It is not every day you can sympathize with a cold-hearted killer. But in Sleeping Dogs, the sprawling sandbox action game from United Front, it’s hard not to be on the side of detective Wei Shen. He beats gangsters to death with his bare hands, slams mob bosses’ heads into table saws, flattens police officers in an attempt to maintain his secrecy, and feeds young thugs who betray their duties to a morbid chef. Despite his bloody fists, he’s a steady, firm man. Yet in all his dedication to the mission, Wei Shen rarely accepts orders—from police or his mob bosses—without questioning how it will impact his next move. He is a complex man and a ruthless killer. If this is the brutal, story-driven kind of action and character development you like in your games, Sleeping Dogs absolutely deserves a spot high atop your summer play list. It is, without a doubt, the blockbuster very few saw coming.
Through the narrative of Sleeping Dogs, we begin to unravel Wei Shen’s past and learn more about his connection to organized crime in a fictional Hong Kong. Tasked with infiltrating the Triad of Sun On Yee, Shen works his way through the ranks in classic mobster story fashion. Early in the game he roughs-up rival gang thugs, collects money from those protected by his boss, and reclaims more land. But as he earns trust from the heads of Sun On Yee, his seemingly simple tasks turn into elaborate plans of blackmail and mass murders. Before long, Wei Shen—and the player, for that matter—will not have a clear picture of the good guys, the bad guys, and the ones caught in the middle.
And here rests one of Sleeping Dogs’ greatest strengths. This narrative draws you in and keeps you engaged throughout the 10+ hour campaign (there is a lot more here than just the campaign, however). The twists and turns, the subplots, your allies and enemies all become this tangled web, this tapestry of complex narrative directions and emotions that it’s hard to put Sleeping Dogs down without daydreaming about what could happen next.
For all the praise on narrative styles, themes, and directions, Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay shines. It’s a third-person action/shooter set in a vast open world. When you add in solid driving mechanics and simplistic role-playing game elements, you have the makings of an extremely rich and deep overall experience. Sleeping Dogs pulls a lot of ideas from well-established, successful games.
The melee combat, while far more simplistic, is similar to Batman: Arkham City. The bulk of combat is hand-to-hand combat, and as a martial arts master, Wei Shen rips through enemies with angry fists and flying kicks. Melee combat is quite smooth but falls into the button mashing mayhem a bit too easily. With the bulk of your melee combat tied to a single button, outside of counter attacks, differing attacks are performed by various combinations of how quickly you tap and hold the attack button. It’s a solid system but definitely takes some time learn and master. By the end of the game melee combat will likely be too easy, which is one of the game’s minor faults.
Sleeping Dogs is a beautiful game. Character models are quite well done, although no one seems to have the right size hands. Most of the men, Wei Shen in particular, seem to glow and glisten with sweat or rain or some kind of watery substance. It’s something that looks cool at the beginning, but you have to wonder if the guy just needs to take a break for a shower once in a while. They game mostly relies on dark colors to represent the dark underbelly of the city. While on occasions you’ll see brighter colors shine through when walking around temples or nightclubs, it’s mostly a dark game. Given the game mostly takes place in the rain; there’s a nice washed look to the buildings as you speed through the city in your motorcycle or sports car. This is definitely one of the better looking open-world games.
Navigating Hong Kong is a breeze thanks to solid driving mechanics, similar to that in other open world games like Saints Row, and the king of them all, Grand Theft Auto. Sleeping Dogs definitely plays a lot like GTA, and it’s hard to ignore the overly similar gameplay elements. For example, you can hijack any vehicle and spend hours driving through Hong Kong, running over pedestrians in the process. And, just like GTA, the shooting mechanics aren’t anything special. That’s not to say they are bad, they are just basic. The only thing remotely special is the ability to enter slow motion, similar to that in Max Payne.
Wei Shen is extremely nimble and he has the ability to free run, similar to the Assassin’s Creed series. However, this doesn’t always work so well. Free running is tied to a single button and on-screen prompts allow you to run up small walls or jump over objects. Since it’s the same button as the free run, it can take some time to get used to this mix of holding the button, then tapping it when prompted, then holding it again to continue running.
Hong Kong offers an absolute playground for would-be gangsters. The underbelly of society is gross and violent, but they protect each other like family. These relationships Shen builds with his gangster family distorts his overall mission as he gets far too close to the source. But the city is an absolutely breathtaking setting for the narrative. The streets come alive with merchants selling wares, tourists, businessmen, trucks carrying chickens, the elegant downtown, the scenic hillside temples, and the sprawling dock area. It’s gritty and uninviting at first, but it eventually grows on you and feels like home—after all, it is Shen’s original stomping grounds.
The characters help bring the city and the story to life and add a layer of believability. One moment you’re working with the brilliantly casted police detective—bosses that tie your hands through the firm grip of the law—and another moment your helping your mob brothers eliminate rival gangs. The big players in the game offer great variety. Within the police department there are those on your side, and others that seem to stab you in the back. The same rings true in the mob. You’ll take some brothers under your wing, ring out some personal anguish on rival gangsters, and lie your way to reach the heads of the organizations. The voice acting is some of the best in recent history. Will Yung Lee voices Shen’s character, and a slew of familiar names, like Emma Stone and Tom Wilkinson, round out the cast. Some of the lip sync animations are a bit off, but overall character development and voicing are extremely strong.
Missions are divided between the main narrative, subplots, police reports, and tons of side quests. Some main quests are extremely strong, including long gun battles in elaborate locations, heavily-story driven tasks of revenge, and gory subplots to delve deeper into Shen’s past. But others fall quite flat, including some drive-the-hot-girls-around-town missions. Even some of the later missions are forgettable. But, the strongest moments in the game are anything but forgettable. This is absolutely a water cooler game, something you’ll want to discuss with friends (I know I can’t wait to talk about it when others get a chance to play). And thanks to collectibles, side missions, police reports, and an online leaderboard system, there is plenty to do outside the campaign and reasons to revisit in the future.
While Sleeping Dogs is an extremely rich experience, there are a few flaws that detract from the overall solid game. Just like every game this size, there are bugs. Some are relatively minor, like Shen getting stuck on the environment when free running, while others are simply laughable—like when cars randomly crash and flicker in the distance. There are some basic graphic issues with flickering shadows, but the overall bug issues are relatively minor.
Chances are Sleeping Dogs wasn’t on your radar, but it definitely deserves your time. If you are at all drawn to open-world games, strong narratives, interesting characters, mob games, driving, and lengthy sidequests and sub-missions you’ll easily spend weeks upon weeks working your way through the streets of Hong Kong. While it doesn’t add much new to any of its older, more well established brothers, it does refine a number of gameplay elements. Whether you are leaping from a speeding vehicle onto an enemy’s car, or spending skills points to upgrade your combat, Sleeping Dogs offers a robust experience. Do yourself a favor and play through this game; you’ll be rewarded with an exhilarating story, rich characters, beautiful graphics, strong combat, and fun gameplay.