Things didn’t look particularly good for Sleeping Dogs just a year and a half ago when the game was brutally cancelled by Activision because it was “just not good enough” to compete with the Grand Theft Autos of the world. (Since when did the publisher become so discerning?)
Saving the game from oblivion may turn out to be one of the smartest decisions Square Enix has made in a while. The publisher has a sleeper hit on its hands with Sleeping Dogs’ slick amalgam of hand-to-hand brawling, third-person gunplay and arcade-style driving set in a gloriously detailed open-world Hong Kong.
Though Sleeping Dogs doesn’t reinvent the open-world action game, the stylish execution and Hong Kong background set it apart from the rest.
Sleeping Dogs — it was meant to be an entry in the True Crime series when Activision was still going to publish it — isn’t as wide in scope as the sprawling Grand Theft Auto games, but its narrower band of focus turns out to be a good thing. Compared to the expansive anything-goes design of most open-world games, Sleeping Dogs is lean and muscular.
Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong underworld setting is a refreshing change from stalking the streets of Los Angeles and New York in open-world crime titles. It’s a vibrant but gritty game world that features many of the city’s landmarks, ranging from tranquil temple gardens and gleaming high-rises to seedy massage palours, neon bathed streets and squalid alley ways.
In this world, you play the part of Wei Shen, a police officer working undercover in a triad organisation. The story takes its direction from Hong Kong action films like City on Fire, Hardboiled and, especially, Infernal Affairs (remade as The Departed by Martin Scorsese). It is a well-acted and scripted tale of conflicted loyalties and betrayal.
Where many of its peers are enthusiastic dabblers in dozens of half-formed gameplay mechanics and mini games, Sleeping Dogs does only a few things but it strives to do them well. Developer United Front Games has borrowed elements from the masters to create an experience that satisfies across all of its dimensions.
From Rocksteady’s Batman games and the Assassin’s Creed series, it takes the free-flowing counterattacks and combos of its rewarding melee fighting system. The apparent simplicity of the combat hides a surprising depth, with new moves to unlock throughout the game as well as plenty of variation in enemies and the tactics they use.
After spending a while with the games cars and motorbikes, it’s not surprising to learn that United Front includes many team members who have worked on the Need for Speed games. The vehicles are zippy and powerful, but they also feel grounded and handle gracefully. It’s a welcome change from the loose driving physics of many open-world titles.
The only element in the mix that is a little clumsy is the cover-based gunplay, where controls feel a little sluggish, but shootouts form a relatively small part of the game. Driving, fighting and shooting skills can be enhanced throughout the game through ability trees tied to a basic experience system. There’s nothing groundbreaking about this, but it all works well simply because the driving and melee combat are so finely tuned.
HOW IT SCORES
With a detailed game world, smooth animations, a crisp frame rate and lovely weather and lighting effects, Sleeping Dogs exudes visual polish.
The licensed music is good, though not as tastefully curated as the radio stations in Grand Theft Auto. Voice acting from Hollywood and Hong Kong talent such as Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu is decent, too.
Sleeping Dogs is built on tight mechanics, notably a muscular brawling engine and satisfying arcade-style driving.
It’s not the biggest open-world game around, but it packs in 15 hours or more of high-quality gameplay. Count on eight to 10 hours for the main campaign.
Sleeping Dogs is the most pleasant surprise of the gaming year. Perhaps it isn’t overly original, but the execution of nearly every one of its elements is superb and the Hong Kong setting is cool. A definite purchase for fans of third-person action and open-world crime games.
The actual structure of the game is informed by Grand Theft Auto, with a series of story missions to complete, along with a range of side missions and activities. There aren’t as many diversions as you might find in a Saint Row’s or Grand Theft Auto game, but most of them are tied to meaningful rewards that will ease your way through the story campaign.
In addition to the usual collectibles to find, there are fighting tournaments to enter, cock fights to bet on, and drug dealers to bust in surveillance operations. There are a few gameplay mechanics that are half-baked — clothing with gameplay bonuses and the karaoke mini game, for example — but these are easily ignored. — (c) 2012 NewsCentral Media
- Reviewed on Windows PC; also available for PS3 and Xbox 360
- Read Digital Foundry’s technical comparison of the three versions