(Originally written August 28, 2012)
I’ve always been fascinated by organized crime but most of that fascination comes from how it is romanticized in movies and, over the past decade, in video games. Ever since Grand Theft Auto 3, open world crime games have become very popular with games like Saints Row and, the other side of the law, LA Noire. Sleeping Dogs seems very similar on the surface but there is a lot more going on here than just a crime game set in China. The game was originally supposed to be the third installment to the True Crime series and was going to be under the title True Crime: Hong Kong but after going over budget, Activision dropped the game. However, it was picked up by Square Enix and released under the name Sleeping Dogs. Now I personally had heard nothing about this game till the day before it came out and people were already singing praise for this game so I thought I’d check it out. After playing it, Sleeping Dogs is sure to be considered a sleeper hit of 2012.
STORY (No-Spoilers): You play as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American undercover cop assigned with the massive task of infiltrating the Sun On Yee, gaining their thrust, and taking down major members of the Triad (blanket term for Chinese mafia). Wei starts out as a foot soldier for one of the smaller crimes bosses but gradually gets noticed for his work in the gang and moves up throughout the game. However, Wei walks a fine line between being a cop and the life of a gangster and the conflicting loyalties do take a toll on him mentally and physically. This leads to some really intense cut scenes, missions, and plot points. The shit hits the fan multiple times throughout the main campaign and will have you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next. An excellent story that had me engrossed throughout and the last 30 minutes of the game are epic. In addition to the main story, there are police cases you help out with and tons of side missions, street races, and other activities to do between major missions. There are also some pretty funny missions in the game like one where you break into a very superstitious crime boss’s house, break and rearrange some of his things to make him think his place is haunted. Another mission includes driving around your boss’s fiancé to prepare for her wedding with some silly mishaps happening along the way and ends with you sneaking into a Buddhist temple dressed as a monk to steal a rare flower. Another important aspect of the game that helps engross you in the story is the setting. The city of Hong Kong genuinely feels alive and bustling with traffic and people out and about 24/7. Walking around in markets having venders yelling to you to buy their black market goods adds to the immersive feeling of this game and plays greatly into the gameplay.
GAMEPLAY: The biggest gameplay elements that set this game apart from games like Grand Thief Auto and Saints Row is the combat system. Rarely will you find yourself running around town carrying a gun, most of the gun play parts happen during major missions. You instead use your martial art skills to handle Triad thugs most of the time. Not only do you kick their asses with marital art moves, you also can use various objects in the environment to take out your enemies such as grabbing them and throwing them head first into a first into a fan, throwing them into the engine block of a car and then dropping the hoisted engine on top of them, and my personal favorite, impaling someone on a pallet of sword-fish heads. You can also counter similar to the Batman Arkham games. You learn more moves throughout the game as you find Jade Statues for your martial arts instructor. Return them to him to unlock new moves. The combat system does take some getting used to and awhile to master, there will be fights that are easy to lose if you are not on the ball. One issue I had was when an enemy blinks red to indicate they are about to strike and you should counter; there is no way to really stop them unless you counter. If you hit them before they strike, it will not hurt them and they will harm you. It would make more sense for them to react to the strikes. There are also sometimes QTEs during some of these fights and most of the time I messed them up because I wasn’t expecting them they are fairly rare though and don’t bog down the combat in anyway.
Driving is a huge aspect in these types of games and there will be plenty of driving with various types of cars, motorcycles, and boats. The vehicles generally handle well but I still find myself crashing into things all the time. This isn’t exactly the games fault; I have this exact same problem with similar games. I just suck at driving in these games. Car chases can be fun as you can ram enemy vehicles, sometimes shoot at them, and jump onto another car and hi-jack them. The car chases can be very easy to mess up, however, and I had to restart several because the enemy car got away for one reason or another. The biggest issue was trying to find them when you don’t have line of sight on them. The GPS interface doesn’t do much help in these cases and the GPS can be an issue in other cases. The route it gives you is not exactly the shortest and can take a moment to give you a new route if you miss a turn or something, requiring you to back up which leads to another problem: the camera while backing up. When you are backing up the camera turns to show what is behind the car, completely making it impossible to see what is in front of you. The only way to turn the camera around is to blindly drive forward. Turning the camera manually is not very responsive and moves too slowly. It can be very frustrating; especially in situations where time is a factor. But once again, these are similar problems that I have in similar types of games though so there isn’t much improvement at all in this game.
Another aspect that makes Sleeping Dogs more unique in these types of crime games is the RPG like experience system. You get Police, Triad, and Face XP for completing missions and how well you complete them determines how much XP you get. You gain police XP for performing police skills well during a mission and avoiding damaging public property and keeping innocents from being harmed. You gain Triad XP for how well you do in fights and in shoot outs. As you level up your police and Triad skills, you will be able to unlock new moves, skills, and abilities. Face XP comes from doing various side missions. Face is like your reputation. The more Face you have, the more you can wear fancy clothes; intimidate lower thugs, and how fast you regain health. Your health bar is something you’ll want to keep your eye on obviously. You can regain some health automatically in fights but that’s only if you keep your face bar up by mixing up your fighting styles. Eating food also regains health and can give you temporary health boosts and attack boosts so there is more reason to eat other than just heal. There are a lot of clothing stores you can find to buy clothes and street vendors you can find who can help you pimp out the apartments you have around the city. You can also buy your own cars and store them in parking garages around the city as well. Another gameplay element is hacking and surveillance. You can hack cameras around the city and view them from your apartments. You use these to make drug busts and gain more police XP.(Protip: Start off hacks by entering 0123 first and go from there.) Planting and calibrating surveillance bugs are fun while not introduced in the best away. The first time you have to do this, you have a time limit and it’s not really explained well how you calibrated. Worst is following that is picking a lock which is not well explained and you have a short time limit on top of that. While not perfect, the gameplay of Sleeping Dogs helps it stand out from other games in the genre while keeping intact some staples of the genre that could use improvement.
GRAPHICS: Visually Sleeping Dogs is very sleek but gritty at the same time. The game looks the best during the night time with all the neon lights of Hong Kong shining. The graphics, naturally, look amazing on PC and if you play this on PC, you will be in for a visual treat. There is a lot of detail to characters to their facial features, tattoos, clothes, and hair. One thing I noticed is that the many businesses that line the streets of Hong Kong are there just to look at and not interact with. Some of them literally look like a picture of the inside of a store hung behind glass. It made me laugh actually but it would have been nice to see more interaction with these buildings. Another missed opportunity is in the character’s facial expressions. They are not the worst I’ve ever seen but come off a little stiff at times. This game could have benefited a lot from the facial animation technology used in games like LA Noire and Black Ops. But overall, it looks really good and is fitting for the setting of the game.
SOUND: This game has some amazing voice acting that adds to the drama of the story. There are a lot of Chinese-American actors who make up much of the cast from Will Yun Lee as Wei to Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, James Hong, Emma Stone, Kelly Hu, Edison Chen to name a few. You might want to turn on the Cantonese subtitles on at the beginning of the game as there is quite a bit of Chinese thrown into the dialogue throughout the game. Most of the music you will hear comes from car radios as you drive around and there is a very good variety to listen to from traditional Chinese music, Chinese and American hip-hop, rock, pop, and metal as well as radio commercials in both English and Chinese. This game really pleased in the auditory department.
Overall if you like open world GTA like games, I highly recommend checking this game out. If you’re a fan of crime drams, it’s still a lot of fun to play and explore with an excellent story to play through. It does have its moments that are frustrating and at times unbalanced but nothing that is impossible to overcome. I love the immersive feel and culture of the game. Remember to eat lots of pork buns.