United Front and Square Enix decided to take True Crime in a new direction, and deliver an exciting new property that is definitely one of best surprises of 2012.