First there was True Crime: Hong Kong. Once Activision dropped the title to focus on iterating their already worn in ideas, Square Enix picked up the publishing rights. Then there was Sleeping Dogs. After four years, two publishers, and a storied development history filled with ups and downs, the open world action game is finally released. But the question is: was it all worth it?
As the game opens, you find yourself in the shoes of Wei Shen, an undercover cop, infiltrating the Triads of Hong Kong. This is the first departure from the gangster rank climbing formula we have come to expect from open world games such as Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, giving Shen a heightened sense of morals and a heavy conscience. The actions you perform throughout the story take a toll on Shen’s mental state. Shen’s inner conflict comes to light after certain missions as he wakes from bad dreams, murmuring to himself, trying to keep himself together before setting out to commit another crime.
Throughout the story, Shen meets a colorful cast of characters. Some of these fall flat, while others develop really well. Shen can go on dates with quite a few women, they are each very likable in their own way and very well written, but sadly, you can only go on one date per woman, limiting interactivity and preventing you from actually creating relationships with them. The story also stumbles in the third act, though, throwing in one-off characters, and shifting the major bad guy every five minutes. All the great build up through the first two acts ends on a whimper, leaving questions unanswered and the story feeling incomplete. Luckily, to counter problems with the script, the voice acting is top notch, although the facial animations during cutscenes look stale and unnatural.
Working your way through the Triads isn’t as easy as walking the walk and talking the talk, Shen has to show his loyalty through various tasks and jobs. Most missions have you driving somewhere, fighting a bunch of thugs and their backup, and then driving somewhere else to watch a cutscene. Though some missions take up different objectives. One of my favorites involved sneaking into a rival boss’ home and messing up his feng shui. Since Shen is a cop, he can take part in solving police cases. These cases act as a different kind of side activity that provide a nice break from the nitty gritty of being a triad member. They also link back to Shen’s under cover life in interesting ways.
The fighting is abundant, and that is definitely not a bad thing. In fact, the melee combat is the high point of the game, and another step away from most games of the sandbox genre. Taking up a Batman: Arkham City approach to combat, Shen is a skilled martial artist that leans heavily on counters to keep himself out of danger, but he is no pushover when it comes to going on the offensive either. Hefty enemy health bars force you to focus on taking down opponents, one by one, while planning strategies to compensate for different enemy types. Weapons, while rare, are an enormous help for crowd control, letting you take down hostiles quickly while backing others off of you. I would often run into a problem where combat animations would not play out during combos – which is not a huge problem – but it was just enough to take me out of the world that I was drawn into.
Guns don’t appear often in Sleeping Dogs, and whenever they did, my heart would drop a little and I would brace myself for some of my least favorite parts of the game. They don’t handle well and feel unnatural in this world that does melee combat so well. At some points I wished I could just drop my gun and go roundhouse kick a guy in the chest, but I was prevented from doing so since armed enemies are overpowered, and going out of cover for an extended period will end up in death.
Sleeping Dogs employs three difference experience meters: Triad, for melee; Police, for gunplay; and “Face,” for doing awesome things and being popular. You gain experience in each bar by completing side quests or meeting requirements within story missions. Each meter has two branches and lets players unlock abilities by spending skill points. This system works very well, I just wish that there was more than ten skills to choose from, since the meters are fairly easy to level.
The world of Hong Kong is very well realized, with NPCs having seemingly real conversations about their life and the world around them. It is also one of the best looking cities I have seen in a game to date, and I played on the Xbox 360, not the PC, which is graphically superior by leaps and bounds. The AI for the NPCs can get wonky at points, especially when they get into vehicles. At two points in the story missions, I failed because there was a car pile up in an intersection during a car chase that wasn’t supposed to be there. The person I was chasing ran into the pile up and ended up destroying their car, which wasn’t supposed to be damaged, so I had to restart.
Despite my small grievances with Sleeping Dogs, I found myself enjoying my time with the game much more than I expected that I would. With many side missions and collectibles to find, there is plenty of replay value here, and gives you a reason to explore every inch of the beautiful looking city. After beating the game, I was thrown right back into my apartment with a prompt telling me that I was free to do as I please and that I could go try for 100%, and that is definitely something I will be doing well into the Fall, even with other major titles releasing not too long from now. Square Enix’s move to give Sleeping Dogs a chance was definitely the right thing to do, making this a game that may receive some Game of the Year nominations, and ultimately making it the sleeper hit of the year… get it? It’s called Sleeping Dogs… it’s a good game.