There have been many pretenders to Rockstar’s open world throne, taking inspiration from the Grand Theft Auto series in an effort to mimic its financial and critical success. Popular franchises such as Just Cause and Saints Row have become enjoyable in their own right, having realised that while imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, a game needs creativity and a unique spin if it hopes to win over the masses. Although Sleeping Dogs initially seems like an unassuming GTA clone with a penchant for fisticuffs, it soon blossoms into an outing that surpasses the exploits of Niko Bellic in a surprising number of ways.
You play as Wei Shen, an undercover agent tasked with covertly taking down a Triad organisation known as the Sun On Yee. Unlike the typical GTA anti-heroes trying to get by, Wei has a greater goal in mind; a goal which will be tested in various ways as he attempts to juggle his dealings with the gang and the police he reports to. This makes for an interesting and much more personal tale, with drama stemming from Wei’s torn allegiances as he falls ever deeper into the criminal underworld. You’re never quite sure what could happen next, so the game keeps you guessing even though you’d be right in expecting a few characters to bite the dust in later missions.
Wei makes for a likeable lead, remaining polite to those he cares for, but treating his enemies with a brutality that makes him perfect for the gangster lifestyle. His criminal journey begins as a simple henchman working for unsavoury characters, and yet somehow, these faces may grow on you, becoming true allies as the gang wars escalate into something much more deadly. Wei’s mental state remains the focal point throughout, with the climb from unwanted outsider to cherished brother influencing his world view. Heavy handed perhaps, but it might just make you question what a villain is when he’s capable of a thing such as brotherhood.
All this takes place in a fictionalised Hong Kong; the game lacks any form of street-by-street accuracy, its world built entirely as a backdrop for the action with busy junctions, market districts and well-designed interiors for you to drive, punch, kick and blast through. You’ve seen higher production values before, as the game suffers from occasional screen tearing and rough textures overall, but these technical sins can be forgiven due to the fun you’ll be having from a gameplay standpoint. Those who suffer from the collector’s itch will be well catered for too, with a substantial amount of items to find off the beaten path such as lockboxes, jade statues and lamps, the latter of which extend your health meter.
One of the true stars of Sleeping Dogs is the hand-to-hand combat, which cribs successfully from the Batman: Arkham series and even builds on it. Not only can Wei counter incoming blows and then follow up with moves which flaunt his martial art skills, he can also make use of the environment for context sensitive takedowns. The jade statues can be returned to Wei’s trainer in exchange for new techniques, making the flow of combat even more exciting as you decide whether to break a leg and instil fear into surrounding foes, kick them into a phone box or drop them onto a spike. The accompanying sound effects are both meaty and very satisfying.
Gunplay rewards the player for accuracy, as a well-aimed headshot means instant death for the opposition. Enemies aren’t bullet sponges yet still take more than two shots to the stomach to be put down for good. It doesn’t quite reach the quality of a streamlined experience where shooting is the star, but that’s a big part of what makes Sleeping Dogs so different – you won’t be holding a firearm for half of the missions. The game’s greatest strength lies in its variety, as it unashamedly takes you through the stylised Hong Kong, pushing you into a steady stream of pulse-pounding situations. There are mundane moments where you’ll drive to a waypoint while listening to a character’s dialogue, but this is just a single aspect of what is a thoroughly fleshed out production.
Wei can use every trick of the trade to get the job done, whether that means picking locks, hacking security cameras, planting bugs or simply taking pictures on his mobile phone. There’s a plethora of mini-games to master, but none of them are overly difficult or all that complicated. One mission will have you break into a house to smash pots, change the time on the clock and shift a piano, but you’ll soon be charging down traffic on a motorbike to catch a kidnapped girl Wei used as bait. You’ll disarm knife-wielding thugs, chase down a Triad with free-running and then try to lose the cops (not as harrowing as it’s been in similar games) before going in for a new mission that will test your skills as well as Wei’s moral code.
Dating girls won’t result in a half-baked attempt at sexiness, instead netting you real rewards that help in your travels, though each date boils down to one of the many side activities (the awful karaoke mini-game really should have been left on the cutting room floor) but are still bookended by cutscenes. The same can be said for pedestrian requests, which increase your Face meter once completed. With increased Face comes new rewards, such as new clothes that would be otherwise inaccessible while completing police and underground missions leads to unique upgrades of their own. There’s reason to allow yourself the odd distraction, and it’s entirely your call as to which of these you do.
Just because a game lacks a multiplayer mode doesn’t always mean that it’s lacking. With good variety, solid character and world design, Sleeping Dogs offers a story that gamers haven’t quite seen before, even if it does borrow liberally from other franchises. Unlike other titles, the game doesn’t go all out and rely on the wacky or extreme to separate itself from the competition, instead choosing to present itself as a jack of all trades in a genre where no one knew it was needed. You don’t have to be into martial arts flicks to appreciate Wei Shen’s journey into the seedy underbelly, nor is a passion for GTA a requirement. You only have to enjoy fun gameplay and be willing to forgive a few missteps and its technical limitations. Expect Sleeping Dogs to be no less than this year’s sleeper hit.
This review is based on a Playstation 3 copy provided by Square Enix.
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