The arrival of a new open-world sandbox game immediately evokes two reactions from me; one is exhausted exhalation and the other is a feeling that hopefully the developer knows that this genre has been done to death and that they are trying something new. More often than not we will feel let down, our hopes dashed by the lack of distinction and the derivation that titles in this genre seem to be content in delivering. With bloodied knuckles and a bad attitude in walks the latest contender to challenge the dominance of the Grand Theft Auto series in the form of United Front Games’ Sleeping Dogs.
Enter the world (I nearly said dragon) of detective Wei Shen, undercover cop and martial artist extraordinaire. Having infiltrated triad organisation the Sun On Yee through an old acquaintance Wei finds himself forced to prove himself within his newfound company and also becomes embroiled in the internal power struggles of the wider organisation. On top of this Wei has to also balance his work as a police officer and as the two worlds start to merge so do the lines between right and wrong, doing the right thing begins to fade into a shade of grey. It’s not unique by any stretch of the imagination but it is a genuinely engaging piece of work, there is a real sense of volatility within this world where friends and enemies swap sides when the wind blows. The twists and turns that inevitably emerge in the narrative again are not original but they are delivered through a, for the most part, strong script that engages and rarely loses your attention. What also helps sell the story is the wealth and quality of the voice talent, from Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen, Lucy Lui and the absolutely wonderful Emma Stone to name but a few all ensuring the vocal element never disappoints.
Sleeping Dogs wastes no time in throwing you into the story, no sooner have you pressed ‘start’ than you are vaulting between buildings in a wonderful tutorial disguised as a chase scene. It’s almost refreshing that there is no real preamble before the game starts, as much as we can wax lyrical on the customisable characters of the likes of Saints Row it delays the game from actually getting going as you are blinded by a wealth of options. There is something more involving with just assuming the role of a character, it’s a much more human relationship you develop with your new found avatar as he doesn’t verge on the ridiculousness of a morbidly obese tank top wearing anti-hero with a zombie voice. That’s not to say that those levels of customisation are a bad thing, there is just no way that it would have worked in Sleeping Dogs where there is a genuine story built on intrigue and moral choices.
One real asset that Sleeping Dogs has is its setting, the streets of this imaginary version of Hong Kong brim with character, colour and most importantly ‘life’. Each of the four districts within the game are realised with a creative fidelity that is found wanting in many games within the genre. The key to this is that the overall game map is not unfathomably large, that is not to say that there is no room for exploration as there is a lot to see, but more so it has been designed to deliver smaller areas of quality than miles and miles of mediocre design. From the claustrophobic market districts replete with neon signs and countless stalls to the high rise opulence of city streets you find very distinct areas to kick, punch, shoot and drive through. While in reality there are the expected repeated character models, scripted events and nonsensical dialogue there is a genuine ambience that permeates throughout and you can almost hear and feel the city breathe with life. I was constantly amused by the ramblings of my next door neighbour and her sister who would lament their personal lives every time I walked past, these little moments are genuinely funny and well crafted.
When we get down to the mission structure and the core elements of the game this is where it could be easy to lose a bit of enthusiasm for the way Sleeping Dogs presents itself. It is quite literally like playing ‘Sandbox Game Bingo’, from the minimaps to the wanted levels, from your mobile phone to your in-car radio stations it all feels a bit lazy. It’s no easy task to reinvent the wheel but you should at least try for better or worse. There is a permeating feeling of playing it safe throughout most of Sleeping Dogs and to a degree you can understand why; with so much invested in the story and after the game barely making it out (saved by Square Enix) you can forgive United Games Front for wanting to appeal to as many gamers as it could. If we are to see a sequel, and indications from sales performance seem to indicate that we will, then these corners will no longer be able to be cut and some innovation will need to show its face.
Missions are presented in the expected style, triad missions show up in one colour with police missions showing in another and your performance in each mission will dictate how your experience progresses. A neat little mechanic is that because you are a cop if you cause any property damage you will lose money; injure or kill innocents and your police XP points will go down. It is a simple and effective way to keep you within the boundaries of the law and will have you swearing as you miss out on an XP based unlock because of that stupid lamp post that you swear was further away. You can quickly cycle through your available missions, and any activities that are in the vicinity, by repeatedly hitting the L3 button and selecting a mission will set up a guide-line on your mini-map. The problem here is when you are driving and you steer too hard and inadvertently click L3, suddenly your destination changes and you will have to stop to cycle all the way through missions until you find the one you originally intended.
The mission types themselves are also non-original, you will find yourself escorting, surveilling, chasing and killing with regularity. There are little touches thrown throughout that flesh out the experience such as mini-games for planting bugs, cracking safes or even completing a phone trace. They aren’t complex but their introduction are usually at points of high tension so you will find yourself scrambling against time to succeed and luckily they have their place and do not feel tacked on. What Sleeping Dogs does suffer from are mediocre ‘activities’, additional little side missions that you can take part in to build up money or XP. They are the definition of generic and barely serve as a distraction, they will see you destroying vehicles so the owner can claim insurance or chasing down someone who owes money. It’s a real shame that there seems to have been little imagination thrown into these activities as it dulls the beautiful palette created by the story. There is nothing like the genius of Saints Row The Third’s Professor Genki mode, which is unfortunate but in the wider scheme of things it is a mild blip along the way. If you focus on getting through the main story missions you will not see the blandness of the sideshows, a task that will take you around ten hours, and by comparison the main attraction is stunning.
Filling out much of this attraction is the free flowing combat, think halfway between Arkham City and the Wii’s Mad World and you’ll be getting close. Combat focuses in on the counter move so well instilled by the Assassin’s Creed series, waiting for an attacker to make his move will see him highlighted in red which is your cue to counter. Failure to time this right will see you left vulnerable for a second or two which really can be the difference between success and failure, especially with enemies brandishing machetes. There is a wonderful fluidity about the combat with different enemy types attacking in different manners, some intimidated more easily than others depending on the moves you combine together. Facing down over ten opponents at a time can be quite intimidating to start with but you soon get into the rhythm of the game. As you progress you will unlock different skills that will give you perks such as reduced vulnerability after a failed counter, or finding collectibles which can be traded for new moves and with each one you will find the combat becoming more and more satisfying. Bolstering this satisfaction are the environmental kills, in equal measure brutal and glorious. These can range from a simple slapstick throwing of someone into a bin all the way up to putting someones head in a furnace and watching as they run off screaming with a melting face. Combining some slick martial arts, courtesy of UFC fighting legend George Saint Pierre, with brutal environmental kills never gets old and is wonderful to play.
The fighting takes centre stage in Sleeping Dogs and rightly so as it is so well executed with the gunplay being kept to a reasonable minimum. That is not to say they cover and shoot system is bad, in fact it is as good if not better than most games and throwing in destructible scenery and some bullet time sees its gunplay elevated beyond functional. There is a disjointedness when you find yourself involved in a gunfight with enemies who would rather punch you with the AI coming at you regardless of the odds. It’s rare you will find yourself in a situation where you will have to mix between fighting and shooting and the game is all the better for it. Most of the shooting you seem to do in Sleeping Dogs is done from vehicles, there are some brilliantly Michael Bay car chases that will see cars explode and bikes flip over you in slow motion as you effortlessly control a vehicle while accurately picking off tyres. It’s all a bit ridiculous but just on the right side of ridiculous to resemble any action movies that you would happily watch on a Saturday night. The vehicles themselves handle particularly well, it’s not quite Burnout but you will be drifting and sliding with absolute ease in a very familiar arcade fashion. Vehicles also have a shunt button which when combined with a direction will see your vehicle defy physics and move immediately in that direction. Again it is ridiculous but offers the player moments of pure Hollywood, shunting pursuing attackers into walls or off ledges is a lot of fun and will provide you with moments of awe and ‘awesome!’.
And this is where Sleeping Dogs becomes a bit of a difficult game to review, it would be so easy to write this off as nothing more than a pretender in the world of sandbox games. Wheeling out the same old missions, the same old activities, no multiplayer, cover based shooting and with story cliches coming at a rate of knots it seems like a negative opinion should follow. But it doesn’t. Sleeping Dogs never lacks entertainment, the brevity of the story forces it to be of quality, the controls are tight and despite early concerns it doesn’t look half bad. There is a lot of charm to be found here, a game designed with gamers in mind and for that it is hard to fault its approach.
Yes it may be perhaps too familiar and derivative but this almost serves to settle you into the experience quicker than perhaps a title filled with innovation. Within an hour of playing you will have beaten down a lot of triad members in the most brutal and balletic way, leapt between cars on the motorway, sang some karaoke, had slow motion gunfights on motorbikes and all those early concerns of having done all this before will fade away. Sleeping Dogs deserves the attention it has garnered, a great example of a sleeper hit. There is no pretence here, no deeper meaning; this game exists solely to entertain you, to let you live out those action movie moments and it is in this simple raison d'être that Sleeping Dogs utterly succeeds. Brilliantly entertaining, spectacularly brutal and truly engaging.