Game: Sleeping Dogs
Developer: United Front
Publisher: Square Enix
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC and OnLive (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
I’m going to get the obvious comparison out of the way straight away, Sleeping Dogs, like its spiritual predecessors in the True Crime series of titles, is undeniably influenced by the Grand Theft Auto series. However, in the case of Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games have taken that influence, and built upon it with such aplomb and finesse that it is not only the best open world offering we’ve seen this year, but it’s arguably the best we’ve ever seen.
STORY: Sleeping Dogs follows the story of Wei Shen, an undercover cop returning from time spent in San Francisco to help destroy the Sun On Yee, one of Hong Kong’s largest Triads. With the help of Police Superintendent Pendrew, his handler Raymond and Inspector Teng, Wei Shen sets out working his way up through the ranks of the Sun On Yee, befriending old acquaintances from his childhood in the rough Old Prosperity project at the same time.
As the story unfolds, and Wei climbs his way up the ladder, you begin to understand the intricacies of a Triad gang, and the in-fighting that comes alongside the honour and loyalty that the Sun On Yee prides itself on. Alongside that, Wei continuously has to balance his commitments as an officer of the law, being plagued by doubts and guilt over his actions, as well as the increasing danger of removing or having arrested colleagues and friends; all while attempting to keep his cover.
All things considered, the story of Sleeping Dogs is an excellently weaved tale, complete with everything you’d want or need from a gangland thriller: Mystery, suspense, action and plenty of gore. Throw in a couple of car chases, and you’ve essentially got an excellent interactive take on the crime films that John Woo and Chow Yun Fat become eponymous with in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
GRAPHICS: The cityscape of Hong Kong comes to life in Sleeping Dogs through the game’s presentation. With the vast skyscrapers of Central to the neon-lit market districts in North Point, the place feels like a living breathing city, with the graphics being a huge part of that. Whilst they’re not the most sensational or technologically stunning visuals, they do the job and look pleasant while doing so. The character models are similarly strong, with the animations believable and realistic.
SOUND: The characters in the game are similarly brought to life by a superb voice acting cast, with notable Asia-based actors such as Edison Chen, Tzi Ma and Chin Han joining familiar Western names like Lucy Liu, Emma Stone and Will Yun Lee, the talent on show is superb, adding perfectly to the blockbuster feel of the game.
When you’re in vehicles, the radio soundtrack is similarly top-notch. With top record labels like Roadrunner Records having their own stations alongside more generalized stations like Sagittarius FM (the classic rock station) and Kerrang! Radio (an indie rock station), the music at your disposal in a car, on a bike or in a boat is sublime. Unfortunately, each radio station has only a relatively small collection of tracks, as you’d expect, and this means plenty of repetition.
GAMEPLAY: As an open-world title, Sleeping Dogs follows the same basic structure as you’d expect, there are missions to be done and you can do them as and when you choose, as long as you’ve progressed enough or met certain criteria. However, whilst the core is familiar, the way the game handles it is different. For a start, there are several different variations of objectives. Whilst the primary, story-based objectives all revolve around the acceptance of Triad missions, indicated by green icons, much of the game’s variety can be found in the other missions. The blue icons of Police Investigation missions, that often involve you going undercover while trying to maintain your Triad cover, signify some of the most enjoyable parts of the game. It’s just a shame there are only four cases. The favours, indicated by the yellow icons, increase with your Face Level and become more and more apparent the more well known you are.
XP plays a huge role in the game, with 3 types of XP being crucial to your development as a character and the game’s development as a whole. By completing certain tasks, without being penalized for unacceptable behaviour or not beating up enough bad guys, you earn a Triad level and a Police level. As these levels increase through the accumulation of XP, via Triad missions, police missions and Drug Busts, you are able to unlock abilities. These abilities then change how able Wei is in the field; everything from unlocking a device that allows you to steal cars without setting off alarms to the ability to slow down time when vaulting objects whilst aiming with your gun are included. The third type of XP, the aforementioned Face Level, does not influence your abilities, but instead provides more favours to complete as well as increasing the effectiveness of your Face Meter in combat.
That brings me to by far the best aspect of Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay; the combat. As you’d expect in a place, like Hong Kong, with an extensive history of the teaching and implementation of Martial Arts, a game like this, with a heavy reliance on hand-to-hand combat throughout, needed a strong and versatile system. That’s exactly what the game has, with the rhythmic combat utilizing martial arts moves whilst retaining a brutal feel that is reminiscent of the Arkham series of Batman games by Rocksteady. Whilst large combos aren’t the aim, the flow and fluidity of counters, roundhouse kicks and the brutal environmental attacks, where you can use items such as fans, table saws and toilets to provide a quick and gruesome end to your enemies, all benefit Sleeping Dogs. Add to that a comprehensive cover system, which utilizes elements of free-running as well as staples of the third-person shooter genre like blindfire and vaulting cover, and Sleeping Dogs can give any of its contemporaries a run for their money.
The collectibles in the game also play a part in improving your characters. Rather than being something utterly meaningless, like the elusive pigeons you had to find in Grand Theft Auto IV, the main collectibles in Sleeping Dogs all provide you with benefits. The 12 Jade Statues littered about town allow you to return them to a Martial Arts sensei in return for additional combos and abilities, while Lockboxes provide you with money and Health Shrines, dotted around the city, restore your health as well as boosting your maximum health when found in multiples of five. If the idea of hunting for collectibles without any kind of map is a daunting one, then you’ll be pleased to know that, when you successfully complete one of the various dates that Wei can go on with women he encounters during the story, a certain class of collectible will be highlighted on your mini-map, allowing you to collect them in a much simpler way without removing the difficulty of first having to be in the vicinity to be alerted to them.
The quickest way around Hong Kong is of course by car, and it’s pleasing that the cars handle and look fantastic. With a wide variety of vehicles, ranging from Limos to speedboats and from supercars to mopeds, there’s no lack of ways of getting around the city and the waters that surround it. If that wasn’t enough, United Front Games, previously known solely for their development of racing titles, have included around 20 races dotted around the city in order for you to complete, with each feeling responsive and not simply a tacked on item used to fill the game.
The things you can do around the city also feel like they’re not simply tacked on but woven into the fabric as well, from Karaoke to clothes shopping, from hijacking security trucks for money to stealing certain cars and collecting debts, there’s plenty of stuff to do in Sleeping Dogs, and Hong Kong truly feels like a vibrant, alive city.
With no multiplayer included, the competitiveness of the game instead has to come through online leaderboards, which provide you with statistic updates on everything from blindfire kills from cover to how long you’ve spent driving ‘cleanly’ around the world. These are interesting, and instil a sense of competition much like leaderboards do in the Trials series, but they’re really just a side-product to an excellent single-player experience.
LONGEVITY: With a main story lasting 14 hours, and a whole host of other missions and activities to do that add that again, Sleeping Dogs is a game that will give you plenty of fun back, provided you invest the time in it. Investing time is something that you’ll want to do too, as that elusive 100% completion is a constant spectre, and with it infinitely more achievable than in Grand Theft Auto IV, completionists, achievement hunters and fans of the game alike will find plenty to keep them occupied.
VERDICT: Whilst the game features no slumbering canines, the fact that Sleeping Dogs is an admirable and enthralling open-world action game, with everything you could possibly want built upon with an excellent array of other features and enough content to keep you busy for a considerable period of time, it easily justifies Square Enix’s decision to pick up the game after it was canned by Activision. That in turn justifies my decision to recommend the game to every man, woman or child who will listen. It’s not a perfect game, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the strongest games of this genre you’ll see this generation.