August 14, 2012
Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Tony Jaa, Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal (OK, perhaps to a lesser extent for those last two) are undisputed martial arts masters one and all. But you can add Sleeping Dogs' Wei Shen to that list, as from the moment he kung fu kicks his way into the game's gritty criminal underworld, he effortlessly attains the status of ass-kicking super cop. Dress him in an Ong Bak or Game of Death costume (and you can), and he's a total kung fu legend. That's just part of the reason why Sleeping Dogs is one of the most exciting open-world crime sagas we've played in some time, feeling like a perfectly timed game to fill the gaping void left by Grand Theft Auto, offering an absorbing and entirely convincing city to romp your way through, completing various objectives and tasks on your rise through the ranks of the dangerous Triad criminal organisation.
Stories of troubled development seldom bode well for a game, and few have been quite as troubled as Sleeping Dogs. Starting life as Orange Lotus before being rebranded as True Crime: Hong Kong and subsequently canned by Activision, Sleeping Dogs has been through the wringer more than a few times in the lead up to its release. But here it is, out on the other side of all the crap that's transpired, finished and ready to face the wrath of the X360A review firing squad. And while early signs indicated that Sleeping Dogs showed a lot of potential, we've always been unsure how the finished product would turn out.
As undercover cop Wei Shen, you're embroiled in the criminal underworld as you strive to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad gang, gaining the trust of the Red Pole lieutenants and the head honcho, the Dragon Head himself. Like any gangster saga worth its salt however, things aren't as clear cut as they might seem. Naturally, Shen soon finds himself in over his head, under increased pressure from his superiors Pendrew and Teng, and his handler Raymond to bring home the bacon and close the net on the Sun On Yee. Suffice to say, things get fairly complicated and rather twisty-turny pretty quickly, and to reveal any more would be entering spoiler town. So, let's turn around and leave spoiler town to talk about the gameplay mechanics, which are some of the most satisfying we've encountered in an open-world game in quite some time.
Not only is fighting as Wei Shen deliriously satisfying and brilliantly brutal, the combat system is also endlessly entertaining. It's fortunate that the combat is so accomplished, as you'll be fighting your way through more than a few rival Triad thugs as a civil war breaks out across Hong Kong, with the Sun On Yee butting heads against the vicious and uncompromising 18K Triad posse. Beyond Sleeping Dogs' compelling and cinematic narrative that plays out like a genuinely mature and smartly scripted crime drama, you'll discover that there's plenty to see and do in and around the expansive city, which is packed with incidental detail and life.
During your time among the hustle and bustle of Sleeping Dogs' fictionalised, but entirely absorbing version of Hong Kong, you'll find yourself recovering jade statues to learn new martial arts combos at the local dojo, visiting nightclubs to sing karaoke (in one of the most pointless mini-games ever), getting illicit massages in back alley establishments, gambling on cockfights and mahjong poker, entering illegal street races, stealing cars for one of your contacts and performing 'Favors' for various people. As an undercover cop, there's police work to be done too, meaning there's elaborate drug rings to close down, police cases to uncover and pockets of Triad activity to eradicate. And that's just the optional side quest stuff.
In the game's story, you'll become accustomed with the combat in a whole variety of set-pieces, with a range of interactive environmental props to slice, impale, electrocute or burn your enemies. It's massively raw and violent stuff, channeling gory and brutal Asian flicks like Chan Wook Park's brilliant Old Boy and 'Beat' Takeshi's Violent Cop or Hana Bi. Meanwhile, the influence of movies like City on Fire, Police Story and the majority of John Woo's pre-Hollywood output is clearly evident in Sleeping Dogs, and it's all the better for it. It helps that the game is also lovingly built, with some fantastically smooth visuals and tight gameplay that completely confounds the expectations we had for Sleeping Dogs having played early preview builds.
The finished version of Sleeping Dogs addresses practically every misgiving or reservation we previously had about the game, with the draw distance fixed, the combat working beautifully and the driving model pitched perfectly between realism and fun. Any glitches we encountered in old builds have clearly been squashed and all in all, United Front Games has ensured that Sleeping Dogs is an incredibly polished and well-presented open-world title. It might not be particularly groundbreaking or innovative in any way, but the game has plenty of its own tricks stashed up its sleeve, with a cover shooting system that puts most fully-fledged cover shooters to shame, an action-hijacking stunt that enables you to live out your insane blockbuster movie fantasies during high-speed chases, and free-running on-foot pursuits straight out of the coolest cop movies you can care to think of.
There's even a liberal dose of light RPG elements thrown in for good measure, as Wei Shen levels up his Cop, Triad and Face XP unlocking new moves and abilities in the process. Cop XP is awarded for clean driving and obeying the rules during your undercover Triad activity, while anything you do for the Triads with your buddies, Jackie Ma, Winston Chu and co. is rewarded with Triad XP. Both have their own skill trees, while Face XP is earned for boosting your reputation, enabling you to buy slicker cars, finer clothes from more desirable and exclusive labels, and plush pads in the more affluent areas of Hong Kong.
Acquiring all of this wealth and an enhanced lifestyle among other things, translates to the game's achievements too. It's a list that encourages you to experience everything Sleeping Dogs has to offer, with achievements granted for levelling up, cracking police cases, hacking all of the city's surveillance cameras and so on. As with most achievement lists, there's a fair dose of collectibles to discover, but not so many that you'll baulk at the thought of gaining that all-important 100%. Much of the collectibles are also neatly tied in to activities, such as completing drug busts, praying at health boosting shrines or hacking cameras. There are lockboxes to find too, but each has a cash reward or an item inside, so there's no collecting stuff just for the sheer hell of it, which is nice for a change.
There's also ambient and cumulative objectives to complete, such as clean driving for as long as possible, executing as long a kill streak as you can, speeding through traffic, smashing parking meters for cash, indulging in hit and run antics, or eluding the police for an extended period, earning you medals and a spot in the online leaderboards. There's achievements attached to medal hunting and beating each task, while leaderboard support ensures healthy competition among the community and against your friends. You could conceivably play Sleeping Dogs forever if you get bitten by the competitive bug offered by these tasks that pop up when you start performing a particular activity. It's a simple but superb way of creating added replay value to an already rather large game.
Sleeping Dogs is a fantastic example of an open-world game done exceedingly well. Not only is it also a love letter to Asian cinephiles, but it's packed with memorable set-pieces and remarkable gameplay mechanics that ensure you're always having fun, whether you're just messing around or engaging in the myriad tasks and side missions on offer. If we're picking faults, we'd say that the story portion of the game while entertaining and engaging, is a little on the short side, and we did occasionally come across a tiny bit of clipping here and there. But to pick holes in such an accomplished open-world action title seems somewhat churlish. Kudos to UFG and Square Enix for rescuing Sleeping Dogs from the jaws of oblivion then, and surely Activision will be wondering why they decided to put this particular dog to sleep.
A decent selection of music on the car stereo and some superb voice work alongside the sounds of Hong Kong's daily grind make for a pleasing soundscape.
As open-world titles go, this is one of the best-looking around. It's not exactly perfect from a visual standpoint, but the character models are superb and the slightly fictionalised Hong Kong is a wondrous locale, filled with activity and character.
Sleeping Dogs is an absolute blast to play, whether you're kicking ass and taking names in hand-to-hand combat, shooting up the place like Tequila in Hard Boiled, or engaging in high speed car chases, jumping between vehicles like a maniac. Thrilling.
A slightly short, though not entirely insubstantial story is supported by a plethora of side missions and other activities to engage in. You'll be playing Sleeping Dogs for a long time, and ambient leaderboard challenges certainly bolster the longevity.
An excellent list that deserves praise simply by virtue of having an achievement that requires you kill someone with a wet fish. Definitely a game you'll want to 100%.
It's hard to believe that this almost got canned. United Front Games has crafted a stunning open-world action romp that draws on a variety of cinematic influences to startling effect. Sleeping Dogs is by no means perfect, but at times, it comes painfully close.