Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Genre: open-world action
Rated M for language, sexual themes, drug use, and violence
Version reviewed: Playstation 3
Originally beginning life as the third entry in the True Crime series, Sleeping Dogs takes the open-world action formula set forth by classics like Grand Theft Auto and sets it inside the gritty world of Hong Kong gangster films. Does this release come up to the lofty expectations of both gamers and Hong Kong film fanatics, or is this just another entry in the long line of stunningly average and flaccid GTA clones that have come out over the years?
Players take the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has been tasked with infiltrating Sun On Yee, one of the biggest and most powerful Triad gangs in Hong Kong. Starting out as a lowly street enforcer, Wei works his way up the ranks, eventually becoming one of Hong Kong's most notorious gangsters. Of course, this begs the question of whether Wei still realizes he is a cop, or has gone in too deep.
So, yeah, the story isn't exactly Shakespeare. It's got more of a Wong Jing quality to it, as it takes elements from various films (most notably the Infernal Affairs trilogy) and puts them together into a package that isn't earth-shattering, but is entertaining enough. For those of you who are wondering, the dialogue is delivered via the Michael Wong school of acting, with most of it in English with Cantonese words and phrases peppered in, which gives the game the vibe of mid to late 1990's Hong Kong cinema, where there was a push for more of an international audience for the local product.
The cut-scenes are bolstered by some solid voice acting, with Will Yun Lee making Wei Shen into a fun, interesting, and sympathetic character. The game also has voice talent from a few Hong Kong actors, most notably Edison Chen, who plays Wei's sidekick, Jackie. Other HK actors featured include Terence Yin and Conan Lee, who ironically plays a very portly character named Two Chin Tsao. The game also sports some A-list western actors, including Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, and Lucy Liu. Overall, you can tell the developers took a lot of time and care into making sure that the player actually wanted to sit through the cut-scenes, instead of just skipping through them.
The graphics here won't blow you away, but they are solid. The visual style gives the player a nice sense of the dense and crowded nature of Hong Kong, and also the volatile weather, as heavy rainstorms will often come down. The character models, while not as detailed as something like LA Noire, still look very nice, and help to make the game that much more immersive.
Where Sleeping Dogs really shines is sonically. As mentioned before, the game's voice acting is well done, but where it earns its' high marks is with the soundtrack. There are the usual metal, rap, and techno stations featured, but the game also gives players some more unique tunes to commit mayhem to, with genres like R&B and classic rock present. And, keeping with the game's theme, there are also stations featuring Cantopop and traditional Chinese music. One really nice element for Playstation 3 gamers is the ability to use custom soundtracks, a feature that has been sadly underutilized on the system.
The gameplay style can best be explained as a mish-mash of styles featured in other open-world games. You'll do the normal thing of playing through story missions that advance the game in between completing side missions. The side missions include the usual sort of things like racing and car theft, but there's also some more unique fare such as drug busts, where you have to clear out an area of thugs and then hack a camera in order to conduct surveillance.
Wei will also come across girlfriends in the game. Before flashbacks of Grand Theft Auto IV's needy and clingy companions come to mind, these friends aren't pests and give Wei some tangible rewards right away. In fact, most of the side activities will give Wei boosts, which makes them much more worth going through, instead of just getting a trophy.
The main difference that sets Sleeping Dogs apart is that Wei can be upgraded with experience points in three areas: face, police, and Triad. How you play out missions will determine how much experience you get in each area. For instance, if you can avoid running into pedestrians, you'll get more police points. Conversely, if you take out your enemies in a violent fashion, your Triad points will go up. Each line of experience will unlock new abilities that make Wei more powerful as the game goes along. This element gives the game some replayability, as Wei can go back and try and do missions in a better fashion to earn more experience points.
One other big aspect where Sleeping Dogs differentiates itself is that it emphasizes hand-to-hand fighting rather than gunplay. The fisticuff system is derivative of the Batman Arkham games in that the player will need to learn how to use counters and combos in order to fight effectively. At first, the system is a bit rough and feels too slow, but once the player learns the timing and gains new moves, the fights become very fun, especially when one includes in the environmental attacks. Few things in open-world gaming have been as satisfying as impaling a downed enemy on a pallet of swordfish heads.
As for the vehicle aspect of the game, there is a good variety present here, from motorcycles to cars to big trucks. Given Hong Kong's nautical nature, there are also some boats that the player can use. The controls fall on the arcadey side of things, in that you'll be whipping around corners drifting with little problem. The vehicle handling also owes a large debt to the Vin Diesel game Wheelman, in that you can use a button to ram other cars, and Wei can stunt jump from vehicle to vehicle. This gives the chases and races a unique and adrenaline-fueled flavor some open-world games are missing.
The Bottom Line
With a relatively small advertising budget and a few unjustifiably negative reviews from major publications and websites, Sleeping Dogs may be a release that will ultimately fall under the radar of many gamers, and that's a shame. While undoubtedly this reviewer is probably giving Sleeping Dogs a higher rating due in part to his love of Hong Kong cinema, this is a release that all fans of open-world action games should enjoy. Sure, it's not really original in any way besides the Hong Kong setting, but it incorporates the disparate elements that have been featured in other games into a bundle that makes this one of the best open-world games to come around in some time.
And, if you are a fan of Hong Kong cinema, you're going to find a lot to like here. Seeing things like not only having a Bruce Lee outfit you can unlock, but also Jackie Chan's from Rumble in the Bronx, shows that Sleeping Dogs is a game that was made by people that have a love of the jade screen, and that feeling definitely passes on to the player.