It’s difficult to describe Sleeping Dogs without referencing the other games it so liberally borrows from. The free-running of Assassin’s Creed, the rhythmic combat of Batman: Arkham City, the high-speed racing of Need for Speed, the vehicular gunplay of Just Cause 2, all set within a Grand Theft Auto-like open-world environment. The story and characters are homages to classic Hong Kong action movies, while the game itself was originally in development as the third installment of the True Crime series.
This on-paper impression of an unoriginal and derivative game belies Sleeping Dogs: the combination of all these elements is executed in such a rewarding way that United Front Games’ title is much more than the sum of its parts, and may very well be a sleeper hit that marks the end of the mid-year games drought.
Detective Wei Shun is an officer of the San Francisco Police Department who has been transferred back to his native Hong Kong to work with the local police and infiltrate the criminal Triad societies. Through childhood friendships and reputations, Wei rises through the ranks to take down the criminal organisations from the top. Comparisons to the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (its American remake The Departed; Donnie Brasco) are inevitable, though exploring the themes of loyalty and duality in an open-world game makes for a compelling narrative.
And make no mistake; this is a story that takes itself very seriously. There are no facetious landmarks, camp supporting characters, or satirical radio stations. A high level of violence inflicted both on, and by Wei will make even the most ardent torture porn fanatics wince.
All of this only works if the digital representation of Hong Kong is engaging and immersive, and this is where Sleeping Dogs truly shines. The first few missions take Wei through nighttime alleyways and marketplaces, a haphazard collection of hawkers and vendors spruiking food, clothes, and pirated DVDs. They’re full of people going about their busy lives, talking on their phones (many in fluent Mandarin), or watching the traditional Lion dance being performed in the main square. It feels alive and vibrant, and most importantly it gives the impression of a world that exists regardless of Wei’s actions.
The AI is also pleasingly responsive. Getting into a fistfight will result in the surrounding crowds breaking to give the combatants room, they’ll cheer and scream in equal measure, and in the aftermath, the body of Wei’s unconscious opponent will cause some to shriek as they approach while others will stop and snap a photo on their phones.
Brawling is fundamental to the gameplay; rarely will Wei find himself matched against a single antagonist. Instead, kung fu expert Wei will dance between multiple enemies as an indicator warns the player of an impending strike and offers a window to counter. It lacks some of the elegance of Batman, but it makes up for it in sheer street brawling brutality. Highlighted elements within the environment indicate finishing moves such as being fed into an industrial fan, skewered onto hanging meat hooks, or caving a skull in with a refrigerator door.
The martial arts are genuinely satisfying, and Wei can also join the illegal fight clubs littered around the city, each offering more reward while escalating the number and difficulty of fighters.
Gunplay, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. Firefights consist of sliding into cover and waiting for breaks to pick off Triads, though there seem to be some aiming issues when leaving cover. That said, vaulting over objects does instigate a bullet-time effect, though it doesn’t last long enough for it to have much impact.
Driving and shooting also uses this slowdown technique perfectly, and it’s satisfying in a way no other open-world game has managed to master. Controlling the vehicle while aiming sounds like a nightmare, especially when taking out pursuers, but with continual bullet-time moments it’s not too difficult to shoot the tires specifically and cause maximum destruction.
The flipside scenario sees Wei pursuing others in high speed pursuit. Getting close and holding A allows Wei to jump from his car and jack his target’s – also a useful feature when cruising along the many highways and spotting a Lamborghini.
None of this is sanctioned by the HKPD, but Sleeping Dogs rewards all actions with either Cop XP, Triad XP, and/or Face XP. Completing missions, favours, and other in-game activities for either faction results in Wei’s relevant XP increasing, and thus allowing upgrades relevant to either path. Face XP is earned from general actions in the game, and affords new ability each time it levels up, allowing the player to participate in more activities, unlock new items and acquire snappier clothes at later levels.
Other sections of the city continue the East-meets-West confluence that defines Hong Kong: busy metropolitan areas are punctuated with shrines and temples. Minigames such as cockfight gambling, karaoke bars, to street races litter the city and all appear unique enough to not feel like an intrusion on the experience.
The street races in particular provide a good demonstration of the vehicle handling and physics that sit perfectly within the game. Driving in Sleeping Dogs is much more like an arcade racer than a realistic interpretation, unsurprising given that several of the United Front developers have previously worked on Need for Speed titles. While no licenced vehicles are used, it’s easy to pick the inspirations – The Drifter GT (Ford GT), NEO V (Mitsubishi Lancer), Blast (Lamborghini Diablo), and all can be stored and accessed from any of the many garages found throughout the city.
The game takes a more ominous tone when some Triad leaders are massacred at a wedding, leaving Wei to take up the position of a Sun Yee On “Red Pole”, or office-bearer.
At the same time, side missions are expanded to include a secret Police Department division that allows Wei to access a city-wide surveillance network, and the power to arrest anyone he pleases.
It’s an interesting twist that has the potential to separate Sleeping Dogs from its frequently more restrictive competition. We’ll learn whether United Front Games can deliver on a conceptually promising title when the game is released for Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC on August 16.