When describing something to someone in the attempt to familiarize them with said object, having never come into contact with it, the most common method is to associate the aforementioned something with things they already know. So that’s exactly how I’ll start this review of Sleeping Dogs: by immediately laying out its influences and condemning it in your minds.
Since Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game, there is the most obvious influence in the genre: Grand Theft Auto – specifically GTA IV and the serious tone of the narrative that it weaves along the gameplay. Then there is Saints Row: The Third, which lends the game its driving, namely the feel and weight of the cars. Wheelman – Vin Diesel’s masturbation-material action-simulator – throws in some help by way of wayward car-hopping. Just for a dash of originality, fisticuff action and parkour top off the Sleeping Dogs sundae. While those previous lines may sound reductive, Sleeping Dogs is one of the rare games that actually blends the elements together very well and, while bordering on over-familiarity, manages to trump those and be something fun on its own.
One of the main draws of Sleeping Dogs is the narrative. While most open-world games – see the previous paragraph for examples – have decent stories that at least give purpose to the gameplay, Sleeping Dogs is one of the few whose story is not incidental to the gameplay. You play as Wei Shen who, within five minutes of starting the game, we find out is an undercover cop tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee, a local triad. The basis for the story isn’t the most original, and it won’t head in unexpected directions; sure there will be some minor twists but nothing that drastically changes the route of the story. What makes the plot shine so much is the way that it is told through the characters, who are without a doubt some of my favorites in a video game. When United Front designed Sleeping Dogs, the one thing they got nearly-perfect was the cast, from their design to their voice actors and even their mannerisms. They take the eccentric characters from GTA IV and tone them down to give them basis in reality, yet they maintain the same level of interesting features and fit better into the more mature storyline that the game has to offer. These likable characters make the story of Sleeping Dogs easier to digest and, overall, make the well-written story fairly enjoyable.
Wei Shen is no Jet Li, but tell that to the enemies' jaws.
It helps that the story is backed by capable gameplay that bares only a few hitches. As with any open-world game, there are a variety of gameplay elements that all come into play at once, but they mostly boil down to mobility, combat, and collecting. Combat is the place where Sleeping Dogs works wonders as my personally favorite aspect of the game, which is lucky since it’s probably the biggest part of the game too. The combat in Sleeping Dogs is split into two categories: fighting and shooting. Of the two, fighting will occupy most of your time. The brawling contains a three-button martial arts system that has one attack button, a grapple button, and a counter button. Punches and kicks can be strung together into five hits using the attack button; tapping the attack produces a light hit and holding gives you a heavy hit. Throughout the game, you will discover more combos that allow for sequences of light and heavy blows, alongside grapples and sprinting. The game also employs special moves that have Wei grabbing an enemy, then bringing him into contact with a special item in the world where he can perform an instant kill accentuated by an appropriately gory death. The fighting is well done, although there is a notable lack of variety, and the heavy hits can sometimes be hard to execute. Most of the time, I find myself just mashing the attack button in between grapples and counters – which are executed by pressing a button when the attacking enemy turns red. There are also weapons in combat – such as knives, crowbars, pipes, and etcetera – that can be used by opponents and Wei alike to liven up the combat some, but this mostly just gives you the first target to disarm.
The other side to the combat is the shooting. Again, for the most part, this too is well done. Shooting is like any other third-person game, with the exception that it goes into slow motion whenever Wei vaults over cover – did I mention it had cover mechanics? Luckily shooting isn’t all that common to the gameplay. When it does surface, the controls suffice, although I do much prefer the hand-to-hand combat since it seems to be more fun, albeit less efficient.
Mobility in Sleeping Dogs again diverges into two sections: parkour and driving. The parkour isn’t something that you’ll have to do all the time, but you do have to scale fences and such during chase sequences and it doesn’t feel quite right. The timing on the jumps feel off, which leads to a lot of holding the sprint button, then jamming on it anytime you get close to any object and hoping you did okay. It’s not as if the parkour is bad; it just doesn’t work in the way you’d want it to.
Is it wrong to expect the Asain protagonist to be proficient in martial arts?
The driving is another place that I feel the game kind of falls down a bit. The feel of the cars just isn’t right. When you floor the accelerator, there definitely is some speed, but the cornering simultaneously feels too loose yet too tight. It reminds me of Saints Row, yet less consistent with the handling. There is also a car combat mechanic – ripped straight from Wheelman – that has you pressing a button and direction to ram your car into another vehicle to take it out. There is also the car-jumping mechanic from Wheelman that lets Wei steal a car while driving his current one. It all feels odd, and this is a shame for two reasons: one, because there is a lot of driving in the game, so you eventually kind of learn to deal with it, but not completely, and two, because driving safely – i.e. not hitting civilians and other cars – plays into one of the major mechanics in the missions.
That leads into the cop-triad dilemma of the game, since Wei is both an undercover cop and acting as a triad; he has two separate character levels – one for each. When you start a mission, you start with three full shields, representing the cop score, and zero of three triangles, representing the triad score. In order to keep your cop score high, you must avoid property damage, injuring or killing civilians, and anything that a cop would frown upon. On the flip side, you must perform brutal environment finishers and kill hostiles to raise your triad score. At the end of each mission, both scores are tallied into your individual ranks (of which there are ten for each) and every time you level up, you gain an upgrade point to put into their respective trees. The implementation of the upgrade trees is nice since most games just feel as though they tacked them on out of necessity; the scores also add a nice meta-layer that keeps things interesting, but again, the imprecise driving might end up more frustrating than fun if you’re trying to keep the cop score high. The other upgrade paths include the face tree, which fills up as you complete side missions (called favors) for random people. This tree automatically unlocks perks while the fighting tree unlocks a new perk every time you find one of twelve statues that you return to the dojo.
Then there is the collection aspect to the formula, which consists of finding fifty health shrines that upgrade your health by 10% every time you find five of them, and lock boxes that contain money and certain articles of clothing for purchase. Alongside the purchasing of apparel, you can also buy new cars stored in a parking garage that you can drive whenever you want. The collection and buying mechanics aren’t really necessary, but they at least fit into the open-world style of game.
Acting as an undercover cop still has its perks.
Finally, we have the side missions, which include the favors that level up your face rank but tend to be very repetitive. Then there are side cases which usually include multiple steps that slightly tie into the story but aren’t quite necessary. Dating, too, bears no relation to the main story whatsoever. Regardless, the gameplay in Sleeping Dogs is fairly good, minus the driving mechanics and tedious favors for random people.
The final part of the puzzle is the graphics, which are, for lack of a better word, amazing. It might be because I played the PC version with a decent video card, but even on the high settings (the second highest) the game looks incredible. The facial animations and the acting during the cutscenes are particularly impressive, even more so considering they were in-engine. The lighting of the city, especially during the rain-slick nights with the neon bouncing around and off the streets, looks gorgeous and gets me incredibly excited for future games running on high-end video cards.
In short, Sleeping Dogs is a great game. There are a few inconsistencies with the mission structure and gameplay mechanics that just don’t feel there and could have been polished a bit better, but I still highly recommend this undercover drama. The narrative and the look and feel of the world make up for the game’s shortcomings tenfold, and even though the main story lasts about ten hours, getting that 100% completion feels like it will be about a thirty-hour journey, which makes me perfectly comfortable paying for the game.
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Number of Players: 1
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (Reviewed)