(Tested on an Alienware M17x: Intel Core i7 Q740 @1.73 GHz, AMD Mobility HD Radeon 5870 + 1GB GDDR5 VRAM, 6 GB RAM, played with Xbox 360 Gamepad/WASD+Mouse Setup)
“Refusing to let Activision Lie.”
By now, it’s no secret that the game we all know as Sleeping Dogs started it’s life as an extension of the True Crime series. Unceremoniously dumped by monolith publisher Activision while it still bore it’s former title, one has to wonder just what the modus for the move was. It could be that the genre was simply too cluttered at the time, with Rockstar Games, 2K, Volition all filling in the cracks with their unique entries, it could’ve been that in a sea of American based cities and time periods, they didn’t feel that Hong Kong was unique enough a setting. Perhaps, they just felt there was nothing their title could contribute to a pool already filled to the brim with innovations. As it stands, I can’t believe their actual admission that the game wasn’t going to be ‘good enough’. Right or not as they may have been at the time, I’m sure someone upstairs must be kicking themselves right now. Not only is Sleeping Dogs one of the best titles the genre has seen in years, but it brings with it a wealth of its own contributions and improvements in terms of narrative, gameplay structure, and mechanics that fellow companies and most importantly, Rockstar should take note of while preparing their next titles.
Simply put, it’s the most fun I’ve had in an open world game in a long time.
Taking its cue from many Hong Kong action flicks and crime dramas akin to Internal Affairs and Donnie Brasco, Sleeping Dogs puts you in the role of Wei Shen, a former gang member-cum police officer who emigrates back to his homeland of Hong Kong on assignment to infiltrate and take down the very gang that was the impetus for his departure in the first place; the Sun On Yee. In order to complete his mission, he’ll have to succeed where others have failed; a task made only slightly easier by the fact that he actually has close ties with many of its low level members.
Because of this, very often, the game straddles a very thin line of tension that always threatens to break. While Wei is more than capable of playing his role as a Triad gangster to a tee, especially convincing enough to deter his more suspicious gangmates; the lines between what you must do, and what you need to do are never clearly black and white, leading the entire journey into a series of grey areas. No matter how much loyalty he must play towards in his undercover work, Wei is still a police officer, and at task with his true purpose in taking them down. As you find yourself drawn deeper into the Sun On Yee, there’s a tangible guilt in doing your investigative work at odds with your criminal dealings, and and it’s a notion that follows you throughout the 15 or so hour campaign until its climax.
Part of this has to do with the great characterization, and how it goes beyond most titles of this type. Each character you encounter in the Triad, be it Wei’s friend, the plucky yet reliable Jackie Ma, the headstrong, yet short-sighted Winston, or the thoroughly despicable Sonny Yu, every member of the Sun on Yee are played so memorable and so well that it became easy to forget that I was literally dealing with a band of criminals and murderers. There’s a genuine sense of trust, familial respect and humanity that runs underneath even the pettiest level of their dealings, and as you get to know them better as characters, it becomes all the more crushing as they inevitably get plucked away from you one by one.
Similarly, It also makes your literal work that much harder to stomach when dealing with your coworkers in the HKPD. While you know full well what your orders are, the nature of what you are tasked to do is dishonest, and dark, even if it’s ultimately for the greater good. Especially when dealing with your superior Pendrew, or associate Raymond, there’s a callousness to the way they view the street life that builds resentment in Wei, and conversely, yourself. The one diamnd in the rough is Teng, the officer on the street handling the smaller cases. Her missions are the only HKPD tasks where the actual police work feels disingenuous and callous, an ironic contrast to the plight for loyalty and respect that are consistent running themes with the Triad; with United Front masterfully presenting the balance between the two ideologies perfectly in a way that’ll have most questioning both sides until the conclusion. I fully believed in Wei’s character throughout the story, and shared the same conflicts and worries he had more times than I can mention.
The believability of the setting also contributes a lot to the immersion too. The visuals in Sleeping Dogs are simply beautiful at times, with a wealth of attention poured into each area of the city, and dozens of detailed characters interacting with their surroundings seamlessly in an environment that doesn’t seem to quit or trip up, even at moderate settings on PC. The engine itself must be really well optimized, because even with the (who knows why) optional high-res texture pack and all settings turned nearly to max, I had no problem maintaining 60fps and the game still looked head and shoulders above many games out, especially considering the taxing load most open world (GTAIV is a huge culprit due to RAGE) games can place on one’s setup at times on similar settings. If you take a second look at my specs above, you can see that this is no small statement.
It’s the little things that you can’t see in the screenshots above that really make a statement however. As fun to watch as it is to explore, Hong Kong as a city is practically a character itself, with visuals that play to the moods of the various towns and districts perfectly. Tour buses and dense traffic line the streets during the day and can be followed en route if you so wish, loud street vendors show no modesty about their wares, and the city has a homely, lived in feel whether in the downtown metropolis of North Point, or even when shooting over to the cushy, pristine comfort of the luxurious Kennedy Town. The nighttime scene is even busier, with the night markets bustling and crowded with townspeople alike, Karaoke bars/clubs filled with people dancing and singing (terribly), and rain slick streets serving the nightly racing scene. Of course, all of these are activities that you can actively take part in when you’re not on a mission, and a more than helpful map, along with GPS helps you find your way around just fine.
The best part is, you’ll want to do these things, because they are all polished, and all add to a variety of Wei’s stats and abilities relating to his marksmanship, fighting ability, and clout. Rarely have I seen so many contrasting play styles come together so well. I couldn’t find one mission or side job I didn’t want to encounter, the sheer variety making tackling each of them a welcome break in the action. When you are tasked with furthering the story, those missions are varied, and often exciting due to Wei’s extensive skill set. While there will always be a fair share of “Here’s Point A, Drive to Point B” missions, SD shakes things up with a few twists on the formula via many missions that tow the line between conventional, and flat out cinematic excitement. Sometimes, you’ll have to take advantage of his agility with chase sequences that bring Rumble in the Bronx to mind, engage in gunplay that would make Tequila blush, and even a dash of espionage that brings to light his hacking and safecracking skills, both presented through the use of a few non-intrusive mingames. One of the strongest aspects of his abilities is near constantly displayed in his hand-to-hand fighting skill, and this is where the game truly stands out compared to other titles.
Unlike other open world games where melee is an afterthought that takes a backseat to gunplay, what makes Sleeping Dogs stand out the most among its peers is a pretty robust hand to hand combat system. Wei is an accomplished martial artist (as are coincidentally, many of his opponents), and as such has access to a wide arsenal of strikes, grapples, and even some creatively laced (and brutal) environmental interaction. Not only is it a kick to dispatch multiple foes Batman style with a wide range of strikes and counters, there is something just satisfying about also being able to survey the environment and plan your course of attack on the fly. New moves can be acquired through finding your Sifu’s statues littered about town, and they are well worth the trouble. Trust me, when you’ve slammed your foe’s head into a rooftop air conditioner, broken another’s leg in such a disturbing fashion that it causes his companions to flinch, or tackled the one holding the gun, only to take out his buddies with the odd weapon out in one smooth motion, it’s something that’ll have you looking forward to each encounter, not dreading it because it’s the aspect that typically ends up broken.
In fact, many of this game’s mechanics aren’t anything new, having been inspired from other action/adventure titles. While any well versed gamer of this gen can see them as they occur, they are polished to such a degree that it’s not a sentiment that builds resentment for unoriginality; but one that makes you appreciate their inclusion, because it does wonders for the game’s playability. There were even points where the game felt a bit easy at times, where the fisticuffs, driving, and shooting segments were pouring over a bit too smoothly. It was then that I realized it wasn’t devoid of challenge, it just felt so only because everything works so well. It took more than a few moments of pondering: Nearly every time I’ve died in an open world title, it was rarely actually my fault, and rather was a combination of random glitches and mechanics going haywire that led to my failure. While I won’t say it doesn’t happen here, it happens far less frequently than I’ve experienced in other titles, almost to the point of being unnoticeable.
Saying almost, it’s hard to imagine that there are any flaws to be had, but they are few. Though the core missions are varied, some of the side missions can be a bit repetitive at times, and there will be a moment or two where the GPS trips you up and causes an unfair mission failure. Also, I was a bit disappointed to find that some of the side characters (mostly with Wei’s ‘girlfriends’) have threads that ultimately amount to nothing in the grand scheme of things. They’re all seemingly introduced with the notion that there’s more to them, and are later forgotten as things happen elsewhere (what a waste of Emma Stone!). There’s also a bit of a missed opportunity in letting the Triad and Cop karma dictate the direction of the story more, but these are like I said, few quibbles and minor compared to the excitement found elsewhere.
From start to finish however, that is the experience that is Sleeping Dogs. It’s polished to a sheen that makes and keeps it enjoyable beyond minor faults, It’s one that’ll capture you with its story and not let go until Wei has broken his last bone, and it’s one that’ll threaten to keep you long after the fact through a wide variety of side missions and collectibles that all seem to contribute into turning you into the ultimate Hong Kong badass. While it doesn’t completely rock the boat in terms of innovation in the genre, it is a solid, fun, and engaging experience that breathes some life into the proceedings, and excites me for the titles to come in its wake, as they have some catching up to do in order to break away from the norm like this title does.