Into the danger zone with Detective Wei Shen
Are you ready to hit the streets of Hong Kong? Let me tell you, it can get pretty rough out there. Sleeping Dogs mixes up a cocktail that entertains, and satisfies. It features an atypical location, and manages to avoid a few pitfalls that other games have stumbled over. You could say that Sleeping Dogs drives on the left, but makes all the right moves.
Sleeping Dogs casts the player as Detective Wei Shen, who has been selected to go undercover and infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad, one of the most powerful organized crime cartels in the region. The story is fairly typical of the genre. You have a maverick cop who’s a little edgy, and makes his handlers nervous. They question whether all he does to preserve his cover is necessary, and tend to get a face full of attitude in response. If you’re looking for a story that will truly stand out, this isn’t quite it.
One of Sleeping Dogs’ strengths, however, is creating very individual and unique characters. They do not fall prey to being exaggerations or over-the-top to remain memorable. Each character plays a role in your story and you always get hints of a larger background than what you are told.
One of my biggest problems with Sleeping Dogs was the slant it put on the whole ‘playing both sides’ aspect of being an informant. Wei will do missions for both the cops and the Sun On Yee, as well as little side missions (called favors) for a tertiary cast that appear regularly just for these tiny tasks. The problem is that the true story of Sleeping Dogs is linked directly to the triad missions. Despite the moral conflict of Wei, and his obligations to both sides of the law, you never get a sense that the police work matters. Sure, you’re helping with investigations, but they’re always outside the scope of the main plot threads within the triad missions. I would have liked to see a kind of karma system where the player may have conflicting mission objectives for each side, and both have repercussions. As it stands, the police missions feel like lengthy favors, instead of a true component of the main storyline. The cops in general are painted in a very antagonistic way that the gangsters never are. The triad members are violent, but respect loyalty, so they are often portrayed in a more favorable light. This pro-triad flavor may have been the game writer’s intention, but I just didn’t quite connect with Wei’s conflict over his loyalty when the cops were always such jerks.
Like most sandbox games, Sleeping Dogs is structured around missions. You can get up to all sorts of risky business for the supporting cast of gangsters and cops, and the sheer variety of activities in SD really should be praised. Sometimes a triad red pole (boss) will be looking for a few good men to strong arm a rival, other times an investigator might be trying to nail a drug pusher, so you have to get surveillance on one of his transactions. “It might not be sexy, but it has teeth,” as they say.
All these missions are a mixture of driving, parkour, minigames, gunplay, and the real star of Sleeping Dogs – the martial arts fighting. SD at its core is about 60 percent driving, 30 percent fighting, with the other 10 percent as everything else. The good news is that the whole roster of activities is well done. SD’s fighting is very similar to the FreeFlow combat of Batman Arkham Asylum/Arkham City. You can chain attacks together in any direction and you can always press that ever-important counter button to avoid taking a hit from an opponent if you time it right. All moves have a very weighty feeling to them, you can almost sense the inertia of missed kicks, and feel the thud of bodyslams that wind you.
Driving is fairly good, the cars have different acceleration, handling, and top speeds. Action hijacking is great fun, allowing you to jump to another vehicle to take it over. When you get into the street racing scene, you use an arcade style ramming manoeuvre that jukes your car to the side. After all, rubbin’ son, is racing. The only gripe with driving is drifting: forget it. You’re better to just go flat out and drive like a hack to victory. Speaking of hacks, you will also spend time in SD splicing into video feeds, planting bugs, cracking safes, hustling marks to bleed the color of money, and even singing karaoke. Each minigame is fun in its own way. It was refreshing to see such a variety of skills being tested. One minute you’re careening around in a sports car, the next you’re infiltrating a house to plant a bug Mission: Impossible style.
If I had to point out a weak gameplay mechanic, it would be the shooting. Guns never feature very prominently, but when they do, it’s often an affair of accuracy by volume. The finesse of the martial arts contrasts with the nature of the shooting. Hand-to-hand makes you feel like IMF agent Ethan Hunt, shooting makes you feel like a young cadet manning an all-too-big machine gun.
Part of what makes SD so immersive is the soundscape. There was some fantastic work done to make the ambient noise of Hong Kong really come alive. Fryers hiss, light bulbs hum, and AC units gently buzz. Add this to the expected cacophony of traffic, and you really start to feel part of a living city. Little touches like the neighbors chatting in the hallway as I visited my apartment drew me in. The voiced dialogue was usually funny, but also told little vignettes to anyone willing to listen. Visiting a location later might have the same characters updating each other on the conversation they were having last time you were eavesdropping. All the dialogue in SD is delivered by talented voice actors, even the awkward English intonation by Chinese-speakers seemed spot-on. That’s worth noting too, the dialogue in SD is a mix of English and Cantonese. Subtitles can tell you what’s being said, and some characters will blend the two languages seamlessly in a very organic way that is quite convincing. Mix all that with a killer soundtrack of licensed music, and SD truly shines.
The look of Sleeping Dogs is good, not great. The visuals aren’t breathtaking, but they aren’t crude or lackluster either. The color palette is varied between the districts and things like fire and explosions look decent. The draw distance is occasionally a problem, especially at high speed. A few times, I had cars fade into existence a few yards ahead of me. This was frustrating, but never occurred with frequency. The city of Hong Kong in general looked convincing, even the scenery shops you couldn’t enter had some depth to them, and weren’t just painted on to a building. Just like with the sound, SD has plenty of little touches to create a sense of vitality to the world.
Sleeping Dogs is a true standout game within the sandbox genre. It has a cast that isn’t cliché or irritating and really comes to be likeable. The variety of gameplay is fantastic and the focus on martial arts combat, as opposed to gunplay, really makes this game draw on its strengths. There are a few hiccups here and there, but none ruin the gameplay beyond minor annoyance. As a whole, Sleeping Dogs is a fantastic experience that should not be missed by fans of sandbox games, or the unique Hong Kong cinema flavor the game oozes from every pore.
Tested on 360