Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-like sandbox game set in Hong Kong that tries to add a bit more depth to the popular formula. The game has you playing as undercover cop, Wei Shen, who had just recently returned to China after several years living in the United states. Despite being an officer of the law you are still given freedom to be a complete sociopath, with little in the way of real consequences.
Wei is an interesting character, in that he is a soul in chaos never having felt at home anywhere. Part of the reason his boss hand selected him for the job is because having no fixed sense of identity, the morals and aspects of his personality are malleable.
It plays well through the story as the plot keeps you questioning whether his loyalties remain with the police or whether he has found a sense of belonging with the criminals that he is hiding with.
The game’s story is well told and suitably intriguing. Characters are given plenty of depth thanks to strong script writing and also amazing voice acting from an impressive cast.
The player grows a connection to some of the people Wei meets throughout the narrative because of how human and real they are represented. This makes the concept of divided loyalties all the more poignant when they can show you the human, likable aspects of the criminals you are sent to take down. It also gives weight to several of the deaths that occur.
I will express a bit of disappointment with the side missions, such as the love interests Wei has which never really get a satisfying conclusion. It is disappointing considering how the potential to give Wei something that truly anchors him is heavily hinted at but never fully realized. The closest thing is his friendship to Jackie, a childhood friend who is essentially responsible for allowing Wei to infiltrate the Sun On Yee. Not that that’s ultimately bad, it just makes some of the side stories feel inconsequential, which considering the set up for a few of them is disappointing.
Jackie does represent the only person Wei shows an unyielding loyalty to. That particular arch more than anything is probably what keeps Wei interesting. His unwillingness to turn on his friend is more powerful than his loyalties to either his job as an undercover cop, his place in the criminal organization which continues to look at him as a great asset/ threat, or his personal vengeance.
The graphics are good but nothing overwhelmingly cutting edge. The environments tend to be more impressive than some of the character models, especially of the random pedestrians. Hong Kong itself is given a very well rendered personality, from the gritty sections to the areas where the upper class live.
Most of the game works well but I did encounter at least a few glitches that kept me from progressing in a mission till I reloaded a checkpoint or restarted the console entirely. Sometimes I needed to call someone but the contacts section on the phone was completely empty. Another time I was supposed to jump onto a boat but Wei was stuck in a low profile walking motion that wouldn’t let me run, jump or really interact with much of the environment.
In regards to gameplay, the title has an interesting mixture of things going for it, showing the developers desire to add a bit more depth to how these games are usually played.
The combat, for instance, seems to take a lot from games like the Assassin’s Creed or Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games. However, unlike those games, this one seems more geared toward making a majority of the encounters more of a punishing strategic challenge. In both series I mentioned before, you could gain control with careful timing to eliminate many enemies in a short amount of time if you keep a flow going. Sleeping Dogs’ system doesn’t really allow you that level of control, especially early on.
The real source of the potential difficulty, I think, is that countering doesn’t automatically take out an opponent nor does it allow you to continue a flow from one attacker to the next. Enemies also do a great deal of damage to you, without eating a bowl of soup beforehand or getting the health upgrades, you can be taken out fairly quickly when against a huge mob of people.
You generally concentrate on one assailant (the weakest class of thug you can find usually, since they don’t block your attacks) until someone tries to attack you and then counter, try to capitalize until you’re attacked again, rinse and repeat. Unless you’ve got environmental hazards to use to your advantage by grappling, it can make fights last pretty long, or be pretty punishing if you get impatient.
It becomes easier as you upgrade your attacks and health (highly recommended) obviously, but I think there’s a balance between having a challenging system and one that can take so much time needlessly against lesser thugs that you’d look for alternatives to a straight up fight. Such as running them over with a car, or risking the cops coming after you for mowing them down with an automatic weapon. It’s a good fighting system and definitely satisfying, I just think that early on it misses a needed balance tweak.
Speaking of environmental hazards, it should be mentioned that these are probably the most sadistically satisfying aspects of the combat system. If you grapple an opponent, you can move them near a glowing red object and use it to do a brutal attack that will instantly remove the thug from the fight. Objects such as table saws (gory!), tanks filled with electric eels and even a furnace or open for all kinds of deadly finishers.
Oddly, gunplay isn’t introduced into the game until several missions in. Even after it’s implemented the developers tend to control when you do or do not have access to a firearm. Certainly a noteworthy difference from games like GTA or Saints Row where you run around with a sub machine gun all the time.
Gun control is a fairly standard ‘over the shoulder’ scheme with a cover system. It also has a time slowdown system like Max Payne when you vault over an object while aiming, because this game literally seems to want to ‘nick’ all the cool ideas we have ever seen in third person action games over the years.
Car chase sections when you’re given a gun can be extremely adrenaline pumping. The sense of motion as you’re trying to drive while shooting the enemies on your tail is reminiscent of some of the best action movies chases I’ve seen. Honestly, if the game does anything well, it is to give the action a great summer blockbuster feel.
Side missions and distractions can offer some padding to the overall game, some of them are quite fun, or at least entertaining. You can engage in street races, which can feel as if you’re playing an actual legitimate racing game at times. There are also drug busts where you beat up some thugs, hack a camera and use the camera to identify a drug supplier for the cops to arrest. Though hilariously, it’s always the same character model in every drug bust.
It takes an odd thing from western RPGs in making certain mundane actions into minigames like lock picking or planting a bug. Hacking is done by playing a little number puzzle game. Some of these feel like they fit well enough, others feel like they just waste time and break up the experience to much. Also, adding a crappy analog stick QTE karaoke minigame that is mandatory at least twice in the campaign was an absolutely idiotic idea.
All in all, this is a game that takes a lot of different ideas and tries to make them their own. I think they succeed in doing it in such a way where it doesn’t feel like a cheap knockoff, but actually has a level of polish in its presentation both in how it’s played and in the story that is told. An obvious desire for quality went into this, and I think it shows. It’s not without its flaws but definitely worth a look.