SLEEPING DOGS (2012) – UNITED FRONT STUDIOS
If I had to make a relatively useless comparison, Sleeping Dogs is like one of those fancy cocktails you find hidden on the menu at a bar: it has all the delicious ingredients and initially it has quite a kick, but pretty soon you are left wishing you had ordered something with a bit more substance and volume – like a large pint of (insert favourite drink here). It has the potential to become much more than the picked up remains of a True Crime game, but in the end is unable to quite fulfill its high ambitions.
So what is it exactly that Sleeping Dogs tries to offer? Well, the open world of Grand Theft Auto, combined with the fighting mechanics from Rocksteady’s Arkham series and a splash of parkour, all neatly tied together with a Hong Kong movie plot ala Infernal Affairs. You take the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop looking to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad gang in the seedy South Asian metropolis of Hong Kong. Tasked by his superiors with moving through the ranks with the intention of taking the Triad down from the inside, Wei finds himself compromised by his duty to the law and the allure of a life in underground crime. Along the way, you also get to engage in high octane car chases, fistfights with helpless goons, and sing a bit of karaoke in your spare time. It’s tough wearing a badge, isn’t it?
The movie inspired plot is one of the best things Sleeping Dogs has going for it. Placing the action in Hong Kong gives the game a distinctive feel that GTA, with all its focus on America, has never been able to fully recognise with its small ‘Chinatown’ environments. The story mostly ticks all the cliché boxes; there’s betrayal, revenge and a good deal of tension as Wei attempts to keep his cover, but the action happens almost too quickly. The main stem of missions is fleetingly brief and seemingly cobbled together; for example one minute you’re disrupting a bus racket, and then suddenly you’re gunning down enemies at a wedding of your boss that was introduced with minimal exposition. I can’t help but feel that they could have extended the story for a few more hours and it would have benefited the overall pacing of the plot.
So how does Sleeping Dogs handle, given its attempts to replicate some of the most polished gameplay of this generation? The answer is surprisingly well. Wei is more than adept at kicking the crap out of henchmen, utilising a mixture of martial arts (with upgradeable stuns, throws and attacks available by completing side missions) and some brutal ‘environmental attacks’, including setting a man’s face on fire with hot coals and performing a fireman’s carry slam into dumpsters. Similar to Batman in Arkham Asylum/City, Wei can counter incoming attacks with a well timed press of the Y button, and by picking up various items ranging from briefcases to meat cleavers can deliver some weapon based punishment as well. Performing varied moves and counters builds up a ‘Face Meter’, which when activated allows Wei to deal more damage and deliver unblockable attacks. It’s a solid system to use, but there’s not the elusive ‘flow’ that makes the Arkham combat so much fun in comparison, and the environmental attacks are sadly too often confined to small parts of missions rather than the open world.
When he’s not dishing up fist-based justice, Wei can also ably moonlight as Triad Spiderman. By holding down A, Wei will run around Hong Kong as per any other sandbox character, but by quickly pressing A again when prompted next to ledges and obstacles he was gracefully glide and jump past. It’s little coincidence that several of the best set-pieces involve Wei giving chase across rooftops and through congested back alleys. What I personally find so enjoyable about the system is the ease with which you can make Wei move around – dare I say it, it’s sometimes better executed than even the likes Uncharted?
Sadly, driving and gunplay aren’t quite up to scratch. There’s a big range of cars, bikes and boats to move around in, but driving is floaty and not particularly realistic – a decent handbrake turn is nigh on impossible to pull off, and Wei can do wheelies on bikes at any speed between 3 and 1000mph without ever changing his posture. You can perform action highjacks and shoot guns from vehicles, but the control input makes these sections kind of awkward to pull off. And speaking of guns, Sleeping Dogs is a long way behind the likes of GTA and Max Payne in particular, from which it liberally borrows slow motion mechanics (when leaping out from cover, you momentarily enter ‘bullet time’ to give you the edge). There’s nothing essentially ‘wrong’ with shooting; it just feels a bit basic.
The desire to replicate the big open worlds of GTA has mixed consequences. On the one hand, the city of Hong Kong, while nowhere near as vast as its sandbox rivals, is captured pretty damn well. The streets are thronged with citizens, while knock-off vendors shout out to get your attention and ladies offer ‘massages’ in alleyway parlours. At night and especially in the rain, the claustrophobically placed buildings and neon lighting helps to serve up a gritty and quite dirty vision of Hong Kong that has its own weird appeal. In the city itself, outside of missions Wei can spend money on cars and outfits (including special outfits referring to the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill and numerous Bruce Lee flicks), go gamble on offshore boats, bet on cockfights, earn cash in illegal street races, find health shrines and hack security cameras and tackle ‘Take On Me’ by A-ha in a strangely addictive karaoke mini-game. Where Sleeping Dogs fails to impress is the way Hong Kong reacts to Wei: the police are either ridiculously docile, watching on calmly as Wei crashes into steetlamps and pedestrians, or ridiculously aggressive if you walk up to one and punch them (not only can they run faster than you, getting caught at anything above the second heat level without a vehicle nearby is a death sentence).
As alluded to before, at times Sleeping Dogs is quite the looker. The city is at its best in the dark when the lighting effects work their magic, but it’s alright in the daytime as well. As one might expect in a game of this type, vehicle design is generic as hell however, and the majority of pedestrians have faces moulded out of wax. The visuals in cut scenes are quite well done, with the lip syncing right in place and the action occurring without too much of a drop in framerate. With regards to audio, United Front Studios are guilty of employing celebrity names to do voices and then having them do minimal work (Emma Stone’s Amanda character being the worst culprit), but Will Yun Lee is the standout performer for his depiction of Wei. Sleeping Dogs has 10 radio stations, including licenses for Kerrang, Daptone Records and Ninja Tune, with one of best collections of classical music I can remember as well under the Boosey & Hawkes name. The system for songs however is most odd; step out of a car and enter just seconds later, and entire tracks will have skipped or restarted – the playlist feature from Saints Row: The Third would have been a godsend here.
The first time I saw Sleeping Dogs in action was a bug riddled demo at the MCM Expo in London in early 2012; its clearly improved since then, and its position as one of the sleeper hits (no pun intended) of last year is a credit to Square Enix for picking up the game that Activision had so carelessly tossed away. But while you play, you can’t help but have that nagging feeling that you’ve already done everything at least once before in another title, and not only that but the gameplay was executed better in those other games too. Due to its cheap price it’s maybe worth picking up to tide you over until stuff like GTA V comes out, but don’t expect much replay value once the 20 hours or so are done.
P.S Resisted the temptation to make some awful dog puns while writing this review – it got pretty ‘ruff’ towards the end.