The first time you enter the Night Market in Sleeping Dogs is the moment I am sold on it. The claustrophobic crush of stalls, the people crowding around, and the sheer din of life merge together in the dim neon to create an astounding atmosphere. Over the hustle and bustle you can hear vendors trying to entice you into spending your hard-earned cash. Your character, an enforcer for a local gang, muscles his way up to one of them and demands protection cash; the refusal is followed by a swift, bone-breaking response and suddenly the crowd no longer pens you in when you walk away. These are the moments when Sleeping Dogs excels.
Sleeping Dogs (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One [reviewed])
Released Aug 2012 | Developed: United Front Games | Published: Square Enix
Like any good crime game, we start off by being arrested. Wei Shen languishes in prison where he meets Jackie Ma, a young, slightly ratty-looking chap who recognises Wei from their childhood, who offers to introduce Wei to Winston, a lieutenant in the local triad, the Sun On Yee. Wei ingratiates himself quickly under Winston’s leadership, where he learns that the triad is in the middle of a burgeoning internal war as another lieutenant, or Red Pole, called Dogeyes is rapidly muscling in on Winston’s turf.
However, unbeknownst to Winston and the Sun On Yee, Wei is actually an undercover cop, and his infiltration into the triad has been carefully staged by the Hong Kong police. As Wei digs deeper into the world of the Hong Kong underground, he begins to uncover evidence of deeper problems in the gang. Wei begins to find his loyalties tested as he sinks into the culture of the Sun On Yee, and struggles to juggle his identity as a rising member of the triad alongside his role as an officer of the law.
If this all sounds a bit cliche, well that’s because it is. Sleeping Dogs feels pretty unashamed in its love of tropes from across all sorts of different sources, from crime stories in the vein of Grand Theft Auto to Chinese action cinema. Certainly all of our characters are drawn from clear traditions; we have the criminal with a secret heart of gold in Jackie Ma, the simpleton leader in Winston, and even a slimy police chief in the form of Superintendent Pendrew. It means that the directions the plot goes are predictable, but they’re no less enjoyable for it. Our characters don’t really grow or undergo impactful arcs, but that’s ok; they’re in service to a perfectly fine action plot.
If there’s a weak link, it’s probably our protagonist, Wei. His character can sometimes feel a little unfocused. The game describes him multiple times as a slightly unhinged cop who has a personal stake in the triads which threaten to turn his operation in Hong Kong into a vendetta, but that never really shows up. Instead, Wei’s actions as he unpicks the hold the Sun On Yee have over Hong Kong all feel reasonably sensible; in fact he comes across as reserved when talking to other officers or non-gang characters, if a little prone to moments of exasperation. The only exception is Raymond, his handler in the Hong Kong police, with whom Wei has an instantaneous feud but there’s no clear reason why this is the case. It almost feels like the Wei we see when he interacts with Raymond is a holdover from a different version of the script as he comes across as a malignant bastard who throws tantrums with every other line as Raymond tries to subject him to psych evaluations. It’s very strange that this aspect of his character was left in, as if he needed some problem with his boss to fulfill some crime character stereotype bingo card.
Where Sleeping Dogs excels most of all has to be in its depiction of Hong Kong. I’ve no idea how accurate it is but as a game world it is beautiful. Life hits you from every angle, crowds swarm you chattering constantly in both English and Cantonese, street sellers screech at you hawking their wares, the ambient sounds batter you, and as the day gives way to night the neon signs flare up in their garish, glaring multitudes while gangsters and thugs lurk and leer out from claustrophobic alleys. This is a world created with love and dedication and the sense of immersion is intense. Above all else it feels authentic. Plenty of other open-world crime games give us decent worlds which stick in our memory – I can personally always recall the neon-soaked streets of Vice City as a prime example – but often they can feel a little devoid of character. Sometimes the open world is just a backdrop for the narrative. Not so in Sleeping Dogs; here, Hong Kong and its culture is intrinsic to the game, and it works to its benefit in a marvelous way.
Of course, any open world needs stuff to do in it. Gone are the days of PS2 Grand Theft Auto worlds where dicking about and causing mayhem was its own reward, and so naturally Sleeping Dogs gives us a bunch of side content to fill our time with. Street races are scattered about the map if you feel the need to wrestle with the game’s somewhat floaty driving, and if you’re really into the game’s melee combat there are martial arts clubs and fighting pits to test yourself in. Each area has an array of jobs to do for the police, and drug busts are a recurring feature in your quest to clear each region of triad influence. These busts all follow the same pattern of clearing an area of gang members, hacking a nearby security camera, returning to one of your hideouts and then playing a short tagging minigame where you highlight the dealer and send in a squad of officers to arrest them. It’s a laborious task mainly due to the number of steps, and it’s always the same. The only other major things are the multi-stage police cases, which see you take on a local major criminal, and the Face missions. These are the most traditional side-quests type in Sleeping Dogs; some of them are deeply absurd and offer a little respite from the serious portions of the game.
Your actions in Sleeping Dogs award both “Cop” and “Thug” experience, each with their own upgrade path. This might sound like a moral choice system but in reality it has very little impact. You’re going to want to gain experience for both as the upgrades for each are useful but between doing the main quest and doing side missions you should find the game heaps plenty of both kinds of experience on you. Cop upgrades tend to centre around vehicles and firearms, such as allowing you to silently hijack parked cars or go into an extended period of slow-motion when aiming while diving over bonnets or other bits of scenery. The triad path is much more focused around melee attacks, improving your damage with and without weapons. An additional bar to juggle is the “Face” meter, which tracks how known you are as a member of the Sun On Yee. Wearing certain clothes and gaining the bonuses they bestow are locked to achieving certain Face levels so it’s worth working to keep that up as well. Thankfully like the experience meters it doesn’t require much more work than doing as many missions as possible to keep it filled.
You can engage in both melee combat and third-person shooting in Sleeping Dogs. Melee combat is based on the now-ubiquitous Batman: Arkham system with light and heavy strikes, counters, and the ability to direct your combos between multiple different targets seamlessly. I love the contextual commands and animations, which bring life to the combat. You can run enemies into walls, stalls, and chest high desks perfectly placed for head slams, and you can also use specific commands near certain interactable objects, such as bringing shop shutters down on thugs or chucking them head first into whirring fans. The combat does feel a little stiff and unresponsive, so it requires you to kind of get into its rhythm to really succeed at it. Additionally, I don’t like how the marker for when you can counterattack an enemy is a small red outline which appears around them; I’d prefer something a little more substantial, personally.
The gunplay follows a very standard third-person cover-shooter format. Wei can duck into cover as and when he needs to and either employ blind fire or pop out and aim his shots. You can’t carry an arsenal of weapons, and you’ll typically need to switch them out on the fly during a shootout as ammunition often seems to be a mite scarce. As the narrative progresses you’ll find yourself using guns more and more, but for the majority of the game you don’t really need them, and certainly in the open world you’ll find yourself fighting enemies hand-to-hand far more than running into shootouts. That’s just as well because the guns are dreadful in Sleeping Dogs; they lack any kind of distinctive weight and don’t feel like they do any substantial damage. You sure take a lot of damage though; running around and finding the health shrines which increase your max hit points feels absolutely necessary because Wei dies pretty bloody quickly.
Sleeping Dogs won’t ever go down in history as a great game. It’s a cliche storm, it’s got slightly dodgy character models, its gunplay is rubbish, and it has a dreadful lumbering weight to the way Wei moves. But, with all that said, it does have a charm that is all its own. It’s deeply immersed in its setting, and it commits to it to the point of setting out Hong Kong as distinct and memorable in a slew of similar games. It’s a bit of an older game now, so I’m sure it’s findable at a very decent price, and if you can get it I do still recommend playing it. I’ve played it twice now and both times I’ve spent some significant time sinking into and being immersed by the world it gives me. If you rush through the story the post-game allows you to meander about Hong Kong to finish up any loose ends left and that for me is when I have enjoyed Sleeping Dogs the most; without the strain of the narrative you’re free to enjoy Hong Kong, and for that alone I consider it worth playing.
5/7 – GREAT. Damn fine stuff, a game that doesn’t quite make the top echelon of games but sparkles regardless and holds the interest expertly. Make the time to give this a play.