Time to teach an old dog new tricks.
Reviewed on the Xbox 360 by Alex Trotter-Fernandez
In a world where Grand Theft Auto rules the crime ridden streets of the digital world, few games have come close to its brilliance. Last year I raved about Saints Row the Third, a game that came close to ridding Rockstar of their crown through fun and varied gameplay. However it dropped the ball in creating a a believable living world. Many open world titles have bettered Rockstar flagship in some way or another, but none have come close to creating the kind of synergy that you’ll find in Liberty City or Red Dead Redemption. That is until Sleeping Dogs hit the shelves.
Sleeping Dogs is the killer hit of the summer that you’ve never heard of. Whilst it never quite matches Rockstar’s world building skills, it takes all of the best innovations from previous open world adventures and improves on them. It’s a hard-boiled narrative filled with engaging characters and riveting action packed set pieces. Whilst it’s certainly derivative of it’s genre, the way in which every piece comes together creates a unique experience that threatens to topple Rockstar from their throne.
The set up is remarkably simple. Wei Shen is an under cover cop infiltrating the Triad through any means necessary. Along the way he must earn the trust of the higher ups and work his way through the organization in order to take it down. Although this is a cliched story that’s been told a thousand times before, it’s the execution of the narrative that sets the game apart. How Sleeping Dogs differentiates itself from the likes of Grand Theft Auto is through character and Wei Shen is quite possibly one of the most complex characters I’ve seen in a Video Game.
Although his motives seem transparent and revenge driven at first, lines become repeatedly blur as Shen loses his identity and grasp of which side he’s on. Loyalty is a strong and recurrent theme that drives the story, and through spending time with the Triad completing various jobs we get to know the many supporting characters that appear in the game. Although they dabble in drug dealing and murder we grow to like them as people, even the smallest roles becoming fully rounded characters through their convictions and motives. The stellar voice acting certainly helps create a certain amount of believability that works well with a superbly intelligent script.
Most importantly though Shen is the ultimate bad ass, a culmination of Chow Yun Fat, Tony Jaa and Bruce Lee. Everything he does, from kicking ass to driving cars, he does so with incredibly violent skill. Sleeping Dogs allows you to embody a character that works within the narrative, and unlike Niko Bellic, is an interesting force of nature that isn’t incredibly dull. It’s the emphasis of Kung Fu over gunplay that allows Sleeping Dogs to feel like a completely different kind of game with a unique protagonist.
The martial arts combat is what really makes this game and although it lacks the fluidity and refinement of Arkham City, it feels great to kick ass. The fighting system is deep in the sense as you progress you learn more combo’s to create devastating bone breaking blows. The real fun part if the emphasis on the use of the environment as a weapon. Wei can grapple an enemy and interact with certain items to create a spectacular violent finishing move. You can crush opponents with an engine block, rip their face apart with a circular saw or simply impale them on a bed of Swordfish. With a variety of finishing moves, melee weapons and combos you can dispatch the enemy in anyway you see fit. Unlike most similar titles, Sleeping Dogs offers a huge amount of choice in your style of play.
Likewise the gunplay is similarly fun and complex. Weapons feel powerful and with amazing set pieces that pay homage Hong Kong action flicks like Hard Boiled and The Killers – you often feel like your in a John Woo movie. Slow motion is introduced into the gunplay, triggered when vaulting over objects to create stylistic action sequences. It’s designed in such away that hiding behind cover is a boring way of playing, vaulting over objects and jumping of ledges while shooting in slow motion is the way to go, and it propels the narrative forward.
Vehicular combat also uses gunplay in often spectacular ways. A carefully aimed shot to the tires causes a car to flip up in the air in slow motion creating vehicular carnage. Wei can also perform an awesome move called an action hijack, in which you leap from your moving car onto another vehicle to take control. Overall the driving feels fantastic in the game, particularly the motorcycles. Whilst it’s never realistic, its fun to control a vehicle and most importantly it feels fast and furious.
Wei can also traverse the streets and rooftops of Hong Kong via foot. Through timed button presses he leaps, climbs and slides across the city in a cinematic way. Chasing bad guys via foot turns into a set piece itself, feeling like it belongs in a big action movie. Think the market chase sequence in Ong Bak and you’ve got the right idea. The world is very much alive, although doesn’t feel as functional as Liberty City. The civilians in Sleeping Dogs often feel like they’re just there, and never quite feel like a living breathing part of the city. They also have a habit of walking in front of your vehicle and not budging when you honk. It’s a shame because the Hong Kong setting is amazing with breath taking vistas and dazzling neon lights. Every part of the city has it’s own unique identity, and whilst Liberty City was certainly more alive, it all felt too similar with neighborhoods melting into each other.
All of the awesome things Wei can do in the world are tied together with a robust leveling system. Whilst playing through a mission you can earn Cop Points and Triad Points. Cop Points are earned through safe driving and not murdering bystanders, whilst Triad points are earned through brutality towards your enemies. As you earn XP you unlock new moves and abilities. There’s also a Face meter, in which you earn XP through doing favors and competing in street races.
There are also plenty of side mission, jobs and favors to complete in Sleeping Dogs. Cop missions are probably the most interesting, deviating from the traditional shoot stuff template. There’s an emphasis on investigation and following leads, introducing interesting mechanics where you bug offices, hack cameras and triangulate phone calls. Favors, whilst fun, can get repetitive after smashing a car up with a crow bar for the third time. You can also collect debts, compete in street races, and show of your skills in fight clubs. A cool addition is offshore gambling rigs and cock fights, although the mini games are simple at best and noway near as complex as Poker in Red Dead Redemption. There’s also a Karaoke mini game, similar to Guitar Hero, which is a fun distraction but not really worth your time.
There’s also a ton of collectibles to be discovered through out the game, thankfully all of which add something of value to your character, unlike certain pigeons in certain games. Health Shrines increase your overall health, statues unlock more combat moves and lock boxes contain cash, weapons and apparel. It’s not a chore finding all these items, playing “date” missions adds the locations of all these items to your map. The dating missions themselves are a weak link, it’s a shame with so much depth in the characters that these relationships feels so false and superficial.
Sleeping Dogs is not without it’s problems, the action is often hampered with a wonky camera that has a mind of it’s own. Combat can be very difficult, and can be on occasion frustrating until you’ve unlocked more moves. Graphically Sleeping Dogs has a few issues, problems with texture loading and some serious pop in plague the game. Character models whilst looking good can have a rather waxy appearance, and lip syncing is always a little bit off. Despite this it still looks pretty good on consoles and is comparable to most open world games.
Sleeping Dogs might well be the sleeper hit of the year. It’s a faster, more streamlined and aggressive game than Grand Theft Auto IV. I’m going to go out on a limb and say overall Sleeping Dog is a more satisfying experience, with a far more exciting and engaging narrative. It’s criminal not as many people know about this game, it’s really worth getting a hold of even if it’s a bit short. To do absolutely everything should take no more than thirty hours, and after completing everything I couldn’t help but think the world was very empty. Luckily you can replay missions, which are in themselves varied and extremely fun, adding to re-playability with online friends leaderboards. I highly recommend picking up this game, especially with the long wait to Grand Theft Auto V. Let’s just say Rockstar will need to raise the bar on that one.