Ok, let’s go ahead and get this out of the way before I get into the meat of the review: Yes, Sleeping Dogs is very much a GTA clone. If you aren’t able to look past that, or if you just don’t like crime-based, open world games, then Sleeping Dogs is not the game for you. Move along, move along.
Still with me? Good, because although Sleeping Dogs is a clone of GTA, right down to the details of the way the HUD looks on screen, it takes what made GTA great and improves upon it in very subtle, but also very smart ways. It also throws in a touch of Rocksteady’s Batman Arkham titles for good measure.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to so quickly equate any new open world/sandbox game to the Grand Theft Auto series. Rockstar’s lauded games weren’t the first to explore the genre; that honor arguably goes to the 1984 title Elite. But the Elite series didn’t have prostitutes you could sleep with and then murder, so there was very little controversy to propel it into the Killzone of politicians, enraged parents, and those looking for something to object to. It also helped that the GTA series was great, balancing a rich, immersive, content-filled world with gameplay that made the exploration feel like a boon rather than a burden.
But for as many things as GTA got right, there were a few things that it dropped the ball on. The combat was an especially rage-inducing issue, and other nit picks abound. The core, however, was polished and the story kept the attention of gamers from all walks of life. Many have tried to copy that formula but only gotten pieces of it right. That’s where Sleeping Dogs not only succeeds, it excels.
Welcome to Hong Kong
It’s bizarre to think that a few of the kids that play Sleeping Dogs may have been born after Hong Kong reverted from British control back to the hands of the Republic of China. It was a tense time, as residents of Hong Kong worried how China would influence their way of life, and the rest of the world watched on with fascinated trepidation. It has been just over 15 years now, and you can make a legitimate argument that China didn’t change Hong Kong as much as Hong Kong changed China.
It is an important distinction, because there is nowhere in the world that is quite like Hong Kong. The culture is in constant flux, but also one that feels a bit removed from the rest of the world. That sense of alienation is shared by Sleeping Dog’s main character, Wei Shen, a former native that left as a child for the States, where he eventually became a member of the SFPD. He returns to the city of his birth to go undercover and reconnect with his childhood friend, Jackie, a low-level member of the Sun Yee On triads.
As Shen works his way up the ranks of the underworld, the pressures of living in two worlds begins to take its toll. Nightmares make for restless nights, and the line between doing right and wrong continues to blur until Shen’s worlds both begin to crumble. And behind it all, there is more to the increasing gang violence than meets the eye.
It is something of a typical tale for movie fans. The cop goes undercover and loses himself somewhere between the worlds. There are too many examples of this to list, including the Hong Kong classic Infernal Affairs (and its sequel), which spawned the American remake The Departed. These epics certainly had a heavy influence on this game’s story as well. The plot is gritty and mature. Often humor shines through — but unlike the GTA games, it is the exception rather than the rule. The plot may be a bit predictable at times, but that doesn’t make it any less engrossing, immersive, and among the best game narratives of the year.
As Shen sinks deeper, he also explores Hong Kong more thoroughly. The city feels alive and vibrant, with several distinct sections, each with their own flair. It isn’t quite as big as some of the other open world games out there, but it never feels cramped.
The exotic and idealized (and greatly simplified) look at Hong Kong, filled with color and originality, is one of the things that sets this game apart. It adds mood, and the story is intertwined with the look. There are some graphical issues that show the technical limitations — things like distant objects being fuzzy until you are close to them and they suddenly come into focus — but they can be overlooked.
Choose Your Own Adventure
As Shen is an undercover officer, you will frequently find yourself with a foot in two worlds. The missions reflect that, and you will have two primary types of missions available: triad and police. There are also several neutral missions, but the story will revolve around the triad and the police missions, which you will need to complete to progress.
The missions themselves are varied. One frequent issue with open world games is mission repetition. That is something that plagues all open world games of any length, but while Sleeping Dogs does succumb to it at times, overall the game does a good job of keeping the missions feeling varied.
Beyond just the continuation of the storyline, Sleeping Dogs also encourages you to try as many missions as possible in order to level up, which in turn unlocks power ups and special moves. Each category has its own experience and subsequent ability tree, so you may find yourself trying to balance the amount of time you spend working for one side or the other to unlock the best abilities.
Although you have the option of when you select your missions, you will need to spend time on both sides of the fence. The story is very scripted, which can occasionally hurt the narrative. The game creates the illusion of choice where really there is none. There’s nothing especially wrong with that, but when you spend 10 minutes in a triad mission murdering your way through downtown Hong Kong, then begin the next cop mission, it feels a bit disingenuous without any consequences. A morality gauge would have made sense here, but that is a very minor complaint and the missions are generally fun on both sides; the triad missions do tend to move the plot much further along.
As you might expect of this type of game, there are a lot of missions. A whole lot. Along with the triad and police missions, you also have neutral missions, races, territory-like battles, and a few mini-games, like gambling and a fight club. Many of them are short and over in a few minutes at most, but in total you can complete the story in around 20 hours, and finish off almost everything at around 30.
The content is actually fairly rich, and the missions are typically engaging, but compared to some games that are rife with a nearly insane amount of things you can do on the side, Sleeping Dogs is a bit shy. Sure, I don’t know anyone that has completed every single mission as a cab driver in the GTA games — and if they did, I would be frightened of them. But I do know people that hunted to insanity on Red Dead Redemption. None of that greatly impacts the game, but their absence removes several hours of content that fans of the genre will likely miss. What is there, however, remains consistently strong throughout.
If you are going to borrow, borrow from the best
If you have played Rocksteady’s Batman games, then you will feel right at home here. The majority of the game consists of hand-to-hand fighting, which fits with both the setting of Hong Kong, and the chosen style of the game. The combat is primarily counter based at first, as you will often find yourself surrounded by enemies and need to show patience.
In the early hours, the fighting can be a wee bit frustrating, as you are underpowered and overmatched. This is where the power ups and new moves come in. By the time you have about half of the unlockable moves, the combat is a different animal, and a brawler becomes a masterfully executed fighting game.
The firearms don’t fair as well and feel like they are there because they are expected to be there. The third person shooter mechanics are cover-based, and the aiming is a bit generic. These moments do provide a bit of variety and work within the structure of the story. They aren’t bad, but they are something you work through rather than look forward to. This also has the added bonus of curtailing the GTA-like desire to break out in a murderous rampage each time someone cuts you off in traffic.
The driving, on the other hand, is exceptionally tight. It is very arcade like, so the physics are wonky, but ripping between traffic on a motorcycle never gets old. There are also plenty of radio stations to choose from, and the soundtrack is worth buying whenever it is released.
If you want to get bogged down in comparing this game to GTA and other sandbox games, knock yourself out — there is plenty of ammunition in the similarities with Sleeping Dogs. But if that isn’t an issue for you — and hopefully it isn’t — you are left with a great game that improves upon the medium in almost every way. There could be a bit more content, and the firearms sections aren’t nearly as good as the hand-to-hand, but those are minor issues.
If you are a fan of Hong Kong cinema, especially crime stories, then there is nothing that should stop you from making this game tops on your list. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t break any new ground, but a compelling story supported by overall strong gameplay make this game a standout in the genre.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a copy provided by Square Enix)