Canned by Activision in 2011, a near-complete and promising attempt at a True Crime reboot was thought to never see the light of day. However, after months of being in development limbo, the Vancouver-based company: United Front Games, would be picked up by publisher Square Enix. Re-titled as ‘Sleeping Dogs’ and promising to provide players with an open-world action movie experience, does this title deliver, or should it have stayed in its grave?
Sleeping Dogs takes place in a fictionalised version of Hong Kong and pits you in the shoes of undercover cop, Wei Shen. It’s his job to infiltrate the deadly Sun On Yee Triads and cripple them from the inside. Throughout the games 30+ missions, Wei will work up the criminal ladder meeting new characters, delving further into the crime syndicate, and helping out the police. Missions never last too long and offer exciting bursts of gameplay. They are however very much restricted to the open world streets and so the missions never feel that ambitious in their scope. Only few missions take place in unique places and these are hands-down the best missions, making it a shame that there aren’t too many of these. While the missions are very fun, the narrative adds little suspense and largely disinterests due to a cast of forgettable characters. Even the main bad guys in this game fail to draw interest from the player and I never found myself becoming emotionally attached, or even caring about anyone except Wei. The story attempts to delve deeper by exploring the emotional and mental stress that Wei is put through in the form of nightmares and conflict towards his superiors, but ultimately this falls flat and leaves much to be desired through severe under-development. It is plot points like this which could have turned the tables of the story if carried out to their fullest. It is a shame the story doesn’t pay off because the game effortlessly builds up grit and atmosphere through the many well-acted and well directed cutscenes, let alone the open world you inhabit. That said, the narrative is not completely devoid of excitement as there are some notable twists (albeit predictable ones) and some stand out moments such as the wedding and the very final mission that really do hit home with full-force. It’s just unfortunate to see a lack of consistency.
Despite the narrative’s shortcomings, Sleeping Dogs certainly doesn’t hold back on the gameplay front. What we are given here is a very well rounded package that provides extreme fun from start to finish. The game is heavily inspired by martial arts movies and so this is where the game builds its foundations, allowing the game to stand out among the well-established GTA and Saints Row franchises. Melee combat is a huge part of this game and so United Front really needed to create a fighting system that plays well and is always fun for the player. What they have created is a simple but effective system that draws heavily from Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham series. The player can freely fight multiple targets at a time and switch to different enemies very easily by moving the analog stick in direction of the target. This, along with an effective countering mechanic, really lend to the combat giving it a great fluidity, no matter the amount of enemies. Along with a grapple system and the ability to interact with objects in the environment, the system is very easy to pick up and despite a lack of challenge, is always fun to play. Different enemy types and melee weapons are thrown into the mix as the game progresses leading to different ways to approach fights, and the various different locations you fight in also open up different environmental attacks to perform, leading to some brutal sequences. The fighting is expanded as the player discovers Jade Statues hidden away within the games many locales which go forward to unlocking new combos and techniques along a skill tree system. These combos go far to spice up fights that would otherwise grate on the player over time.
While the melee combat is certainly one of the games main focuses, this doesn’t stop the title treading into familiar territory and including mechanics that are typical of the sandbox genre. The game really is a sum of many parts adding driving, vehicular combat, third-person shooting and free-running into the mix, with missions flicking between these styles and adding plenty of variety. With Hong Kong being open to the players in between missions from the very beginning, players will spend a lot of their time manoeuvring about the city, whether that be on-foot or in a vehicle (car, motorcycle or boat). The free-running component of Sleeping Dogs is very primitive and a far cry from Assassins Creed, but it is perfectly acceptable within this games framework. Only certain parts of the games environments are able to be interacted with and there is no skill needed by the player to succeed in this aspect. To initiate this ability, the player needs to be running and must release and then press the same ‘running’ button when close enough to a climbable piece of the world. The system is fluid, simple and easily mastered by the player.
The driving in this game may receive complaint from some players due to its loose and arcade-like handling that’s not too dissimilar from the studios previous title, ModNation Racers. However, this driving style only adds to the action movie nature of the game, allowing the player to pull of some insane manoeuvres at high-speed, and for the driving experience to not be tarnished by realism and its associated physics. The driving is furthered by the inclusion of vehicular combat that enables the player to side-swipe cars through the press of a button, shoot out of the car window, and even leap out of your current car and onto a new one while on the move, à la Pursuit Force. All of this goes towards creating a totally ridiculous experience that only goes to further boost this titles action movie persona. I can guarantee that the first time you shoot out a moving cars tyre at high-speed, you will be blown away. Seeing the car fly straight up into the air, bounce of the city streets and then engulf itself in flame before an almighty explosion is something you will want to repeat again, and again, and again. This real drive (excuse the pun) to want to engage with the core gameplay is what keeps the game fun from beginning to end, despite the fact that the experience is largely repetitive. It just goes to show that the style of a game goes a long way to improving it and keeping it fun. This game is aware it wants to be fun, and so puts this before anything else.
The shooting segments are probably the weakest part of the overall package, but luckily this aspect isn’t heavily relied on. The main criticism with these parts is more aimed at the mission/level design as appose to the basic cover-based shooting mechanics. While shooting never occurs frequently enough for the formula to bore, it is clear that the shooting sections are deprived of creativity in comparison to everything else, and as a result feel rather throw-away, as if they are intended to do nothing more but fill in some extra time. You will typically find that these sections are very ‘rinse and repeat’ and involve samey environments filled with conveniently placed chest-high walls and a handful of goons placed behind said cover. It would have been nice for the game to include much more cinematic gunplay and some crazy set pieces in these sections to heighten the action movie style. The slow-motion slides and jumps that Wei can perform only go so far to entertain and engage the player.
Due to the gameplay similarities, it would be acceptable to say that Sleeping Dogs does owe itself to many other games on the market. That said, I don’t think that should be heralded too much as a criticism as the developers have done a sterling job to take elements that work from other games, and make them play well in one big package. This does however leave the game with little that it can really call its own. It most certainly has an identity, but it is one of a teenager that wants to be popular and like everything that everyone likes, rather than being unique and writing its own rule book. That said, this low ambition/lack of originality should not detract from the fun that can be had with this game.
The mission structure is similar to that of GTA in which the player has freedom to do whatever they want between missions, and complete other activities and favours from around the city. The gameplay doesn’t really change up that much outside of the main missions, and the player will find themselves repeating the same things over without little in the way of unique gameplay. This however isn’t such a problem as there is plenty of enjoyment to be had with the gameplay as previously mentioned. While the player may be wary of the repetitiveness, the tasks never feel boring and the gameplay never worn out over time. The only missions that stick out as different are Police Cases that Wei can undertake at any time. These are missions in which Wei will investigate a series of illegal events, and often offer a different pace to the rest of the game, focussing more on exploration and crime solving rather than combat. While nothing particularly special, these missions do offer a branch into something different and do well to hold their own between the high-octane action missions. Aside from city activities, players can go shopping in the games various stores to purchase new clothing, purchase temporal boosts to player ability, or simply explore the rich and neon soaked city in search of money stashes and health shrines (used to boost maximum player health).
RPG elements are incorporated into the game in the form of skill trees associated with your ‘Face Level’ (fame), your Triad side, and your Police side. All three trees offer different types of abilities, making it useful to put time and effort into building up all your levels. There are some interesting unlocks incorporated and all of them have a frequent use to the player. While the face meter is filled through completing missions within the game, the other meters are filled through how the player decides to complete them. The more enemies defeated and the more brutal the attacks, the higher your Triad meter increases. On the other hand, the Police meter starts off at a certain level and decreases based upon reckless behaviour such as the destroying of public property and the killing of pedestrians. While nothing too in-depth or involved, it’s nice to have an added dynamic to the gameplay and one that is affected by how the game is played. This mechanic would have been nicer however if it was more involved and became influenced by player decisions similar to that of ‘Splinter Cell: Double Agent’.
Aside from an ambitious yet uninteresting plot and a lack of originality, United Front Games have managed to produce a well-made action game that can be proud to sit among the GTA and Saints Row franchises. It’s a game that is a blast from start to finish thanks to excellent gameplay and a rich world that offers plenty to accomplish and complete. This is certainly one dog you shouldn’t put down, and I am sure that Activision is kicking themselves for letting this one get away.
Disclaimer:All scores given within our reviews are based on the artist’s personal opinion; this should in no way impede your decision to purchase the game.