I know what many of you are thinking when Sleeping Dogs is brought up. Oh great, we’ve got another Grand Theft Auto clone on our hands. With the game having had changed so many hands (and titles, originally it was meant to be released as a reboot of the True Crime series), it seemed it may be doomed to failure. And at first glance, yes, there are numerous things that Sleeping Dogs owes to its predecessors. The driving, the combat, even the HUD are all things that gamers are used to by now. However, that does not mean that this is a game to be missed. Sleeping Dogs is vibrant, brutal and thriving with activities to do, and while it may not ascend to the same heights as other games in the genre, it certainly does enough to be memorable.
You are placed into the shoes of undercover cop Wei Shen, a man on a mission from the very first moment you meet him. Wei Shen is tasked with infiltrating the Sun On Yee, the strongest Triad in all of Hong Kong. However, this is no ordinary infiltration: Wei Shen grew up in Hong Kong, and many members of the Sun On Yee are figures from Shen’s past. You are tasked with proving your worth while also helping the Hong Kong police take out powerful members of the Triads. Shen has his personal reasons for wanting to return, and seeing his mission flesh out has been one of the more interesting and intriguing stories I have played through in a while. Nothing is black or white in the game, and there’s a good chance you will be as interested in Shen’s tale as I was.
Visually, Hong Kong is a paradise for neon lovers, with lit signs hanging off of each building and its streets teeming with life. Food vendors are all over the city, couples walk around while on dates, and in shady corners there are groups of gangsters just waiting to get the living hell beat out of them. The character models, particularly the facial animations of the main cast, are very well done and worthy of praise. The lighting is also great, as is to be expected in a world so full of lights, but can be a bit difficult to deal with when the world is wet (and it is half of the time you play, it rains ALL THE TIME), making everything shine like it were covered with gloss. Everything looks fantastic in motion, but when you stop and look at the world at a standstill for a moment it isn’t quite as much of a marvel. When you take the scope of the game into account you can understand why everything doesn’t look amazing, but most of the time you are moving through the world so quickly that its amazing there is no pop-in or graphical errors. Hong Kong is expertly crafted and quite fun to move through.
There are two things that separate Sleeping Dogs from most other open world games. First is its heavy emphasis on hand to hand combat. It will be a while before you use guns in the game, and while the vast majority of the combat is based on pressing a single button, you’ll love the feeling you get when you take on twenty different guys at once in a fight club. Through collecting items, your hand to hand skills can grow and become more and more brutal. Shen uses the world as his weapon, kicking people into phone booths, crushing them under hanging engine blocks, even throwing them up onto giant meat hooks. Different enemy types have their strengths and weaknesses, such as brawlers being easily grabbed but blocking most attacks, and grapplers being immune to grabs but easily punched and kicked. Every now and then you’ll enter combat wielding a tire iron or a knife, and the better you do in combat the more afraid of you the enemy becomes. The combat slightly reminds me of the recent Batman games, which can only be a good thing as the current Batman series is well known for its flowing combat. There are times Shen will do things you don’t want him to, but the vast majority of the combat is both challenging and fulfilling.
Gunplay is rare for much of the game, and feels pretty much like any other third person shooter you’ve played over the past few years. Covering behind corners and using blind fire is nothing new, and the variety of guns is surprisingly small. You’ll spend a lot of time shooting from one vehicle to another, which is when the gunplay is at its best. Shooting out car tires can send cars flipping into the air and off bridges, but taking out motorcycle tires can be quite the sight as the rider can be flung straight into opposing traffic. Overall it’s the weakest part of the gameplay, but solid enough to get the job done.
The second thing that really makes the game unique is how you move about the world. Shen is a pretty good acrobat, but no Ezio. You sprint by holding down a button (X button on PS3), but that same button also activates his ability to leap across gaps or slide over a ledge. Mess it up, and Shen will stumble or barely grab a ledge, which can mean the difference between your enemies getting away or being tackled. Missions are constantly evaluating your overall skills with two meters, one for Cops and one for the Triads. The Cop meter starts full at the beginning of every mission and essentially measures how well you move around. Faltering over obstacles will lower the meter, as will taking out lamp posts, barricades or civilians while driving in missions. This makes you really pay attention to how you move around and how you drive.
It’s worth noting that you are in right-hand drive cars that drive on the left side of the street, something that will seem new to many players and a welcome return to “normalcy” for much of the world. This can make navigating difficult at first, but again, it makes you focus, and I do like that. The Triad meter measures your brutality, how well you combat against enemies in missions by using the environment and the efficiency with which you take out gangsters, starting empty and growing more as your wake of destruction grows longer. It’s a fun balance that keeps you on your toes looking for the most interesting and efficient ways to deal with the world around you.
One of the pleasant suprises of the game is the music United Front was able to obtain for the game’s radio stations. While much of the music is either ambient or Cantonese in nature, as well as the radio commercials, the game also features a wide range of songs from the likes of Queen, The Who, Mozart, Dream Theater, The Allman Brothers and Flying Lotus. It’s an amazing spectrum of music to choose from, so there is sure to be something to listen to. Much of the time the game seems to choose the right song for the right time, especially during high-energy car/motorcycle chases. The radio work helps add to the immersion of the game perhaps more than any other aspect, and is truly worth praise.
Square Enix and United Front have something going here. It’s great that this game came out before GTAV, as its chances at success are much greater now than they likely would be against such tough competition. It’s a bright world filled with shady heroes, good-hearted criminals and a good two-to-three dozen hours of gameplay. It all depends on how willing you are to grind many of the games side missions. The majority of time is spent on races (ranging from fun to frustrating) and item collecting. The story, though, is where the game is really at, making you care for characters usually branded the easy villain and cheering for a hero whose actions are often questionable at best. It is a game that takes itself very seriously; rare these days in the open world genre dominated by the insanity of GTA and Saints Row. Sleeping Dogs may not win any awards or be on the tip of gamers’ tongues a year from now, but it lays the foundation for a new series that could one day rival GTA itself. If you’re burned out by open world games, it likely won’t change your mind, but its brutal combat and colorful world was enough to keep me playing until the end.
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