Over the last thirty or so hours of gaming and writing, I’ve endured through two particularly difficult conundrums. The first was tearing myself away from Sleeping Dogs to write this review, and that should set a fairly obvious precedent for the remainder. The second was avoiding another awful pun on the idiom “let sleeping dogs lie”. So far, so good. But I’m not making any promises, so keep expectations in check.
In the case of Sleeping Dogs, keeping expectations in check was pretty difficult. There were good reasons to be excited. Not just a fresh take on the usual Americana sandbox setting, but because this Hong Kong drama boasted a development team made up of staff with a history of admirable titles, from Bully and Saints Row to Need for Speed and Skate. The will-it-won’t-it release status simply made the development history all the more alluring, and finally under the wings of Square-Enix there was a legitimate desire to get my mitts on what we all now know as Sleeping Dogs.
I’ve had the PC version since launch, and according to the game timer, I’ve poured in just over thirty hours of play time. That’s thirty hours to do every mission, purchase every car and item of clothing, fight every fight, find every collectible, and spend a good chunk of time cruising around causing mayhem to Beethoven’s Für Elise. And even after all that time I’m still hungry for more.
Yep, Sleeping Dogs is a damn good game, and it all starts with an exciting opening chase sequence that would be right at home in any great John Woo classic.
Sleeping Dogs follows the exploits of Wei Shen, a San Diego detective deep undercover in Hong Kong, attempting to infiltrate and bring down notorious Triad syndicate, the Sun On Yee (based on the real life Sun Yee On). Shen made the perfect candidate for the international operation: having grown up in Hong Kong, Shen has an understanding of Triad behaviour and local flavour, and even has a few friends left in the area who unknowingly aid him in entering the organisation. But there’s also a catch. Shen’s family history includes his deceased sister, a pitiful girl caught up in drugs and prostitution from, you guessed it, the Triad. Psychologically profiled as being at risk of bouts of violence, there’s an alarming question of Shen’s dedication. Is he truly bound to the law, on a mission to bring down the Triad? Or is he too invested, and has his objective become personal?
For the most part, Sleeping Dogs‘ narrative is exceptionally engaging, thanks to the enthralling hook and top class production values. An excellent script with convincing voice work across the board develops a cast of unique, interesting and multi-layered characters with their own personal agendas and relationships. Actor Will Yun Lee in particular delivers an outstanding performance as protagonist Wei Shen, capturing the intensity and stress of an agent who is perhaps too deeply undercover.
Hooks like Shen’s personal investment keep the story interesting from start to finish, and a few twists, if predictable given the genre inspiration for the story, brilliantly escalate the uncontrollable environment Shen is forced to be a part of. There is a real sense of intensity as Shen unwillingly gets in deeper than he anticipated, and a feeling of mystery as to just how he’s going to dig himself out.
Although the story’s climax is both fitting and memorable, the narrative suffers in the same way so many game narratives do: too many characters, not enough exposition. Towards the latter half of story, as Shen climbs through Triad ranks, numerous new characters are introduced often at the expensive of forgetting others. Their dynamics are believable and their position in the story essential, but minimal exposition and too much assumption on Shen’s behalf lead to undercooked integration into the grand scheme of things. On more than a couple of occasions the vibe of “…and now this is happening” seemed the staple of drama, begging for a few extra hours of narrative to really flesh out motivations and relationships.
Still, what is there is among the better writing I’ve seen during the year, and it’s nice to see an open world crime narrative where not every character, regardless of their allegiance, is a detestable villain.
If the story doesn’t keep you hooked, the four pillars of gameplay will. That’s free running, brawling, driving and shooting. On paper, it’s easy to dismiss each of these as staples of more or less every sandbox game of the last decade. But Sleeping Dogs goes the extra mile with each, enhancing them with additional mechanics centered around the action, speed and violence of blood opera cinema.
Brawling is the most impressive of the bunch, greatly exceeding the basic melee systems found in other sandbox games. Shen has a full disposal of martial arts moves that allow him to comfortably tackle individuals and groups. The focus is on methodical fighting, where light/heavy attacks are chained together with counters and grabs thrown in between. Heavy, block happy, and armed enemies keep each encounter exciting and interesting, and for the most part demand attentive play in order to successfully avoid a beating. Later game encounters are a bit more interesting than earlier ones, as Shen has a greater diversity of moves, allowing for a wider range of combos. But bloody environmental kills and bludgeoning tools ensure that even the earliest fights have a bit more going on than punch, punch, kick.
Then there’s shooting. Notably less robust than the fighting, shooting is based primarily off the tried-and-true cover system we’ve all come to know. Snap to cover, pop out, and shoot baddies with an assortment of pistols, machine guns and shotguns. It’s pretty basic, but the slow motion feature sells it. At any point while crouched behind cover, Shen has the option to vault over and engage in bullet time. More than just a fancy way to line up shots, successful headshots will extend bullet time, allowing Shen to chain together kills and clean out entire rooms in seconds. The punchy, satisfying sound of weapons and bloody impacts sells the feeling of being an unstoppable badass, though perhaps at the cost of any real challenge, as the extended bullet time and generous aim assist make gunfights a cakewalk. I also had a little trouble with the cover system, requiring Shen face the right direction, else the cover prompt won’t show up. It’s a little fiddly at times, and not quite up to scratch with the brawling component, but it’s still a lot of fun to play.
If you’re not maiming enemies with fists or guns then surely you’ll be driving. Again, it’s simple on paper: cars, trucks and bikes give Shen a means of quickly getting around the city, but it’s the enhancements that make them truly great. Sleeping Dogs makes driving less about transportation and more about how you interact with the world, best highlighted in chase sequences. While armed, Shen can lean out a window for free aim shooting, pot shooting tyres to send vehicles slamming into walls for a fiery explosion. Unarmed? Try the excellent ram mechanic, which turns every car-on-car battle into Destruction Derby. Action hijacking is the highlight though. With the holding of a button, Shen can jump from one moving vehicle to take control of another. All of these mechanics blend together to keep the action moving. There’s no need to slow down or play carefully. If anything, the benefits of high speed ramming and in-motion hijacking reward players who dare to floor the pedal, punishing those afraid of a little speed.
Lastly you’ve got free running. More than just a way for Shen to navigate the city, free running takes inspiration from Assassin’s Creed, granting the ability to dodge pedestrians, climb up ledges, and make death defying jumps. It certainly one-ups the bland, boring on foot traversal so common in these kinds of games. However, on a few occasions we predicted that we could climb a ledge, or vault over an obstacle, only to find Shen would have none of that, so there’s a little inconsistency in just how the free running works.
But it’s not these individual mechanics alone that make Sleeping Dogs so impressive, it’s that all of these mechanics are active at any point in the open world. Punch a guy, and you’re brawling. Get behind the wheel and you’ll be action hijacking. Grab a gun, hey presto slow mo. Free run anywhere. Sandbox games are about giving the player tools to explore their world and create their own fun, and it’s hard to think of a similarly ‘grounded’ sandbox title that empowers you with so many ways to interact with the game world.
The range of mechanics proves to be invaluable in mission design. Main missions will almost always chain multiple mechanics together in quick succession, ensuring boredom takes a back seat to variety and excitement. Start with a brawl that leads to a climatic chase into a group of armed thugs. Gun through them you find yourself in an adrenalin rushing on-wheels shoot-out, eventually leaping to a car to claim your prize. Sleeping Dogs is a fast moving game to be sure, and all the better for it. The downside of having so many mechanics at play is a feeling of over scripting during many main missions, likely the fault of a strong story too. Fun as they may be, chase sequences will always lead down the same paths and end at the same point, and set pieces rarely change. Dynamics to fighting and driving offer a wider diversity of play, but I still would have liked to see less linearity to some missions.
Numerous side missions, bite sized chunks of gameplay revolving around singular mechanics, offer distractions from the story. There’s a tonne of them too, with excellent variety. Street races, vehicle hijackings and fight clubs are pretty self explanatory, meanwhile numerous random favours and jobs have you taking out bad dudes, dating a lady, or making a strange discovery with a little story attached. Though mostly quick to complete, the side content itself is a lot of fun, covering all abilities available to the player, and in total offer a good few hours of content, as well as in-game monetary rewards to buy Shen new threads and classy vehicles. I did wish for more persistent replay features for some missions. Individual missions can be selected from the social hub, a cool feature that tracks and ranks scores between friends, but the sandbox itself only offers gambling, karaoke, fight clubs and truck hijacking as ‘endless’ missions once the rest are finished. Easier access to post-game racing, as well as some shoot-outs, would have been welcome, especially since the rarity of weapons makes it difficult to find one in the sandbox once all missions are wrapped up.
In mechanics and missions, Sleeping Dogs succeeds. And to make it a hat trick, so too does the world itself. United Front Games have forgone pointless scale and size of the sandbox in favour of density. That’s not to say Sleeping Dogs‘ map is small, but it is to say that the focus has been on detail and complexity. Streets have been crafted with a startling amount of detail, from neon lights littering the skyline and bin filled back alleys, to densely packed markets and bustling city streets. Vendors selling goods sit on every corner, and pedestrians react to the world around them, right down to stopping to take photos of accidents. Sleeping Dogs‘ game world feels alive and authentic, and I can only assume the dedicated team at United Fronts spent countless hours poring over the smallest details to make each street feel just a little different from all the others.
The presentation is there too. Sure, you won’t find hours of scripted radio dialogue and jokes, but you will find an incredible soundtrack and a host of radio stations supporting classical, rock, metal, hiphop, electronica and more, both local Hong Kong flavour and international. And the graphics? Maxed out on PC, Sleeping Dogs is far and away one of the most impressive titles I’ve ever seen, partially due to the stunning art and density of the city, but also thanks to the technology. Dynamic lighting and shadows cast naturally and believably over the entire city, and the night time rain effect, showing off wet surfaces, luminous neon lights and realistic reflections on cars, present a solid argument that we don’t have to wait for new consoles to see just what the next generation is capable of. On the downside, the lack of middle ground anti-aliasing is disappointing, and though performance was excellent for me, reports have shown others have encountered some bugs and other issues.
It’s easy to gravitate towards the usual suspects whenever the discussion of sandbox games come up. But sometimes I wonder if it’s truly justified. Maybe, just maybe, there are other developers doing big, bold things with the genre that the more popular studios are not. Sleeping Dogs does little to convince me otherwise. There’s room to grow this game into what I hope will become a series, but what we have here is a content rich sandbox experience simply loaded with with superb design. Design that is, most importantly, incredibly fun. There’s a story worth following, cars worth driving, missions worth exploring, and fights worth fighting. And more.
The point is, Sleeping Dogs is a game worth playing. Very much so. And for me personally, it’s going to be very difficult going back to other sandbox games that lack the complexity and variety of fighting, driving, shooting, running, and all of these things combined, that Sleeping Dogs has on show. It’s one of my favourite sandbox games from this generation, and recommended to everybody with a taste for the genre.