“You must be a very dangerous man, Wei Shen”
Wei Shen is a dangerous man. Within the first few hours of the sleeping epic, he’s made that perfectly clear. A cop so deep undercover it’s easy to forget his real allegiance as he wreaks a bloody trail of vengeance across the urban sprawl of Hong Kong, achieving his goals by any means necessary.
Sleeping Dogs is his story, a Hong Kong native returning to the city after spending most of his life in California, a man who has a long and painful history with the notorious Sun On Yee triad family. In what seems to be a pretty bad move from the HKPD, he’s sent to infiltrate and destroy them. Convincing the Triads he means business will be no easy task, though, and he’ll have to beat, shoot, stab, electrocute, and occasionally mince his way through the China’s criminal underbelly to prove himself and shut them down for good. Along the way you’ll encounter a colourful cast of characters that run the whole stereotype gamut, from the shady, ambitious cop who sends you undercover in the first place to the aspiring young gangster who may as well be wearing a red Star Trek uniform for all the likelihood he’ll see the credits roll.
I KNOW KUNG FU? Hong Kong, and how to beat your way through it.
The game takes the open world tradition of borrowing certain elements of interpreting gangster movies into gameplay form, so you can expect slow-motion dives over cover and leaping from car to car mid-chase in copious amounts. The main focus is on hand to hand face smashing and environmental kills, and it’s easy to see why – it’s some of the most satisfying combat you’ll partake in this year. It’s fluid, responsive, and built around fun over realism, lingering in that sweet spot between believable and over the top.
Wei Shen’s abilities evolve according to how you get things done around Hong Kong. Solve cases and do things by the book and you level up the Cop experience track, unlocking abilities like swift disarmament, but butchering enemies and killing innocents levels the Triad track, which makes combat all the more brutal. Levelling is definitely skewed in the Triad’s favour, as every violent act (especially the gory environmental attacks) counts as criminal behaviour. You can gain all the perks from each track if you so desire because the experience isn’t on a pendulum – swinging one way doesn’t negate the other, and it’s possible to level them alongside each other. Through collecting Jade Statues, Wei also levels up his martial arts skills, giving you three experience tracks to follow. It’s a simple but rewarding system that lets you prioritise what you want to develop first whilst keeping everything available for later.
Martial arts is the crux of gameplay, with a simple system that mixes hard and light strikes with grappling to overcome various types of thug that each specialise in different ways of face smashing. It’s strangely reminiscent of the Arkham Asylum games as you counter the obvious strikes, disarm knife-wielding thugs, and build up big combos. Punch-ups are much more satisfying than shootouts and thankfully, they aren’t phased out when guns are introduced midway through the game.
Guns are much less common in Hong Kong than they are in the West, and gameplay reflects that, with the emphasis on big brawls in arenas rife with hazards and environmental kills. That’s not to say the shootouts aren’t enjoyable – they just pale in comparison to the glorious brawling. It’s much more fun to run up to a thug and roundhouse kick him so hard he knocks down the guy behind him than it is to peek out of cover and take potshots at him.
A WORLD APART: Change is good. Very good.
Any sandbox crime game is going to be inevitably compared to the looming Godfather figure of Grand Theft Auto but despite the obvious similarities it does a lot of things differently, and the stuff it copies is better most of the time. Take the way romance is handled as an example of the little things that make Sleeping Dogs great – you’ll meet a handful of girls, each different and offering a number of perks in return for a successful date, but rather than being a persistent element of gameplay, they’re just a single specific mission, and each one is a welcome diversion and a charming change of pace. The various ‘girlfriends’ are fleeting but they feel like full-fledged characters rather than demanding bimbos clutching the other end of a phoneline, screaming about bowling and driving intermittently.
The storyline takes some extremely dark turns throughout but tempers it with mass amounts of fun and diversion inbetween the grittier missions. The story and the characters that drive it have distinct personalities and real depth, even if they’ve been plucked from some martial arts movie backlog. You’ll find yourself caring more for the criminals than the police simply because you spend more time with them, and you see them at their best and worst as opposed to the clear polar opposites presented by Wei’s superior and his handler – his superior demands that he gets results by any means necessary, whilst his handler beseeches him frequently to exercise restraint and remember where his loyalty truly lies.
The story follows a linear path with no moral choices to make along the way, but Wei seems incredibly detached from reality, not flinching from executing gangsters in cold blood or allowing small fries to take the fall when suspicion falls upon him, and although it’s established how determined he is to bring down the Sun On Yee, it’s hard to distinguish between Wei and the undercover character he’s playing as he rarely seems to regret his actions. Sure, he shows more remorse than your average GTA protagonist, but his character would have benefitted from a little more exposition. It makes Wei’s cop side feel weird and alien, whilst his triad cover feels much too natural to be tense or under question at any point.
The best difference between Sleeping Dogs and GTA is undoubtedly the setting. We’ve played enough crime games in New York or some sterile New York wannabe, and there’s nothing left to explore there. The move to Hong Kong, which feels dirty and lived in but vibrant and cutting edge all at once, is a breath of fresh air. For the first time it’s much more efficient to travel the city by motorbike because the amount of tiny alleyways and streets you’ll have to wind through make cars seem clumsy and clunky in comparison, but it’s a thrilling experience to race through Hong Kong either way. Racing makes up a pretty big part of the side missions, with different challenges for different classes of car and motorbike, and again the focus is on over the top fun and carnage rather than hyper serious realism. It’s a bit disappointing you don’t have any customisation options when it comes to your vehicles, but when you’re having this much fun, it doesn’t matter that much.
HONG KONG TOURISM: Girls, cars, money, and… karaoke?
Hong Kong feels like a living, breathing city, and it’s packed with things to do (and places to spend the masses of currency you’ll gather). This is where a lot of sandboxes fall short, but not this one – it can be hard to draw the line between where the main story stops and the diversions begin. Alongside infiltrating the Triad, you’ll be presented with a number of Police cases that you can help out with, and whilst these are completely optional, they’re just as cinematic and enjoyable as the main storyline. Cases range from small time drug busts to blowing open Hong Kong’s street racing circuit and they all feel like an integral part of the story despite being complete unessential to the progression.
Customisation can seem limited in comparison to the rest of the game’s sprawling activities but you can do just enough with buying clothes and cars for Wei to make him feel individual to you. It would have been great to be able to customise him further, but every specific piece of clothing can work towards sets that give you extra perks to Cop or Triad experience which makes up for the relative lack of options.
Vibrant and constantly appealing, Sleeping Dogs proves that you don’t have to be cartoony to make use of colour. If you’re playing on the PC you’ll need to download an extra texture pack to get the most out of the game but on the consoles it looks great from the start. Hong Kong is a truly immersive place with very little in terms of design to complain about. The entire game is rife with authentic atmosphere, thanks almost completely to the aesthetics. Sound plays a pretty big part too
Radio stations packed with real tracks catering to every possible taste from metal to gangster rap accompany you as you shoot, cleave, and drive your way through the city. Mission scores feel suitably epic and exotic and the cast has a few stars popping up here and there to boost the game’s cinematic profile – Emma Stone of The Amazing Spider-Man and Lucy Liu are just a few examples. The story is handled excellently and every last inch of the game feels like a living, breathing movie that you progress at your own pace. Sleeping Dogs rarely sets a foot out of place.
Past the inevitable comparison to the elephantine lord of the genre, Sleeping Dogs is its own game through and through. It would have been entirely possible for the game to manifest as some diluted GTA-clone washed out and dusty from years of changing hands but it’s come out of development with more substance and story to it than most modern releases. Gameplay can occasionally fall prey to glitches but this doesn’t do much to hamper the visceral joy of hand to hand combat or tearing through the Hong Kong streets in the ridiculously fun sportscar you’ve just bought/hijacked.
It might not be as technically good as some other sandbox offerings but what Sleeping Dogs does, it does very well, and is well worth your time and hard earned cash whether you’re looking for a decent story to get invested in or just some instant gratification.
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.