Review: Sleeping Dogs
Once upon a time there was True Crime, set on the Streets of Los Angeles first and then moved all the way to New York City. During the following flight over the Pacific to Hong Kong something went amiss, and Activision decided to cancel the game to avoid the competition against other prestigious open world franchises. Luckily Square Enix didn’t share that rather timid attitude and purchased the publishing rights, allowing United Front Games to complete the game’s development under a new title: Sleeping Dogs. Today we finally discover if that gamble paid off.
Sleeping Dogs starts like most epic and hard boiled cop dramas from Hong Kong, with a drug dealer arrested during a police operation. That man, named Wei Shen, isn’t your usual lowlife, but an undercover cop disturbed during his attempt to infiltrate one of the city’s most powerful triads: the Sun On Yee.
Despite having lived for a long time in San Francisco. Wei Shen still has contacts between the younger generation of the Sun On Yee, and plans to find his way into the organization thanks to his old friend Jackie Ma and the support of Commissioner Thomas Pendrew.
Unfortunately Wei’s controller agent doesn’t share Pendrew’s trust towards the young undercover cop, and problems start to arise as the grim reality of every day on the streets starts to make him question his loyalties. The triads are powerful criminal organizations, but are built upon values of brotherhood and honor that a man like Wei Shen can’t easily dismiss.
One of the weakest links of most open world titles is how weak and diluted their story feels. It’s like giving players a large degree of freedom effectively prevents developers from creating a solid underlying story. Characters suffer from the same problem, especially in games that portray a criminal environment, resulting generally unlikable and hard to relate to, when they aren’t a bunch of brainless idiots that you’d want to punch in the face every time they open their foul mouths.
One of the few exceptions has always been the Yakuza franchise by Sega (even if many would say that it fits the open world genre only partially) that managed to mix a lot of freedom of movement with extremely solid storylines and likable, deep characters. United Front Games seems to have taken quite a bit of inspiration from the series set on the other side of the China Sea, choosing a very similar approach to storytelling.
Sleeping Dogs‘ story is definitely deep and well narrated, with an intense use of in-engine cinematic cutscenes and a stellar cast of deep and complex characters that it’s very easy to like (including some of the worst criminals) and to relate with.
It’s hard not to form an emotional connection with Wei Shen and his closest friends. If you appreciate games with a great story and a cast that won’t make you cringe every five minutes, this alone contributes greatly in putting Sleeping Dogs a couple steps above most of its direct competition.
Unfortunately, while I can’t help but appreciate the effort in writing and enacting the story through the game, I can’t avoid feeling a bit disappointed by the fact that it’s linear. For a game that offers so much freedom in its gameplay, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t present us with any real moral choices.
There are no multiple endings like in the previous True Crime games, and considering the loyalty conflict between the Police and the Triad that permeates the whole game, I can’t help but seeing this as a missed opportunity. I can only speculate that United Front Games wanted to put every available resource in designing one exceptional storyline instead of diluting them by working on multiple branches, but it’s still a pity.
The visual impact of Sleeping Dogs is definitely pleasing. While the Hong Kong represented in the game is just a stylized version of the real city, for obvious reasons (the real Hong Kong is so big and sprawling that it would probably result in an obstacle to gameplay more than an asset), it looks absolutely beautiful and gives off a feeling very similar to its real world counterpart. Landmarks are reproduced in great detail, and the density of the world is just astonishing, especially on the PC version of the game.
The contrast between the colorful neons and the thousands of run down air conditioners that are typical of many Asian cities creates a great atmosphere, even thanks to some very solid environmental effects. Rain deserves an honorable mention, thanks to a great rendition on every surface, whether it’s the asphalt or the clothes and skin of characters. Lighting effects are also definitely high-level, creating some very pleasing night-time vistas.
The only evident flaw in Sleeping Dogs‘ environmental design is a degree of inconsistency between textures. While most are realistic and blend well together, some tend to be extremely low quality, especially for the interior or inaccessible shops, that can still be seen through the windows. Unfortunately even the PC-only high resolution texture DLC doesn’t solve this problem. It’s not a terribly big deal, but sometimes it’s noticeable, and tampers with the player’s immersion.
The engine really shines in the rendition of the main characters, portrayed in great detail in both their features and their clothing. Unfortunately this doesn’t transfer very well to secondary characters and passer-by NPCs, that tend to show much less detailed textures and models. While this is understandable due to the size of the world and memory constraints, the overall effect isn’t always as pleasing as it could be.
Visuals steer towards the full-fledged fantastic during the in-engine cutscenes, that are awesome across the board, with characters portrayed in even greater detail than during gameplay, contributing to the emotional connection I mentioned above, and creating a cinematic approach that can’t be defined as anything else than a joy for the eyes.
Combat animations are another undeniable strong point. The fact that actual martial arts choreographers contributed to creating the game is easily noticeable, and the brutal fights that happen in front of our eyes easily hit that sweet spot that makes them look almost like one of those Hong Kong movies that serve as the inspiration for the game, while still leaving us with a very high degree of control. I have to admit that I found myself picking fights in an absolutely random fashion just to enjoy their lovely cinematic effect.
If you want to see more about Sleeping Dogs’ visuals, you can check out my Flickr gallery below. More than 400 screenshots should be enough to satisfy your curiosity.
The audio of the game is probably even better than its already high level graphics. Voice acting can only be defined as stellar. Characters are expressive and well directed, avoiding for the most part the danger of overacting that is always present when you portray people with a thick foreign accent (and quite obviously most characters in the game have a Chinese one). What’s even better is the distribution of roles. There’s no single character in the game whose voice feels out of place, and that’s, in itself, a quite commendable accomplishment.
Will Yun Lee, that plays Wei Shen, isn’t the usual voice you’d expect for that kind of character. His voice isn’t as dry as that of your usual hardcore cop, proving warmer and more expressive, sometimes even bordering into the realm of comedy. The choice gives Wei an even deeper personality and turns him into a very likable protagonist, making the whole game more enjoyable in turn.
Great performances of high caliber actors like Lucy Liu as Vivienne and James Hong as Uncle Po enrich the whole experience further, contributing to the very high quality of the game’s storytelling.
Sound design and music don’t play a backseat role to voice acting, with a definitely varied soundtrack made of a large number of Asian and Chinese tracks that solidify the Eastern atmosphere and sets the stage for a very immersive approach to Sleeping Dogs‘ little Hong Kong.
The gameplay of Sleeping Dogs is strongly rooted in its genre. Most of the time we are granted total freedom to roam the city, with missions and activities displayed on the map with appropriate icons. The city itself, despite being a stylized and smaller rendition of the real Hong Kong, is definitely expansive with a lot of secret areas to discover, often hiding bonuses and loot, encouraging exploration.
There are two kind of main missions: Triad Missions and Police Cases. Both progress the story in a rather linear way, and while triad missions are mostly based on fighting, police cases tend to involve a more reasoned approach, including tailing targets and solving puzzles. Both are normally varied and well designed, putting the game’s great storytelling under a bright spotlight.
Further entertainment is provided by a wide array of secondary activities that range from races to favors to be performed for a sizable number of NPCs, passing by dates with a few female characters, martial art tournaments, karaoke and hacking security cameras in order to bust the city’s drug dealers. Variety is definitely one of the game’s strong points and there’s always a lot of things to do at any given time.
During missions and activities the player can improve his characters through three separate progression systems. Triad points are acquired simply by wreaking havoc. The more people you’ll kill, the more brutal you’ll be, the more the Triad will respect you, unlocking new hand-to-hand moves and abilities with melee weapons. Cop points are awarded for investigations, activities that involve the police and for completing missions without causing too much collateral damage to innocent civilians, items and vehicles. They unlock mostly vehicle and firearms-related perks.
Your Face value is improved through a wide variety of activities and represents your social standing. The higher your Face level, the more luxurious clothes and vehicles you’ll be able to purchase, turning Wei Shen from a simple foot soldier dressed like a street hoodlum into a real boss wearing signature suits and driving supercars.
The ability to purchase and unlock outfits in the game is definitely a welcome option, with an extremely wide variety of clothes available, that will probably give every player plenty room to express his own style and tastes (even if no one will see it, since Sleeping Dogs doesn’t have any real multiplayer option), but the Face value requirements seem a bit redundant. It doesn’t make much sense that, despite having your pockets full of money, you can’t buy yourself a suit until the shopkeeper decides that your reputation is good enough.
Driving is definitely a large component of the game, and it’s implemented in a very sleek way. The physical models of both cars and bikes hits a sweet spot between a relatively realistic feel determined by weight and inertia and the arcade approach typical of this genre of games. I can easily go out on a limb and say that, between all the open world games I played so far, Sleeping Dogs is the one in which driving feels the smoothest.
This contributes to the entertainment provided by the races available in game, that are definitely some of the most fun in the genre also thanks to the nature of the city itself, that alternates small alleys with much wider highways and winding hillside roads. Courses are normally a lot more tolerant of errors than most of those I have experienced in other open world games, avoiding frustrating backtracking in the case of a turn missed y just a few feet.
The ability to purchase and actually own cars, that is often overlooked in this kind of game, is another welcome design choice that removes the cumbersome necessity to somehow save the cars we steal.
While most of the activities you’ll encounter in the city are definitely very enjoyable, a few aren’t as flashed out as they could be. You’d expect a game based in the seedy underbelly of Hong Kong to have a strong gambling aspect, but all you’ll find is a cockfighting minigame where you just bet on one of the birds and hope it’ll win, and a simplified version of poker played with Mahjong tiles.
For some reason game developers (excluding Sega with the Yakuza series) seem to think that we’re too stupid to play real Mahjong, and always give us this kind of simplified stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with the original besides the use of its tiles. That’s definitely regrettable, considering that Mahjong is a very enjoyable and deep strategy game, and considering its popularity in Hong Kong, it would have been a great addition to both the game’s flavor and to the depth of its gameplay.
Another slightly disappointing feature are the few dates with some of the female characters of the game. You’ll get to date each of them once after they appeared in the game’s storyline, play some kind of challenge that involves their background, unlock a map marker for one of the elements of the game as a reward, and then proceed to forget their existence.
A couple of the ladies return later with very limited roles, but none of them plays a really central part in the story. That’s probably the only weak point of the game’s storytelling, with romance extremely underplayed, which is rather surprising considering that it normally plays a very important role in the Asian cop dramas that serve as the main inspiration for the game. While the annoying, overbearing and obsessive dates of Grand Theft Auto IV weren’t exactly the climax of my gaming experience, I’m not sure downplaying them this much is any better.
So far you’re probably thinking that Sleeping Dogs looks a lot like the love child of Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza, and you’d be partly right. It’s doubtless that it draws quite a lot of inspiration from both franchises, but it still manages to give an original and extremely pleasing spin to one of the main pillars upon which the game is based: Combat.
Sleeping Dogs is, essentially, a martial arts flick turned game, so it needed an extremely solid hand to hand combat system. United Front Games went to great lengths to create just that, and I can easily say that they achieved their objective fully, and not just thanks to the fluid and natural animations that I already mentioned before.
Hand to hand fighting in Sleeping Dogs is heavily based on the tactical use of combos and counters. There’s an extremely deep range of available offensive combos (that can be expanded by finding Jade statues in the game’s world and by gaining Triad ranks), that give Wei Shen a wide variety of heavy-hitting attack options, easily comparable to those of a dedicated fighting game like Dead or Alive or Tekken, but the system is made even deeper and more enjoyable by how counters are implemented.
When an enemy is about to attack, he will briefly flash red. If a counter is activated during that interval, Wei Shen will execute a counter that won’t generally deal much damage (unless the life of the enemy is already depleted, in which case the counter will turn into a brutal finisher), but will interrupt the attack and open the enemy to retaliation.
In most games that feature counters, when you use an attack your ability to counter is disabled until that attack is completed. It’s an attempt by the developers to keep difficulty up, but it has the undeniable effect of making the character look like a robot that can’t change his mind in the middle of a move and that attacks and defends in a rather unnatural, disjointed fashion. In addition to that, it discourages aggressive combat.
In Sleeping Dogs this doesn’t happen. As long as you counter at the right time, no matter what you’re doing, Wei Shen will instantly and fluidly cancel his current action and execute the counter, and will be able to attack again as soon as the counter is done. There’s no interruption in the action unless you counter at the wrong time, creating an absolutely spectacular and extremely enjoyable flow between attack and defense that will really make you feel like you’re watching a martial arts movie.
Some may think that this instant counter system is overpowered, but difficulty is balanced by adding more enemies and by often giving them weapons, with the result that combat remains challenging most of the times (especially in the excellent martial arts tournaments), while still correctly portraying Wei Shen as a Martial Arts flick hero, able to face hordes of enemies and come out bloodied but unbowed after a breathtaking exchange of blows executed almost like a dance.
Add to that an extensive grappling system, enriched by the contextual use of the environment that will allow you to execute some of the most brutal and spectacular finishers in the fighting genre, and you get one of the best Martial Arts combat systems ever implemented in a game of this kind, if not the best. I know it sounds like a bold statement, but that’s just how it is. I can’t remember another game in which I didn’t grow tired, after a while, of fighting the usual horde of rank-and-file goons. After finishing Sleeping Dogs, I already started a second play-through, simply because I want more goons to beat to a pulp in such a spectacular fashion.
Shootouts are a bit more rare than hand to hand combat, but even here United Front Games created something rather original for us to enjoy with a very interesting aggressive cover system. In most cover shooters we’re prompted to find an object to hide behind and poke out and shoot until all the enemies are defeated. Then repeat until the level is completed.
In Sleeping Dogs this kind of approach is quite ineffective. After all that’s not how Hong Kong flick heroes behave, isn’t it?
Instead of just cowering behind an obstacle, we’re encouraged to aggressively vault over it and towards the enemy. When that happens the scene is immediately slowed down with a bullet time effect, giving us more time to aim at the enemies in front of us and to find the next cover. Every headshot performed during the bullet time extends it further, turning firefights in a more reasoned and tactical experience than the usual twitch-heavy third person shooter gameplay. It also looks a lot better and more spectacular, which is an added bonus.
The same principle has been applied to vehicle combat. In most games that feature aiming a gun from a car you’re also driving at the same time, hitting anything is a real nightmare, turning the whole experience into more of a chore than anything resembling any sort of fun.
In Sleeping Dogs slow motion is activated as soon as you start firing from a car or bike, letting you aim accurately as you don’t need to focus as much on avoiding an untimely end against a wall. It creates a much more enjoyable experience enriched by the ability to literally make cars jump in a movie-like fashion when shooting their tires and by the possibility to hijack another car on the fly simply by jumping on it from the one you’re currently driving. It definitely brings vehicle combat to a different level, and it’s just a lot of fun. What’s not to love?
While the game doesn’t feature any kind of direct multiplayer or co-op, it comes with an online social hub that lets you compare the results of your missions, races and challenges with those of your friends and in a set of global leaderboard. Whatever you’re doing in the game, the system is constantly scoring you according to a multitude of parameters, that are afterwards compared online.
You’re also allowed to challenge your friends’ scores in basically every single element. It’s definitely not as extensive as a full-fledged online mode, but it’s definitely much better than nothing. As an added bonus, it lets you replay basically every nission and activity in the game to improve your score, extending its longevity further.
While Sleeping Dogs exhibits a few minor flaws here and there, and misses the opportunity of pairing the freedom in gameplay with the freedom of choosing the outcome of the story, it’s a definitely solid experience that shouldn’t be missed by any fan of the open world action genre, not to mention all those that love Hong Kong movies and their setting.
If you’ve been waiting for an open world thriller that doesn’t sacrifice storytelling and character depth, offering one of the best hand to hand combat system in gaming, enriched by great driving, awesome writing and a charming setting, Sleeping Dogs is just the game you’re looking for, no questions asked. Just make sure to remember to drive on the left side of the street. The game is set in Hong Kong, after all.