When a game originally starts its life as part of the True Crime series and gets dropped by its publisher in advance of its release, it doesn’t bode that well. Such was the case for Sleeping Dogs, until Square Enix swopped in and scooped up the rights to bring the game to the public, saving United Front’s Hong Kong-based open world game from development hell.
Starring the enigmatic Wei Shen as an undercover police officer infiltrating a local Triad gang, Sleeping Dogs takes the melee combat style popularized by the Batman: Arkham titles and mixes it with some familiar open-world tropes and in a brazen move, refuses to give the player a gun for the first few hours. Sleeping Dogs takes a lot of risks for what should be a safe bet in the video game world. Does the game succeed or is its cover blown?
Perhaps the greatest argument Sleeping Dogs makes in its case is the fact that you don’t get to handle a firearm until several hours in. Given that gun legislation is much stricter in Hong Kong than say, Steelport or Liberty City, you’re forced to use your fists to mete out your gang’s particular brand of justice. The kung fu in Sleeping Dogs is brutal, satisfying, and very well done. You start off with some basic attacks and are able to upgrade your repertoire of moves by finding hidden jade statues in the game and bringing them back to your instructor.
Even before you move up that particular skill tree, Wei is a pretty effective fighter and you can use the environment to your advantage. By grabbing an opponent and moving him over to a highlighted object, you can dispose of them in some pretty gruesome ways. This can range from running people through table saws and jamming them on top of a rack of swordfish noses. It’s hilarious and pretty painful to watch at the same time. You can also pick up a variety of melee weapons like knives and fish, but these eventually wear out and you’re back to your fists.
The fisticuffs in Sleeping Dogs are so much fun that it’s kind of a shame when the game finally thrusts a gun in your hands; despite the professed rarity of guns in Hong Kong, you’ll be doing a lot of shooting after that point. Not that this is a knock against the actual gunplay, which is in and of itself quite satisfying. You can take cover behind objects and the controls are snappy and responsive. When you leap over objects, you can enter a quick couple second slow-mo period where you can pop off a few quick head-shots.
Despite the fact that the shooting is well done, it’s kind of a shame that the game relies on it so much after it introduces it to you. You’ll still engage enemies in close combat, but sooner or later almost every missions devolves into shooting. That said, a lot is done to keep the mission design fresh so Sleeping Dogs doesn’t turn into a corridor shooter. Car chases are noteworthy for this because of how cool the game makes it when you knock out a pursuing vehicle: the game goes into slow-mo and the enemy car flips into the air in an explosion of sparks. If you can chain a bunch of those together, it kind of feels like Wei Shen is some some of vehicle-annihilating super-human.
Everything you do on missions, from shooting to fist-fighting to driving, earns you two types of experience: Cop and Triad. Killing enemies and doing criminal activities will net you Triad experience, while driving safely and avoiding civilian casualties will help you accrue Cop points. Each tree has some very nice perks in it, suiting which type of experience you’re gaining. Going up the Cop tree will give you the ability to steal a car without setting off the alarm or get weapons out of cop car trunks, and Triad experience will help beef up your shooting and fighting skills. This system works well, but getting Cop experience is a little tricky. The game deducts points from your Cop experience meter for a given mission for things like being clumsy (missing a button press to hop a fence, for example), or damaging property while driving, which is sometimes hard to avoid when you’re in the middle of a high-speed chase and a car materializes out of thin air and knocks you off course. This is a fairly small problem with this system, but the first time you lose five points because you tripped over a railing, it might make you a little sour.
Placing the game in Hong Kong was a smart choice on the part of United Front as it gives Sleeping Dogs a very different atmosphere than most open-world games. A smart GPS system helps you get around easily, but it might take some time for you to adjust to driving on the left-hand side of the road. There’s a ton of side-quests to do in the game’s rendition of Hong Kong from “favor” quests to gain Face experience (which lets you own fancier cars and clothes in addition to other perks) to hunting around for lock-boxes and taking part in fight clubs. The fight clubs are particularly challenging and are a real test of how well you’ve mastered the game’s hand-to-hand combat.
The story in Sleeping Dogs is handled well for the most part, with the voice acting and the writing being sharp. Wei Shen is a great character to control, and because of the game’s limitations when it comes to maintaining your cover, he manages to feel consistent and doesn’t veer wildly from noble cop to sadistic murderer every five seconds.
Sleeping Dogs does so many things right in its first few hours to buck the trends of most open-world games. By not placing a gun in your hand for quite a while, the game carves out its own territory in the open-world genre by not making you shoot everything you see.
It’s rare that a new IP busts onto the scene this late in the generation that also manages to make its mark while being mechanically sound and having an interesting story to boot. Sleeping Dogs is proficient in every area of the genre, and this makes it one of the most memorable games of 2012.
Has anyone else played Sleeping Dogs? What did you think?
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