Game Review: Sleeping Dogs

This town belongs to Hedgie, ya hear?

I’m a big fan of crime. Wait, let me rephrase that. I’m a massive fan of crime. I like gritty cop shows and true crime novels and I have a collection of books about real-life serial killers. The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos; I like my crime shows gritty and honest. That said, I also love Castle, but fuck who doesn’t love Nathan Fillion?

Nathan Fillion in Castle

So it may come as a surprise to hear that Sleeping Dogs, from United Front Games and Square Enix London, was not even on my radar. I knew about True Crime: Hong Kong, the latest in the frankly underwhelming True Crime game series but following the game’s cancellation by Activision I thought nothing more of it. TC: Streets of LA and TC: New York were pretty mediocre anyway, so it wasn’t a huge disappointment. Then, a couple of days ago, suddenly everybody was talking about this game Sleeping Dogs. It was all over my Twitter like a Kardashian on a hotel mattress. Gritty crime? A realistic representation of (an admittedly fictionalised) Hong Kong? Triads? Drugs? Guns? Hand -to-hand combat? Free-roaming sandbox gameplay? Why was this not a thing I had known about? What was this Sleeping Dogs thing and was it a thing I needed to be doing?

Answer: God damn, Sleeping Dogs. Where have you been all my life?

The game is set in a fictionalised version of Hong Kong, divided into districts and controlled, largely, by the Triads. You play Wei Shen, who at first seems to be another troubled youth, caught up in the gangs, drugs and violence rife in the city’s underbelly. It’s not, in fact, until your character is arrested early on after a thrilling, and novel, movement tutorial that he is revealed as a member of the Hong Kong Police, recently returned from the US and ready to take on the Sun On Yee crime family (a reference to the real Sun Yee On triad) . He’s a martial arts fiend – I wouldn’t say expert, but he’s got some skill – and is familiar with the people involved; Shen grew up in Hong Kong, grew up with the people involved in the current Triad wars. He knows what makes them tick, and he has his ways into the mob.

Thus begins the story of Sleeping Dogs, and it is there that you are, after some introductory levels, dumped in your shitty, shitty apartment and left to your own devices. Man does the starting apartment suck.

Sleeping Dogs 1

The gameplay is very much like that of recent entries in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, although decidedly more polished. The player can go anywhere in the city, take any vehicle by force or with more subtle theft from street side parking. The city feels like a real place and unlike the GTA games it will undoubtedly be compared to, there is none of the silly parody that has become a mainstay of the Rockstar series. The controls are fluid, driving can take a little getting used to though; there doesn’t seem to be much between “lightly pressing R2 to crawl forward” and “lightly pressing it down a little more to speed hectically through the narrow streets of the city, perilously close to death”. Once you get it down though, driving is really simple and a whole heap of fun; as you speed up the camera actually starts to shudder a little, and the world zips by quickly.

Using RPG elements, the game has a three-way system of experience and levelling – Police XP, which you gain for doing cases for he HKPD and generally not fucking up the city during your day-to-day; Triad XP, which you gain for doing favourable missions for the Triad bosses and furthering their interests, as well as for fucking things up around the city during your day-to-day; and lastly Face XP which is given when you do favours for the general public, stop crimes, look suave or just, I dunno, show up. The more Face XP you have, the better your standing with the people of Hong Kong. More of it allows you to buy certain things – you need to have a decent street rep to pull off the better outfits.

When you level in any one, or more, of these, you get points to spend to buy abilities and while three different xp systems with different, often mutually exclusive goals might seem tricky it really isn’t. It’s all taken care of behind the screen and you just pick the things you want to spend the points on later.

Sleeping Dogs 2

The game autosaves frequently, which is good for me because I’ve been dying and getting arrested a lot while I test the boundaries of my new digital home city. Cops do regular patrols on foot and in cars, and they will give chase if they see you do something naughty. The typical escape radius system is in play here, and it’s a lot more fun to escape than in other games not only because the traffic is so realistic but also thanks to the innovative ramming system. Press a button when close to an enemy (police or triad target) vehicle and the direction the vehicles in and you can ram ’em right off the road.

Similarly, in hand-to-hand combat, Shen can grapple his opponents and push them into environmental hazards like phone booths, spinning fans, dumpsters and electrical substations. Combined with the free-flow style fight system and you have a really exciting fight style for the typical free roaming game.

In fact the game is, overall, the best parts of GTAs free roaming style, the driving of Need for Speed and the combat of Batman Arkham City rolled into one well plotted, well acted package. The cast is stunning with familiar names like Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, Lucy Liu and Edison Chen making up the roster. Will Yun Lee provides the voice of Shen and everyone does a brilliant job in their respective roles. The whole fair really feels like a Hong Kong action film; from the plot, to the dialogue to the combat to the car chases.

But it’s the little things that sell this game, and in some places break it.

During combat Shen will get injured and bloody, as will his clothes. To clean him up again, just use a sink to wash up; he’ll be spick and span and then you can have a nap, or a soda, to replenish your health to full. You can also eat food from one of the city’s many vendors, which will replenish your health and unlike most games Shen doesn’t just devour everything in one bite. My first encounter with food was during an early mission where I bought a popsicle. Turns out you can still shake vendors down for protection money when you’re slowly eating a Fudgesicle.

The city itself looks stunning. Sunsets bounce off the glass exteriors of buildings, the streets seem genuinely populated and although most of the establishments cannot be entered, there’s at least a few on each street. The camera drops focus when things get close to the screen, giving the city a real filmed appearance. When it rains, the city takes it up a notch even further. I was honestly blown away by how good the reflections and fuzzy neon lights look in this game; lights bounce and shine.

Wayfinding is excellent. The map is easy to read – although it could stand to zoom in a little further – and the waypoints are colour coded depending on whether they are a police (blue), triad (green) or general reputation (yellow) mission. Setting a waypoint provides the standard GPS style trail on both the full, and mini, maps which is also colour coded but the real leap here is the use of Need for Speed style hovering directions over the world; arrows that point you in the direction you need to turn. It could have been intrusive, or just dumb, but instead it works really well and is incredibly handy. No longer do you need to constantly stare at the mini map to ensure you’re on the right track.

There are also rewards for exploration: Health shrines modelled after Buddhist shrines, where Shen can light incense and pray for a return to health. Strongboxes that glow like a motherfucker and hide cash and clothing. Which you’ll need. While money is not hard to come by, and the missions pay pretty well – even the silly side quests of no consequence – shit is bloody expensive in HK. I paid 900HK$ for a t-shirt. It’s cool though. Has a dinosaur print :D. Side missions like drug busts, cockfighting, street races and fight clubs. Just don’t talk about them. It’s the first rule, people.

Sleeping Dogs 3

It isn’t all roses of course; the pedestrians, while plentiful, look samey and there isn’t a lot of variation in the models of non-named characters. I held the same woman, in the same exact outfit, four times in an hour in different parts of the city. It’s not quite as bad as GTA3 was, but it’s not great either. Although Shen takes battle damage, and gets bloodied up, he doesn’t seem to feel the effects of rain or water. There’s little detritus on the streets and what little there is is textures, not objects. I was hoping for newspapers wafting in the breeze, or litter in the crummier parts of town. I think the WATCHDOGS demo spoiled me on that idea. While much of the city is breakable – including the parking meters, which provide a good source of easily obtained pocket change if smashed with a car – nothing has permanence. Enemies, smashed fixtures and such disappear quickly; sometimes before they have even hit the ground.

None of these are major complaints but in a game that has gone so far to create a realistic city, it’s a little disappointing. I understand the need to preserve memory, but at least wait until they are out of view before fading the debris away.

The game also isn’t without its bugs; there’ve been a couple of occasions in the last few days where transitioning between menus or loading up stages in fight clubs has resulted in a freeze and required a reset. Likewise, the camera can be an asshole at times, looking everywhere but where you want it to – this is particularly true while driving.

Overall though, Sleeping Dogs is a damn solid title and one I am really getting into. It’s Grand Theft Auto without the silly parody stuff and terrible combat engine. It’s the best parts of the best racing games. It’s got a free-flow combat system clearly modelled after the system in Batman Arkham Asylum and City. It’s got a great cast, a great story and characters you can really get invested in.

I’m enjoying the fuck out of it, and I’ve not really been playing it that long.

NINE outta TEN

You can harass the author of this post via Twitter: @CAricHanley