The Game: Sleeping Dogs (2012)
Developer: United Front Games/Square Enix London
Publisher: Square Enix
System: XBox 360, PS3, PC
Buy It On Amazon: RIGHT HERE
The Premise: Wei Shen is an undercover cop, working the Triad gangs in Hong Kong, driven by the need to avenge the criminals who ruined his sister, and fast finds out that neither side may be what they pretend to be.
Is It Any Good: It doesn’t suck. The places where it excels are with its setting, some decent, though cliche-riddled, writing, a fine, eclectic collection of voice actors, an even more eclectic soundtrack, possibly one of THE most eclectic soundtracks in gaming, a fine hand-to-hand combat system, and some of the best vehicular combat in the genre. Where it fails is, well, in the fact that it’s nearly impossible TO fail with any of this. So, it averages out to “It doesn’t suck.”
The main issue with Sleeping Dogs is that its pedigree shows. The game started life as True Crime: Hong Kong, and feels like it, though it’s definitely doing ambitious things its forebears wouldn’t have dreamed. But it’s so very concerned with herding players along to the next meticulously crafted story mission that it forgets to take off the open world shackles until far too much time has passed. And those open world shackles are by far the weakest parts of the game.
Its greatest strength is in the fact that you don’t notice for long stretches of gameplay. The actual mechanics of the game are rock solid, and show quite a few straight up level-to-level shooter/action titles how it should be done. The melee combat in particular, is deep, tough, and satisfying as hell. It goes from being a straight, Arkham Asylum button masher to a full 3D Virtua Fighter situation with a graceful ease. Bones can be broken, the environment can be used for Punisher style finishing moves that get progressively more brutal, and actually affect how your enemies react in combat due to their sheer shock.
The gunplay is also addictive in its own right. For one thing, the game takes Hong Kong’s actual relative dearth of handguns into account. There’s no Ammu-Nation to run off to if this looks like a job for a rocket launcher. Any and all weapons you get are carried over from missions, and once they’re out of ammo, that’s all folks. The upshot is that the game steals some of Max Payne’s bag of tricks, in that sliding across a table/chest-high wall while aiming sends Wei into slow motion, where enemies and objects can be targeted more easily, at the risk of exposing yourself to every enemy in range. It creates a situation where every shot counts in every possible aspect. It even carries over to the cutscenes, where any character being shot has a surprising amount of weight. In a genre all too eager to go trigger happy, it represents a welcome change of pace.
In addition, the game’s vehicular side is tight as a drum. You have the usual selection of fast cars and bikes, but being able to hop out of the car, onto the roof of another vehicle, barely hang on while hijacking it in the middle of traffic, turn around, blow the tires off a pursuer, and watch the car crash into his buddies is the kind of addictive joy I’m pretty sure they build sterile facilities to cure. But when you’re not being that level of badass, the car/bike physics are also great enough where the myriad street races dotted around the city would be good enough to give the Need For Speeds of the world a run for their money.
If these were the game, it’d be kind of a brilliant, and blissfully short actioner. But it’s not. It’s a nigh-30-hour open world title, and the need of the game to fill in the gaps cuts the game’s ambitions off at the knees. The game keeps the player going because Wei Shen is actually a well-fleshed out, interesting character, hewn from his HK action film influences, and the character’s personal history, and slow descent into the criminal underworld is good stuff. And yet, the more I found myself invested in Wei Shen’s story, the less I cared about driving around randomly. My goal become wanting to see Wei Shen succeed at bringing down the Triads, or rise to criminal glory, or pick a side, period. The Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs is pretty, and well realized, but the true test of any open world title is how much time you find yourself wanting to just be in it with no real agenda. GTA: San Andreas, I still get the itch every few months to pop that game in, and just drive around San Fierro and all points north just for the sheer peace. Assassins Creed 1 is still scattershot as a game, but I still will take a minute or two to futz about on the rooftops every once in a blue moon. While The Third came close, Saints Row has only finally gotten to hit that sweet spot with IV, where just the feeling of being in the air, cruising at 5,000 feet between skyscrapers, landing, and running the streets is my current idea of heaven. Sleeping Dogs, it’s just the distance between story missions, and one gets the feeling of “except for the story, I would not want to hang around here”.
Yes, of course there’s stuff in between. Aside from the aforementioned street races, there’s massage parlors, and soda machines to boost your attributes before running into another fight. There’s a drug bust system to help your cop buddies. There’s myriad clothing options. You earn new melee combat moves by going to the random martial arts studios around town. And then there’s karaoke. The problem is just how perfunctory it all is. The drug busts pretty much encapsulate everything wrong with the game in one fell swoop. Drug busts involve clearing an area of bad guys, which is fun, enjoyable, and challenging–especially once the knife-wielding assholes show up–you hack into a nearby security camera, head back to your sweet cop bachelor pad to point out the drug supplier on camera, and wait for the 5-0 to slap the cuffs on. On paper, sounds great. In reality, the hacking is the same easy minigame over and over, and when you return to your pad to point out the supplier, here’s a hint: It’s the guy in the suit. If by any chance, you can’t see the guy in the suit, the game is kind enough to put a GIANT NEON ARROW over the guy in the suit. And this is the kind of guide for the vast majority of the non-gunfight/street fight gameplay. There’s no challenge if the same button every time allows me to do the game’s most complicated maneuvers. It basically just becomes Dragon’s Lair if Wei doesn’t have the opportunity to fail, and fail miserably, and fail often.
Sleeping Dogs‘ main problem essentially becomes more being less. The game’s heart is in being a solid HK Max Payne, masquerading as an open world crime game, and while it certainly looks the part, its open world elements just aren’t ready for prime time. And yet, when the game is on point, it definitely has its charms. I’d have felt a bit dismayed if this were a $60 purchase. For $20, though, as it is now? It’s a minor, though flawed gem.
Trivia: The Triad names have been slightly changed to protect the not-even-remotely innocent, but yeah, they’re based on real gangs, and are just as much not to be fucked with under any circumstances. The real Sun On Yee alone has over 60,000 members operating worldwide.
Listen to Ninja Tune Radio long enough, you’ll hear a pleasant sounding advertisement for the island of Panau from Just Cause 2.
Out of the three DLC packs available, Nightmare In North Point uses Asian horror mythology well, but don’t expect Undead Nightmare quality here. The Tournament pack is smirkingly cool, but no great shakes. Run with Year of the Snake. It at least acts as a fancy epilogue.
WANNA PLAY AS YOUR FAVORITE ASIAN MOVIE CHARACTER?
Outfit – Movie
Hog Pen Row – Sing’s final outfit from Kung Fu Hustle
Manhattan Melee - Jackie Chan’s outfit in Rumble In The Bronx
Bon Gak – Tony Jaa’s outfit from Ong Bak
Shen Zen – Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury/Chinese Connection
Hai Tien – DAT YELLOW TRACKSUIT from Game of Death
Part Time Assassin – Andy Lau in Fulltime Killer
Inspector Suit – Infernal Affairs
Mr. Black – Reservoir Dogs
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: John Woo’s Stranglehold, Shenmue 2, Yakuza 4, Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars