Review: Sleeping Dogs

Originally published on on Sept. 7, 2012.

+ Highly enjoyable action | Engaging story

- Bouts of glitchiness | Counter system not entirely fluid

I’ll say it: I’m really glad that Activision dropped True Crime: Hong Kong.

Without that move Square Enix wouldn’t have picked it up and push United Front Games to craft what would become Sleeping Dogs. What initially ran the risk of cancellation, or worse: being a mediocre True Crime game, was revitalized and given a makeover.

I first got my mitts on Sleeping Dogs at PAX East this past year, where I was wowed by the game’s intense melee combat system, which is reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum’s.

Nevertheless, a Batman-style fighting system alone can’t make this game a keeper. The question is whether or not Sleeping Dogs excels in its entirety.

Sleeping Dogs is a sandbox-style action game set in Hong Kong. When it comes to mission structure, using a cell phone and car jacking, Sleeping Dogs feels very much like a Grand Theft Auto game. While the game is admittedly short, Sleeping Dogs draws from many other inspirations, not just GTA. Flashes of Assassin’s Creed, Arkham City, Max Payne, Just Cause 2 and even Yakuza 4 can be found throughout.

It shouldn’t be surprising to see the amount of influence that Hong Kong action cinema had on the game’s development, either. The developers were notably inspired by Internal Affairs, Exiled and Hard Boiled. In many ways, Sleeping Dogs is what Midway Games’Stranglehold should have been.

United Front Games did a great job with diversifying the action on screen. In one moment, protagonist and undercover cop Wei Shen could be undergoing an intense on-foot chase sequence, pushing pedestrians aside and performing parkour-like stunts to keep up with his target. The next moment can lead him into a brawl or a shoot-out with several Triad gang members, followed by an obligatory car chase.

I stated before that the melee combat is very reminiscent of the Batman: Arkham games, albeit with more martial artist flair. Wei Shen can perform a myriad of stylish punch/kick combos, a flashy wall jump-kick that never gets old and a grab move that lets him drag enemies toward highlighted environmental kills.

These environmental kills get really creative, especially later in the game. Shen can eventually throw enemies into electric grids, impale them on large fish hooks and even burst their heads open using an electric saw. Throw in the ability to brutally cut people up with an assortment of knives and you’ll be wincing at every swipe.

What kind of a twisted undercover cop are you, Wei Shen?

Like in Batman, players can counter incoming enemy attacks with a quick button press. The system here isn’t as fluid, however. Countering feels stiff sometimes and it becomes difficult to initiate a counter when in the middle of a combo. I ran into several awkward moments where Shen couldn’t move momentarily as a result of a failed counter.

Hand-to-hand combat lacks a whole lot of challenge as well; something players will quickly notice when they’re outnumbered is that hoards of enemies will hover in favor of two attackers at a time. Taking care of two enemies while the rest conveniently hang about left me craving challenge.

Although the game’s gunfights won’t be winning any points for originality, I like how Sleeping Dogs encourages players to not turn it into Generic Cover Shooter #64. Whenever you dive over an obstacle during a gunfight bullet-time is initiated, and this makes for a fun and cinematic way to gun down enemies.

Driving in Sleeping Dogs is more manageable than it ever was in its Rockstar Games’-developed cousin, GTA IV. When behind the wheel in the game, it reminded me of arcade racers, and the added benefit of a “ram” move makes run-ins with the Hong Kong Police Department much more manageable. Taking a page from Just Cause 2, Wei Shen can also leap off any car or motorcycle onto another and jack it.

Wei Shen is a character everybody can identify with, and it’s difficult not to feel for him while he’s struggling between being an officer of the law and forming bonds with his fellow Sun On Yee gang members. The game does a great job of explaining his backstory through dialogue, but allows the player to dig deeper into his (and the gang leaders he’s undermining) psyche via in-game police reports. Some characters’ dialogue factors in random Cantonese in the middle of their accents, which admittedly sounds awkward but gives the game a more authentic feel.

On the PC, Sleeping Dogs looks stunning, boasting some wonderful lighting and a high-res texture pack that blows the console versions out of the water. It may not have the graphical fidelity of other PC titles like The Witcher 2, but it wowed me enough to say that 360 and PS3 users don’t know what they’re missing.

Despite the vividness, I have run into a few bugs when it comes to AI path-finding and other odd quirks in the physics engine.

To top things off, Sleeping Dogs also has many fun diversions such races, fight clubs and karaoke. Like most sandbox games, however, these become stale over time. There’s not much of an incentive to tackle these side-missions aside from getting money that can be used for buying new threads and sets of wheels. There are a fair amount of hidden collectibles that give you different upgrades, but the most important ones that unlock new melee combos can be easily found in the main missions.

While there are unpolished sections, the action-heavy romp grabbed on and never let go of my interest throughout. In other words,Sleeping Dogs excels in just about every fashion, except for some rough edges.

Ultimately, I would love to see Sleeping Dogs evolve with a sequel. A sequel would allow United Front Games to polish and expand their open world game into a franchise rivaling the open-world kings of our time, Saints Row and Grant Theft Auto.