Sleeping Dogs review
How Activision’s discarded open world game became one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012 so far…
At least 100 innocent people have been put in the bin. Countless drivers have been pulled from their vehicles and stuffed into the boots of their own cars for no good reason. Many good cops lie dead, murdered in cold blood while trying to uphold the law and protect the city. One poor civilian even got beaten to death with a fish. This, apparently, is what it means to be undercover – after all, how could someone as brutal, as unhinged and as downright sociopathic as Wei Shen actually be a cop? It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. More considerate players are free to behave themselves in Hong Kong, while those even more twisted than us can run amok to their hearts’ content. And that, in a nutshell, is what’s so good about Sleeping Dogs – it just gets freedom so very, very right.
That Sleeping Dogs isn’t an absolute mess is really quite a pleasant surprise, since it’s been a long time coming and its journey has not been an easy one. The project started life as Black Lotus in 2008, with some bright spark at Activision later deciding that it might sell better if named after a game that didn’t sell well and slapping the True Crime brand on it. A second masterstroke saw the publisher cancel the game when it was pretty much finished, with Square Enix picking it up, dusting it down and giving it a brand new name. Games that go through the wringer like this seldom turn out particularly well and though it shows its age in places and wears the scars of its troubled upbringing on its sleeve, Sleeping Dogs is glorious testament to United Front’s ‘fun first’ philosophy.
It doesn’t hurt that Hong Kong – whether the real, actual place in the real, actual world or this ‘inspired by’ fictional recreation – is an awesome place to explore. The mix of traditional and modern, coupled with the unique oriental vibe, make this a setting unlike that of any other open world game, plus it’s as expansive and dense as it is interesting. Every inch of the city is packed with gameplay, be it collectibles (which come in several flavours), side missions (again, of various kinds) or just the potential for mischief and emergent experiences to share with friends.
Just as in massive games like Skyrim and Fallout 3, the unpredictable nature of the world allows for these personal moments – like the time we watched an ambulance crew run over a dying man in their rush to the scene, then themselves get splattered by a crazy driver in a hilarious explosion of karma – and sure enough, they’re often up there with the scripted highlights. And just like Saints Row, much of the entertainment value of Sleeping Dogs stems from the fact that the mechanics and AI sometimes don’t behave as they should. If you’re in the market for a slick, polished experience, you probably shouldn’t play open world games in the first place and you definitely shouldn’t play Sleeping Dogs. If, on the other hand, you like fun – we’re quite partial to it – then it’s a no-brainer of a recommendation.
It’s perhaps slightly unfair to the game that we were waiting for each element introduced to stumble, based on its murky True Crime past. But to its credit, Sleeping Dogs never really does stumble. Hand-to-hand combat is quickly revealed to be excellent (more on that in a bit), which only makes the prospect of gunplay later all the more terrifying. But a good while after driving and parkour elements both makes strong cases for their quality, your first firearm experience is drenched in relief – it actually works. United Front finds a great balance too, falling back to hand-to-hand sequences even after introducing gunplay (if sometimes through slightly artificial means, by wrenching weapons away from you after missions) and shaking up mission structures so the game isn’t just a string of bigger and bigger weapons to use on larger and larger groups of Triads.
And the best part is that as useful as bullet-lobbers are for popping skulls in stylish John Woo-style slow-mo shootouts, it’s hard to miss them when fist-fighting is so damn satisfying. It’s a fluid and immensely watchable combat system that owes much to the likes of Assassin’s Creed and Rocksteady’s Batman games, a combination of strikes, counters and grapples offering plenty of ways to deal with the various enemy classes. Each can be modified simply by running, the latter in particular benefiting from this – grab an enemy and run him to any of Hong Kong’s flashing deathtraps and you’ll trigger a gruesome environmental kill. Some of them are utterly horrific (say hello, meathook), others oddly comical (dumping a dude onto a bunch of handily positioned swordfish heads) while some are just plain daft – if we’d have known before that you can win a fight just by putting the other guy in the bin, we’d probably have enjoyed significantly easier childhoods.
Fighting is ace, then, and free-running and driving are equally solid. But it’d all be for naught if a cast of obnoxious scrotes put you off playing at all. It’s quite the opposite, in reality. Wei’s a surprisingly likeable chap, if you can look past all the murder. And the supporting characters, while generally old-school kung fu movie stereotypes, are no slouches either, despite a couple of decidedly iffy performances. It’s a tried and tested narrative conceit – undercover cop infiltrates gang and moral lines start to blur – but one that’s well handled, plus Wei’s mental battle between upholding the law as a policeman and breaking it to preserve his cover couldn’t gel better with the freedom of an open world game.
But considering Wei’s balancing act, it’s something of a shame that there’s not a little more substance to the cop/Triad upgrade system. On paper, this seems to be a light morality system but it really isn’t – Triad experience is earned from ruthless violence and destruction while on a mission with police experience working backwards, starting with a full quota of points for a mission and penalising for every illegal act. But rather than pushing Wei one way or the other, the whole mechanic seems skewed towards the cop side – cases that can be taken on on the side exclusively offer police experience while others are nigh impossible to incur penalties on, meaning that even if you drive like a maniac and mow down civilians in the core missions, you’re likely to max out cop experience long before your Triad level even nears its cap. Still, those looking to bump up their levels can replay older story missions in search of a more beneficial run, and that’s not the only reason to relive previous experiences, either.
It might not have a multiplayer component but with comprehensive stat tracking across actions, activities, events and challenges, asynchronous competition is encouraged among friends through the Social Hub. Race times, longest jumps, kill streaks and so forth are recorded to your profile, with a pop-up box appearing to let you track progress and tell you if and when you beat a friend’s score. It might not seem like much but it’s surprisingly compelling, often enough in itself to change the way you play and that in turn can open up entire new avenues of gameplay or areas to explore. Versus multiplayer would almost certainly have been an underpopulated mess, so incorporating competitive elements into the solo game is an effective and ingenious way of shoot-dodging that particular issue.
And even after the relatively short (by usual open world standards, at least) core narrative has hit its awesome, bloody climax, Hong Kong still holds many a time-consuming secret. There are races to be won (many of which require you to buy an expensive new car to enter), lockboxes full of cash and clothes to hunt down, fighting tournaments, security cameras to hack and use against the Triads… hell, there’s even cockfighting and Poker Mahjong to bet on, should you want to (try and) make a quick fortune.
Even just trying to get gold awards on all the stat challenges and stay top of the various leaderboards adds longevity, plus United Front has been pretty clever with its extra content – side missions and trinkets don’t show up on your map until you get close to them, leaving players to decide whether to make a detour when they first find them (thus adding to the game’s length) or scour the map once the story is over. We opted for the former and it really helped fill out what might otherwise have been a fairly brief Hong Kong holiday, plus it never felt artificial or forced as it sometimes can in games like this. Well, unless using Desmond’s magic bed to collect flags and feathers in the past is your idea of a good time. It isn’t ours.
By setting out to empower the player with mad kung fu skills, a beautiful open world to mess about in and loads of awesome things to do, Sleeping Dogs comes together as a genuinely brilliant open world action game. It’s flawed, sure, but when even the bugs can add to the entertainment rather than frustrate, you know you’re onto a winner. True Crime used to mimic GTA. Sleeping Dogs, though, can comfortably sit alongside it as a peer. The downside? We’ll never look at a bin in the same way again.