If you aren’t aware, Sleeping Dogs is a game with a troubled history. Originally conceived as Black Lotus, the property was picked up by Activision and changed into a Hong Kong based sequel to the True Crime series. Activision eventually put it out to pasture, where it was picked up by Square Enix and became what it is now. It’s a nice change from the constant shuttering of studios and cancelling of titles to see a game like this make its way to release, but that troubled history shows.
The game puts players in control of Wei Shen, an undercover detective in the Hong Kong Police Department. Wei has just returned from America, where his family moved hoping to loosen the grip of his sister Mimi’s heroin addiction, to no avail. Wei goes undercover in the Sun On Yee triad who control his old neighborhood, hoping to find some justice, or vengeance, for his sister. The situation in which Wei finds himself accurately mirrors the one players, especially those who have played True Crime or any other open world crime game in recent years, find themselves in. Things are familiar enough for Wei and the player to be understandable, but different enough to be exciting and fresh.
The most obvious and best way Sleeping Dogs sets itself apart from other crime-based open world games is the world itself. More than Stilwater, Liberty City, or Los Angeles, Hong Kong feels alive. The first thing I did after completing the introductory mission was get distracted by a girl only to be pick-pocketed by her accomplice. Side missions and world events like this, in addition to a wide array of activities ranging from street racing to karaoke singing, to being coerced into buying a pork bun from a vendor, really make the setting so much livelier and enjoyable than most open-world settings. I was even able to buy a bed and air-conditioning for my apartment, for some reason!
Perhaps the biggest familiarity with the True Crime series that Sleeping Dogs was almost a part of is the combat system. The kung fu based combat uses a flowing-target based system similar to Batman: Arkham Asylum, but with an added emphasis on combos and special moves. Compared to the combat in True Crime, or more pointedly, Grand Theft Auto IV, Sleeping Dogs is miles ahead. You’ll be happy that’s the case, because it’s exactly what most of your time in the game will be spent doing. Working for the HKPD and the Sun On Yee gives Wei ample opportunity to flex his fists since “guns are a rarity,” as Wei’s supervising officer puts it.
When the guns do come out, you’ll probably start wishing they were even more of a rarity. The shooting is your typical cover based affair, with some slow motion tossed in here and there. It’s fine, if not exactly thrilling, but you’ll find the majority of your time behind a gun is spent shooting out tires in overlong and unexciting car chases.
Those shooting sprees are part of the game’s biggest problem. While the game promises a story of a cop struggling to stay himself and uphold the law while knee-deep in the criminal underworld, it’s incredibly difficult to gel that idea with the huge body count you leave behind. Ignoring all those kills as a simple sacrifice to the gameplay gods doesn’t help much, as Wei is almost as bad in cutscenes too. Even in optional police cases, Wei’s behavior is clearly in violation of any officer’s code of conduct you can imagine. There’s no real struggle for Wei to maintain his sense of justice, nor is there any sense of a man losing his grip and coming to truly revel in his crimes, there’s just a constant level of criminal behavior that gets barely more than a hand wave.
That would be easier to accept if the rest of the story held up. While the performances are exceptional, they aren’t given a lot to go with. Numerous times throughout the story, characters become close confidants and allies (or enemies) to Wei with almost no introduction at all, to Wei or the player. The reverse is also true, particularly with “girlfriend” characters that are introduced as potential love interests in one mission, and then disappear completely almost immediately after. All these problems combine into a narrative that ultimately feels like a mess. As a Hong Kong action tale, Sleeping Dogs’ story can’t even stand in the shadows of cinema greats of the genre like Hard Boiled, Police Story, or Internal Affairs, and not even its game sibling, Stranglehold.
Don’t let that get you down. Though Sleeping Dogs lacks a story on par with John Woo and Chow-Yun Fat’s greatest hits, Sleeping Dogs is worth playing. The satisfying combat system, exciting and vibrant setting, and unique characters make Sleeping Dogs a unique gem in a sea of Saints Rows and GTAs.
This review is based on a copy of Sleeping Dogs purchased by the reviewer.