When discussing sandbox games, a comparison to the GTA series is almost inevitable, so let’s get straight to it: Sleeping Dogs is very reminiscent of GTA. The character’s acquaintances offer missions that help him climb the ranks of a criminal organisation. These missions usually involve driving to a destination, committing a crime and escaping police afterwards.
It’s a standard format, and Sleeping Dogs doesn’t attempt to carve itself a new niche; instead, it chooses to sit comfortably in the GTA series’ shadow. It differs in some ways, like with its Chinese setting, its ability upgrades, and its focus on melee combat. At its core, however, its gameplay remains identical to older GTA games. Sleeping Dogs feels like it could have been released five years ago, rather than two.
Although Sleeping Dogs is very similar to GTA, it remains an excellent game on its own merit. Its story, although hardly ground-breaking, is still involving enough to keep you playing through to its completion. The undercover cop dynamic wasn’t as fleshed out as it could have been – like by picking sides at a certain point – but it remained an interesting aspect for both the main character’s and the story’s progression.
The cop/triad dynamic wasn’t entirely ignored, gameplay-wise; depending on how the character acts during missions, he can learn techniques more related to the police or to Triad members. Most of these abilities are combat based, meaning that actions like theft and vandalism can lead to a dirtier fighting style as well as the usual police chase.
At the beginning, when ability trees haven’t advanced far, combat can feel a little dry. The player starts off with basic attacks and grapples, meaning that tactically utilising the environment is vital to success in earlier fights. However, Wei’s fighting style continues to evolve as abilities are unlocked, resulting in some really meaty fighting toward the end of the game.
Outside of breaking legs and roundhouse kicks, Sleeping Dogs has a few nice features that keep it fun to play, even in its moments of monotony. For me, the combat was closely followed by the driving. The driving doesn’t feel as sturdy or realistic as it should (especially on motorcycles), but it’s fast, fun and ridiculous. When driving at top speed, it begins to feel like Scalextric Hong Kong edition, and when cars get in your way, you can write them off with a well timed slam.
Adding to this, there are a handful of races the player can take part in: back alley bike races, offshore boat races and standard car races. They may not offer the height of racing realism that dedicated driving games offer, but they remain a fun distraction from Wei’s duties as an undercover cop.
In a game where gunfights are relatively rare, any enemy wielding a firearm is bound to be a threat. In Sleeping Dogs, every policeman carries a firearm, meaning every policeman is a threat, and committing crimes is like kicking a hornet nest and hoping to find honey. Shaking off one or two doesn’t prove too much trouble, and as long as you’re careful, the police won’t cause you any harm.
As the game progresses, police can be disarmed and their cars can be robbed of weaponry, but high level cop-chases are virtually impossible to survive (at least, I haven’t figured out how to run away from a spray of bullets yet), and escaping a level 5 alert is a nightmare – small vehicles will be shot at and explode and armoured vehicles are too slow to make an easy escape.
Outside of the virtually omnipotent and omniscient police force, I didn’t have much to complain about with Sleeping Dogs. The missions become repetitive after a while and there’s little variety in the map (urban, suburban, industrial or dockside), but I’ve come to expect that from older sandbox games, and forced myself to ignore it.
Although Sleeping Dogs isn’t quite on par with the scale of GTA V, it remains a great sandbox game that stands among the best of the genre in the last five years. It suffers from the same pitfalls and doesn’t stray enough from the genre archetype to be considered fresh or inventive, but it makes enough small improvements to be worth a playthrough nonetheless.
As with most games, if you’re not a fan of the genre, there’s nothing new here that could catch your attention. If you’re craving another sandbox game, however, this one is pretty cheap and will keep you going for a while. It’s been out for a few years now, but Sleeping Dogs continues to fend off its sandbox competitors with a pork bun in one hand and bleeding knuckles on the other.