Sleeping Dogs – Review

Release Date: Out
platforms: Playstation 3, PC, Xbox 360 (Reviewed)
Developer: United Front
Publisher: Square Enix
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: No
PEGI: 18+

This game was provided by Square Enix for review.

It was last year when True Crime: Honk Kong, a reboot of the floundering series, was cancelled by Activision who cited reasons of quality and the fact that the game had such a high developement cost. The decision baffled gamers around the globe as the game was reportedly pretty much finished, ready to be released in to the market, but truthfully nobody shed a tear. Nobody really cared that it had been canned.  Six months the game was picked up by Square Enix and renamed Sleeping Dogs, an open-world crime thriller set in Honk Kong that would enter the fray as a brand new IP looking to see its fortune, which was rather fitting because it atually began life as an original IP before Activision decided to turn it into the third game in the True Crime series. And now, as I sit here typing out this review and wishing the bloody rain outside would stop, I can’t help but think that we should have cared, and that Activision were idiots. Really big idiots. colossal, in fact. They should never have let this game go, and we should have all been much sadder at the thought that we’d never get to play it. Shame on us, shame on us all.

Still, there’s no point in crying over spilt milk and everything worked out in the end: Sleeping Dogs is here and it’s providing open-world action in a similar vain to that of the mighty Grand Theft Auto franchise.  Don’t let that fool you into thinking Sleeping Dogs is just a clone of Rockstar’s famous game, though: It is very much its own game. Unlike Rockstar who seem utterly fixated on America and refuse to leave its confines, United Front  decided to set their open-world crime thriller in the neon-lit  city of Honk Kong, using the Eastern culture to create a gameworld that’s easy to become entranced in, especially during rainy nights when the neon street signs reflect off of puddles of water on the road. Rather than make the fatal mistake that many developers  do when crafting an open world game and going for pure size over all else, United Front chose to instead create a denser, medium-sized map filled with detail, thus also creating a more immersive backdrop for their story and gameplay in the process. Split into four areas, from lowly slums and seedy areas to the more up-market areas and skyscraper dominated sections, United Fronts fictional Honk Kong is a place teeming with things to do and details that help to immerse you in the world. People go around their business on the streets, vendors sell products that temporarily boost your stats on every corner and there’s plenty of collectibles and things to do strewn around the alleys and rooftops, all of which can be fully explored using the games simple but fun free-running mechanics. There’s a sense of dirt and grime to the city that give it a far more believable air, as well. In particular a mission almost right at the start of the game in a night-market will immediately drop you into the grimy, believable atmosphere of the United Front’s lovingly crafted city. It’s not a perfect world, though: a distinctly lack of vehicles driving along the streets and people on the sidewalks can shatter the illusion to a degree, and closer inspection will reveal that character models for pedestrians are a bit fugly. Still, despite this Honk Kong remains an entrancing and intoxicating place, easily outstripping most open worlds that we’re presented with.

Meet Wei Shen. Yeah, he’s the one with the gun.

Though the city is a character in itself, it’s true purpose is to serve as a backdrop, albeit a bloody good one, for the games strongest feature, and the primary reason you should buy it: the characters and their story.  You’ll be taking on the role of Detective Wei Shen, an undercover cop that’s returning to his old stomping grounds of Hong Kong to infiltrate the Sun on Yee, one of the biggest and most feared triads in the area. His goal is simple on paper, but much harder to achieve in reality: act like one of them, pay your dues, be a footsoldier and rise through the ranks before helping to facilitate the downfall of the notorious gang. Not all is as it seems, though, as Wei has some personal history with the Sun on Yee, namely a guy by the name of Dog Eyes who was responsible for his later sister becoming addicted to various drugs. It’s this personal tie with the group and his upbringing in the area that made him the prime choice for the mission. The storyline quickly developes two interwoven yet distinct plot lines, as well as various little sub plots to enjoy. The first is the most simple: a crime-thriller that delves into the murky world of the Sun on Yee. United Front sure as hell don’t shy away from portraying this as a violent, dark, seedy world that pays homage in many little ways to various old-school action moves while still telling a completely engrossing tale of its own. A fantastic cast of character’s is what brings it to life with a crew of absolutely stellar voice actors lending their  talent to the game. In particular Wei himself is almost flawlessly voiced by Will Yun Lee, who manages to make the tough Wei a completely likable character that’s easy to connect with and understand. The dialogue and character writing is solid throughout the game, with Wei’s best friend Jackie and his own personal little story arc being a highlight. Particularly worth mentioning is how despite the fact that these people are hardened criminals, they’re also easy to understand and some are so well written that you’ll dance between liking them and hating them for what they are. There’s twists, turns, betrayals and cinematic moments galore to keep you entertained throughout the story, and at no moment was I ever bored with it.

The second element is the story of Wei himself. Sleeping Dogs delves into the psychological and emotional effects of being an undercover cop, something that, to the best of my own knowledge, games have never really explored. As Wei becomes further and further involved with the Sun on Yee he becomes witness to more and more violent acts, acts which he himself will also come to participate in, acts that slowly start to take a toll on Wei’s mental well-being.  Again, the game doesn’t shy away from the violence and bloodshed here. At one point Wei goes on a raid and single-handedly wipes out numerous members of an enemy Triad, all with the justification that they would have died anyway and he’s doing it for the greater good. The game examines how easy it is for an undercover cop to become emotionally scarred during his job, how easy it is for things to become personal, how far he’ll go for the “greater good” and how easy it is for loyalties to begin blurring without ever knowing it. And through Wei United Front have made it easy for the players loyalties to blur as well. Amidst the criminal acts and violence of the Sun on Yee, there’s also a sense of honor, dignity and camaraderie that draws you in to the group, further helping to blur Wei’s moral lines. Like Wei himself, there’s the ever constant feeling that you’re becoming one of them, one of the people you’re trying to bring down. You’ll extort money, beat people up, witness executions and kill, all in the name of your job, and yet it’s hard not to feel a connection with the rest of the Sun on Yee. They may be thugs, but they care for Wei’s well-being far more than his bosses do At times the police force you work for feels worse than the criminals you deal with on a daily basis, forcing you re-evaluate what you’re doing. Your boss, Pendrew, is cold, heartless and calculating, showing zero remorse for what he’s making Wei do, how Wei is handling it or Wei’s well-being. He just wants to get the job done. And yet at other times the horrors of gang life will remind you of why you’re trying to bring the Sun on Yee down.

Look at thse lovely neon signs. Nice, eh?

It really is clever writing that keeps you on the edge of your seat and invested in everything that’s going on, be it the plight of Wei himself as he begins to get to caught up in the false life he’s leading or the cinematic action and gripping thrills of dealing with Triads. Just when you think you’ve got the story pegged and understand where it’s going and where your allegiances lie, United Front peel away yet another layer of the story to reveal new depths, suddenly changing everything and upping the stakes. United Front have worked hard to draw the player into the narrative and have certain succeeded in doing so. That being said, it’s certainly not a perfect narrative: there are flaws to be found. The story sometimes feels like it’s jumping around a little, like slices of time are going by without your knowledge. Characters will suddenly just appear that Wei apparently knows. Hell, at one point somebody Wei knows gets killed and he’s clearly distraught about it, but I didn’t have a clue who the aforementioned character was. Did I actually ever meet him or what? If I did, I sure as hell don’t remember. The other primary problem is that it’s just to short. Around 18-10 hours is all it takes to see the main storyline through the end, and while that’s a fairly standard time for games these days Sleeping Dogs story simply feels like it needed more time to tell itself.  There’s also a point in the story about two-thirds in where things take a slight turn for the silly for a little bit. Oh, and despite the fact that United Front have worked hard to immerse you in the storyline it can’t be a little odd to kill literally hundreds of people, drive like a lunatic, commit theft on numerous occasions and scare the crap out of random people on the street without any real ramifications. But then, this is the price for providing players with freedom.

On a basic level the games subscribes to the common open-world formula: you’re free to wander around the world in between missions doing whatever the hell you like. There’s a fair amount of side-missions and things to do when you’re not advancing the story, but we’ll get back to that later. Going to certain map-markers activates the next primary mission and advances the narrative. Obviously from the perspective of United Front this makes pacing the story nearly impossible, but such is the price of freedom.  It’s really the dichotomy of Wei’s position that is at the core of the gameplay experience for Sleeping Dogs. Since you’re both a cop and a member of  a Triad the missions are also similarly split. You’ll do jobs for the Sun on Yee such as extorting protection money, attacking rival gangs and getting into insane car chases and you’ll also work on cases for the police, helping out Officer Teng on cases that her superiors are largely ignoring by using your undercover position. By using this system United Front have managed to create a variety of mission styles and gameplay styles to keep things  nice and entertaining throughout the game, ensuring that you never get bored. It’s all tied together by an intriguing XP system that provides separate police and Triad upgrade trees. At the start of a mission your cop bar is full. Destroying property, hurting innocents and committing theft all decrease the amount of cop XP you’ll get at the end of your current mission. Triad XP on the other hand starts out empty and is earned by kicking ass in fights, scoring headshots and popping tyres during car chases. The rewards you gain by earning said XP are all quite useful, such as being able to pop the trunk of cop cars and raid them for some firearms. While it’s not a hugely deep system, there’s only two paths each for the cops and Triads, it does add a nice degree of character progression into the game to help everything keep rolling along nicely.

Mastering close combat is a joy.

As for the missions themselves they’re built off of four primary gameplay pillars, with a few other little elements thrown in for good luck: close combat, firefights, driving and a bit of freerunning. But to start off we’ll go with the whole close combat thing. Unlike pretty much every conventional game set in modern times and featuring  criminals, guns are a rare commodity in Sleeping Dogs, something the game itself references when a characters tells you that they’re hard to come by in Honk Kong. Instead the game  relies on the simple fact that Wei Shen kicks some serious ass when it comes to comes to the old fisticuffs thanks to having been trained in martial arts when he was younger, as well has having  learned some vicious tricks while he was undercover in the States. There’s a vague hint of Rocksteady’s Batman games going on here, albeit not as fluid, with Wei tackling large groups at a time with a flowing style that swaps between enemies and a heavy emphasis on countering attacks with punishing moves using the Y button. Tap X and you’ll perform a quick strike while holding down X performs a heavier attack. By combining these you can create combos, almost like you’re fighting using morse code or something. For example three quick taps of X and then holding it results in a quick combo ending with a hard-hitting spinning roundhouse kick delivered to an enemy’s head with a satisfying crunch and splat of blood as your reward for a blow well struck. A press of B will perform a grapple on enemy where you can then choose to throw them to the ground or into a group of enemies, or simply beat the snot out of them with some punches to the face. At first combat is deceptively simple, but as the game progress things will start to click and more moves and tricks will be added to your repertoire, giving you far more options. For example you can learn a combination which breaks an enemies arm, causing all nearby foes to flinch giving you a brief window of opportunity to launch a serious offense. Another example is a punishing climbing punch or the ability to flip over an enemy before kicking them to send them flying into the group. Groups are made up of several types of enemies that force you to adjust your style on the fly: some can’t be grappled because they’ll simply smash your face into the ground, others block most of your strikes  forcing you to get in close and grab them, and some wield knives and other weapons to keep you on your toes. It might sound fairly simple but as the game progresses fights become a satisfying dance of vicious attacks, counters and quick-thinking with plenty of room to craft your own style.

If you’re after something a little more sadistic, violent and incredibly fun then you use the game’s awesome environmental attacks. Simply grab an opponent and drag them over to a glowing red object to initiate an animation in which Wei takes out your foe in a single gruesome move. Environmental attacks include slamming shop shutters on people, shoving them into electrical wires, dropping them on swordfish, smashing their faces through car windows, slamming their faces into bansaw and much, much more. They’re all ridiculously good fun to pull off and make the already brutal combat even better.

Anyone care to guess what happens next?

When you do finally pick up a gun Sleeping Dogs transforms from badass kung-fu game that makes you feel awesome to pretty standard cover shooter that makes you feel less awesome. A tap of LB lets Wei take cover behind whatever handy objects or walls that are in the area, while the usual LT and RT controls let you pop out, aim and fire your chosen weapon of death. At first the use of LB for cover feels a little clumsy, as does the cover system in general, but it works well enough, sufficing in its job but never amazing. The guns themselves come in a decent but small variety and feel meaty enough to use, ensuring that combat, while not the strongest part of the game, remains enjoyable enough so that shooting sections don’t feel like a chore. However, the enemy AI isn’t that great and can make it feel more like a shooting gallery than a tense firefight where one wrong move can result in your death. That, though, does encourage you to use one thing that does make the gunplay a little more fun: a John Woo style slow-motion feature when you vault over cover and hold down the left trigger.  No matter how often I used it I never got tired off leaping over a wall, entering slow motion and nailing 3-headshots in mid-air. You might have noticed that in comparison to the detailed description I gave for round house kicking in the face I’ve said little about the gunplay, but truthfully there’s not a whole lot to say: it simply suffices. Nothing more.

So what about the whole driving malarky? As you venture around the pretty Honk Kong streets you’re perfectly free to simply steal any ride you wish, although as a cop you really shouldn’t. Of course, as an undercover Triad you really, really should. But should your moral values, even in a virtual world, not permit you to happily steal a nice sports car you’re perfectly at liberty to go and purchase a car or bike from any of the many places on the map, at which point aforementioned vehicle will be available for you to pick up at any time from the parking garages that are usually handily stationed right outside of the various homes you’ll acquire as you gain power within the Triad. Cars within the world of Sleeping Dogs definitely sit within the realms of arcade rather than realism: they’re very light and responsive to drive so you can weave through traffic with ease which suits the action-movie tone of the game, but  not really hugely satisfying to drive around. Bikes are also pretty light and nimble and more enjoyable to drive at speed than cars, but they’re also far too sensitive , making them feel more twitchy than fluid. Primarily, though, there’s just not enough difference in handling between different cars and different bikes – they all feel pretty much the same bar some small differences. However, any disappointments with the handling of your new sports car that you might have will quickly disappear when you get caught up in an epic car chase down the highway. During these high-speed chases holding down LB will slow down time and enable Wei to lean out the window, at which point you can unload with a weapon by using the right bumper. This control scheme feels a little awkward to use, but weaving through traffic at over 150MPH and shooting out the tyres on an enemy car so that it flips over is pretty damn cool to say the least. It gets better, though: Wei can perform action hi-jacks, which basically means he can leap from one vehicle to another to hi-jack it! Admittedly this does feel a little over-the-top compared to a lot of stuff in the rest of the game, but it’s just freaking cool that it’s hard to care.

There’s a couple of love interests in the game who you can go on dates with.

But what truly says old-school action-flick better than a dramatic on-foot chase through alleys and over rooftops? Nothing! And so true to form Sleeping Dogs provides such moments, occasionally throwing them into missions to help further ensure you never find yourself getting bored. These are probably the games most scripted moments, but despite that there’s a simply joy to be found in using the games simplistic movement system of holding down A to sprint and tapping it just before an obstacle to vault, slide or climb across it. You can’t catch your prey before the game says so, but when you’re chasing somebody through a market in the pouring rain it’s easy to forgive such limitations and just get caught up in the cinematic action.

Outside of the games primary storyline there’s a couple of different activities that the streets of Honk Kong offers up to keep you amused. Almost ever street offers up food carts, shops and massage parlors for you to visit, each of them providing a stat boost that lasts a fair while making visiting them before a main mission well worth your time. You can pick out some new clothes for yourself as well should you be feeling like a change or you could take part in some the illegal street races to earn yourself some extra cash so that you could afford said clothes. Martial Arts clubs offer up a fightclub style events where you face off against 6-rounds of enemies with a substantial cash reward at the end for your effort. You can also help out the police a bit by performing drug busts, done by heading to the correct area, beating up the enemies that are there and then hacking into the nearby surveillance system, at which point you can them head home and use your computer to access the camera and pinpoint the drug-dealer to be arrested. Or you could help out the Triad by hijacking security vans around the city containing plenty of cash. Other random things to do also include betting on cock fights, singing karaoke and playing Mahjong Poker. If none of those activities amuse you then you could simply take to driving around the streets ike a lunatic. In the game, I mean. Not real life.

Remember kids, wear your seatbelt.

There’s also little side-missions available to you throughout the city called favours. These are relatively minor affairs generally lasting just a few minutes each, but they offer up a nice distraction from the main missions. Sometimes you’ll be outrunning cops, other times following beacons through sewers by driving like a madman up on the streets. After a while these little missions can start to drag, though, especially since the rewards for them aren’t usually that great, but for the most part they’re enjoyable to complete. Doing these favors also rewards you with Face XP, the third progression system that’s packed into Sleeping Dogs. Unlike the cop and Triad XP, though, Face XP is just more annoying. Sure, it offers up rewards for every time you reach the next level, but it also restricts what clothes and what vehicles you can purchase, which is just plain bloody annoying. Like that suit? Well, tough, you can’t wear it because your Face rank isn’t high enough. Nice sports car? Not high enough. Obvious this is to encourage you to play the favour missions, but considering they’re not really that interesting it quickly becomes frustrating to have your clothing options limited by a rank, especially when a mission gives you a slick suit that you can’t actually wear outside of said mission.

The bigger disappointment, though, is that while there is a fair whack of stuff in the city for you to do, it doesn’t actually take all that long to complete everything. There’s a load of collectibles for you hunt down, taking the form of Health Shrines that grand you increased health and briefcases that contain wads of cash, and it does take a while to find them all, but aside from that you can run through the majority of favors, races and drug busts fairly quickly. I don’t claim to have done everything in my own review playthrough, having left out some races and drug busts, but I did do the vast majority of it with my final playing time clocking in at 20-hours. Thus I would say around 20-30 hours should see absolutely everything done.

A little unbelievable? Yup. Fun? Yup.

Moving on from the activities that can be found throughout Sleeping Dogs we turn out attention back to the graphics. As mentioned before the city of Honk Kong is a beautiful place to be with fantastic attention to detail, but only when you’re close up to it all. Once you get out from amongst the buildings and either get a little higher up or to an area where you’ve got a longer line of sight and you’ll notice that  there’s a strange blur to buildings in the distance like they’ve been smeared in vaseline or something. Then there’s the draw distance, which is pretty poor to be honest. Likewise there’s a few other areas where the games graphical prowess fails: while the main characters have stunning facial animations and are highly detailed, pedestrians kind of look like they’re made out of cardboard and broomsticks in comparison. A couple of other little graphics hitches and glitches also mar an otherwise great looking game.

On the sound design front things are more consistently good. Top of the class is the games voice acting which we touched upon earlier. Outside of the main case there are a couple of rough performances to be found, but nothing that really counts as a negative or that damages the over quality which is otherwise superb. Likewise the radio stations contain a variety of great tunes to listen to while you’re cruising around the city that help set the atmosphere brilliantly. You can flick between them at will although sadly there’s not really quite enough songs so you’ll soon find that the stations repeat tunes and segments often, which is a bit of a downer.

Sleeping Dogs is a game that contains many rough elements that aren’t prime examples of their genres: the cover shooting is basic but suffices and the driving isn’t that spectacular either. Even the open-world, as immersive as it is, isn’t hugely different from others we’ve seen before. The thing is, though, Sleeping Dogs is very much a game that is more than the sum of its parts. Sure, the shooting and driving isn’t amazing, but they’re still enjoyable and the storytelling is superb and the hand-to-hand combat is incredibly satisfying. Combine all these parts and what we have is a great open-world crime thriller that is more than worth your time and money

The Good:
+ The story.
+ Kicking some arse in hand-to-hand combat.
+  Honk Kong is a great place to explore.

The Bad:
– Story is shorter than I’d like.
– The shooting and driving aren’t that great. Not bad, but not great.
–  Draw distances.

The Score:

Graphics: 8.5
Honk Kong looks beautiful when you’re up close, filled with color and detail. Look at it from afar, though, and it’s a bit blurry. The facial animation and detail on lead characters is great.

Sound: 8.5
The voice acting is to-notch throughout and the sound effects are solid. The radio stations offer up great tunes but just not enough of them.

Story: 9
Blurring moral lines and loyalties are at the centre of this fantastic tale of an undercover cop and the struggles he faces doing his job.

Gameplay: 8
The hand-to-hand combat is the star of the game here, but just wandering around Honk Kong is also a blast. There’s some rough edges and not everything is as good as would have been liked, but this is still a fun game to play.

Lifespan: 8
Around 10-12 hours will see the main mission finished up, with 20-hours probably being the average playthrough. 30-hours if you want to do everything.

The Verdict: 8.5
United Front have created a brand new IP that they can be extremely proud of. It tells a riveting and immersive tale of an undercover cop while providing plenty of fun gameplay. Simply said, this can go toe-to-toe with any open-world game out there, including Grand Theft Auto V.

Categories: Reviews

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3 replies »

  1. I was looking for some good open world gameplay at the weekend but i was unsure on sleeping dogs as to weather i would like it or not, but on the strength of your review ive now purchased a copy and look forward to having a good go on it at the weekend. As you say it seems strange Activision would cancel such a game especially when it has the ability to become a solid original IP. None the less i cant wait to give it ago, btw i ended up reinstalling Just Cause 2 on my steam account and promptly lost 7 hours of my sunday evening lol. Excellent review!

    • Hey Magpie, always good to hear from ya’. I really hope you enjoy the game. Be sure to let me know what you think and what points you agree or disagree on with the review!

      I’ve got to admit, I had a lot of fun with Just Cause 2. Not a truly outstanding game, but some great open-world mayhem to be had. Losing seven-hours of gameplay, though> Ooooouuuuuch.

      • Well im roughly 18 hours into Sleeping Dogs now and Just Cause 2 seems like a distant memory lol.

        I’m really enjoying the game and i have to say i think you’ve got things spot on with your review, Sleeping Dogs is abit of a rough diamond, you can forgive some of its flaws because its very easy to see the potential in this game and hopefully the developers see this too and support the game with DLC and possible more.

        Ive been playing the PC version and it does have some points which let it down, firstly its had a few errors on steam with crashing games and missing dll’s, Ive not suffered the latter but it has crashed a few times and simply returned me to my desktop, fortunately it has done this upon me loading my save game so i didn’t lose any gameplay!

        The controls are pretty clunky on the PC, seems that there just ported direct from the consoles so playing using the mouse and keyboard is a little bit hit and miss until you master it, shame they didn’t tweak it specifically for the PC version.

        Then there’s the graphics which i guess isn’t really a criticism as you can simply adjust the settings to suit your rig but if you want the full on bright lights big city experience your going to have to have a good setup. I’m running everything on high and my 580gtx is only just coping once theres alot on the screen it does tend to start jerking a fair bit, mainly this is whilst driving though the fight scenes are pretty much unaffected by this.

        Sleeping dogs is a good game, it drip feeds you just enough to do to keep you interested and not too much as to put you off. For an open world-ish game its pretty small but thats no bad thing, everything is fairly close together but theres still enough space for some good explores. Its going to be interesting to see where this game goes from here, its done well in the UK charts regaining 1st spot in its 5th week of release beating Tekken tag tournament 2 so things look promising!

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