Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 14, 2012
When it comes to “troubled” development cycles, Sleeping Dogs certainly deserves to fall in this category. Originally announced as a new IP back in 2009, the game was very nearly True Crime: Hong Kong, but delays and budget concerns caused Activision to cancel the title. As a result, it allowed Square-Enix to swoop in, return it to a new franchise, and voila, Sleeping Dogs is as we know it today. At first glance, it would seem easy to write this game off as Grand Theft Auto: Hong Kong, but this impression would be sorely mistaken and might cause you to miss a gem in the start of the fall season.
The story of Sleeping Dogs is that the player character, Wei Shen, has returned to Hong Kong to help reign in the rampant criminal element, the Sun on Yee of the Triad. The story is, admittedly, not the most inspired, calling to mind movies such as Infernal Affairs, or Donny Brasco, but that never stop it from being intriguing and interesting. Wei Shen is a surprisingly human character, which helps us relate to him, despite his extraordinary circumstances, and many of the characters we meet along the way are unique and compelling.
Part of what makes the story successful is a unique leveling system that features three distinct tress: Face, Triad and Cop. Triad and Cop are often leveled simply by completing missions within the story, and the amount of points for each tree is determined by your ability and conduct. For instance, you earn Cop points for being cautious and careful when driving and interacting with citizens, and doing Cop-centric missions; whereas you earn Triad points by effectively beating and intimidating your foes and doing Triad-centric missions. Face experience is more of an overall Hong Kong experience, earned by helping citizens and doing missions about town. Each tree has its own perks and helps round you as a character.
But all of this would be meaningless if the gameplay wasn’t good and for a game with such a tumultuous development, Sleeping Dogs shines in this category, too. As mentioned, it may be easy to compare this to a GTA title, but the combat and gunplay are overwhelmingly superior to Rockstar’s franchise. Most of the combat is hand-to-hand, as guns are scarce in Hong Kong, and while not as smooth as Batman: Arkham City, it’s in the same vein. The counter abilities allow you to apply a little more strategy,* and the use of environmental objects as grappling points is a nice touch, too. At first glance, the gunplay segments seem to be your standard cover-based, “shoot everything” system, complete with admittedly tired bullet time mechanic but again, United Front manages to perfect this system, too.
Also polished is the driving. The map is big enough and well laid out to allow satisfying speed runs, drifts and racing. As a person who generally loathes any driving segments and grew tired of “steal fast car and run into stuff” as a game mechanic, I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and handling in Sleeping Dogs. Though a word to the wise: practice your clean driving (not hitting anything) because it’s a skill that will come in handy, if for no other reason than to compete with your friends via the Social Hub.
That’s not to say the game is perfect, mind you. On more than a couple of occasions, the minimap’s GPS lead me in long, bad routes, which was irksome. Also, while the story is good and compelling, the end leaves a little to be desired–there were ample opportunities to take a more intelligent, clever route, though ultimately they take the easier route. Also, the voice acting suffers in spots. Most of the main characters do a solid job, but a lot of the celebrity voices feel phoned in at best. As much as I love Tom Wilkinson, his turn as Pendrew was not very good.
Despite these minor complaints, the game is solid all-around. If nothing else, it marks a new franchise in a sea of sequels, and it clocks in at over 20 hours making it a great value. If you’re looking for a fresh take on the sandbox genre, you should check it out.
*Maybe I’m just a raging UFC fan, but Georges St. Pierre’s influence is pretty apparent in the style of the hand-to-hand combat. Just throwing that out there.