There are two things you need to know about Sleeping Dogs. There are lots of other little interesting bits and pieces which we’ll touch upon in due course but there are really only two key points you have to be made aware of.
The first: it’s a reasonably unimaginative Grand Theft Auto tribute.
The second: it’s a really enjoyable game.
With those two essential points out of the way, we can move on to appreciating the finer points of Sleeping Dogs, what it does right and how it doesn’t really need to be any more than what it is: there’s more than enough here to warrant spending your hard earned cash on, if you’re a fan of this style of game.
The premise is simple enough. You play as Wei Shen, a cop in the San Francisco Police Department and Hong Kong ex-patriot who has been seconded to the Hong Kong Police Department (HKPD) to take part in an undercover operation. Your task is to infiltrate the Triad gang from the neighbourhood where you grew up and use what you learn to take down the bosses. There is personal history between you and one of the Red Poles – the Triad’s name for their military enforcers – who just happens to be involved in a power struggle with your new boss.
Rise Through the Ranks
It’s a reasonably generic story of a conflicted protagonist earning the trust of crime bosses further and further along the ladder. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t push your rise to power too far though – you’ll stay generally within your neighbourhood and you’ll work within the ancient traditions of the organisation, rather than rapidly overcoming and dominating them, as you might in other, similar games. The involvement of the police in our protagonist’s story provides an extra element of danger and allows the plot to take a few twists and deliver its emotional payoff in a way which, although largely unoriginal, is well written and impactful.
What Sleeping Dogs does with panache is capture an atmosphere. I can’t personally attest whether or not it encapsulates the reality of Hong Kong in its recreations of bustling markets, winding mountain passes and a towering, glistening financial district. But Sleeping Dogs isn’t an emulation of Hong Kong life, it’s a recreation of Hong Kong action cinema.
From the diversity of its cast to the visual styling of its characters, Sleeping Dogs is often indiscernible from the familiar styles and tropes of Hong Kong action cinema. It has the gritty, steamy, sweat-stained underbelly of a city that plays such a prominent role in letting the genre come alive and it rests the plot – just believable enough – amidst that living backdrop. You can almost smell the fish sauce and fried noodles.
The delivery of the narrative will be familiar to anyone who has ever shunned the dubbed version of a Donnie Yen movie to watch it in its purity but it is helped along by a large and diverse cast of very respectable actors. Will Yun Li is joined by greats like James Hong (who also voiced characters in True Crime: Streets of LA and True Crime: New York City – this game’s precursors) as well as some modern US TV stars like Kelly Hu and the always fantastic Tom Wilkinson.
The progress through the reasonably timed story missions is relatively linear – there’s no portions of the game in which you must choose between several mission-givers – but there is a lot to do besides chasing through the story. Sleeping Dogs has all the usual things you’d expect to see in an open world crime game. The mix of side mission types is varied and ranges from the usual pick up and drop off types, chase evasion and participation in minor crimes to the standard car theft to order and the more prominently positioned police case files you can follow up with.
Spice Up Your Fights
There is plenty to upgrade during the course of the game too, from returning stolen statues to trade for martial arts lessons to respect increases with the Triads and the HKPD leading to skill upgrades, you don’t have a great deal of branching options but each upgrade does give you very discernible benefits. You’ll gain more points with the Triads for brutality and variation in combat and the HKPD will respect you more for not damaging public property or harming civilians.
With Hong Kong’s relatively strict gun regulations (in comparison to the US, most gun regulations are relatively strict), armed combat is given less emphasis than in similar games. There are still plenty of toys that go bang so don’t worry about missing out too much on your ballistics and explosives, you’ll just have to carry less and use them in certain circumstances rather than simply going crazy with them.
The extra attention given to unarmed combat is what really makes the game. It’s a counter-based, fluid system which enables you to take on large groups of various enemy types and pull off some really fantastic looking fight moves. After investing some time in attaining several upgrades, you’ll be able to defeat large groups as if you were a Kung Fu master – and you’ll need to.
Although the game is generally very easy, some of the larger group combat situations can be tricky to come through. Thankfully, the checkpointing system is smartly done in natural sections that are never too long so you’ll avoid thankless slogging through familiar areas. That said, there is still an element of the usual open world “drive here, pick something up, drive it there” flow to many of the missions. On a game map that’s reasonably large and bustling, and in a game with no helicopters or aeroplanes, driving from point A to point B to begin a mission, simply because the game transported you to a faraway safe house after your last, can be slightly tiresome if you’re just trying to work through the story missions.
- Perfectly captures the essence of the movies it emulates.
- Combat is fluid and intuitive.
- Plenty of diversity in the world.
- Great cast delivers the familiar themes of the story with aplomb.
- It doesn’t really innovate in any major way.
- There’s no great challenge in it.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t original in most of its mechanics and narrative but the little things that differ from genre staples are enough to warrant your attention. The combat system is a joy and the focus on unarmed combat, rather than firepower, is quite refreshing. Hong Kong is brought to life and while it’s not necessarily the real world of Hong Kong, it is perfect representation of the action movie setting of the island and that is much more entertaining and interesting.