The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.
Sleeping Dogs is the Hong-Kong based open-world third-person game from developer United Front Games, published by Square Enix. At least that’s what the box says, in reality it was originally developed as a new IP from Activison, then adapted into a new entry into the True Crime series, before Square Enix took over the project and announced it as ‘Sleeping Dogs’. Usually when game development has this kind of checkered history, it sets off alarm bells. Thankfully this time it’s just smoke without fire as Sleeping Dogs is an absolute blast.
If you’ve played GTA (from 3 onwards), Saints Row, the Mafia games, Godfather 2, or indeed the True Crime series you’ll be instantly at home with Sleeping Dogs. Ostensibly it’s much the same game; you are involved with criminals in a wide open city, you do missions involving brawling, shooting and driving until you work your way up and along the way you can take part in side missions and other activities, as well as playing dress up. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but there’s enough small differences to make this game something special.
First of all the setting is absolutely spectacular. As a gamer I am unbelievably fed up with New York. It’s got to the point where I’m not sure if I even want to go to the city in real life because I’ve already seen every landmark and side street in a myriad of open world games. I’ve comitted crimes there, I’ve saved the world there and I’ve raced around there no end. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fitting setting for a wide variety of media but it’s really been done. There’s a number of other cities that I’ve always felt were unfairly overlooked. Paris has had a bit of a shot in the limelight with The Saboteur and Modern Warfare 3, but what about some modern-day open world games there? Or how about London, Edinburgh, Moscow, Berlin, Nairobi, Lima, Rio? There’s so many cities in the world with distinctive and exciting environments but developers seem transfixed on taking us back to New York, or another American city that seems much like NY. Hong Kong is vibrant and just different enough to be exciting, without being completely bewildering. I might be a little biased as I was terribly excited that I could finally drive on the left in a video game. It feels like home, but with more Triads.
The graphics are at times spectacular and bring back memories of Ubisoft’s Watchdogs trailer that wowed audiences at E3. That game brought about a lot of discussion on whether or not that title is next-gen and while Sleeping Dogs isn’t quite up to the same standard, it’s surprisingly close even on my budget gaming PC. When it rains it looks incredible and the neon lights set against dull concrete create a claustrophobic but slightly enchanting visual palette that’s nothing like what I’ve seen before in games. The streets also feel more alive than other open-world games (Assassin’s Creed excepted; the streets in that are bustling and I wish more developers could pull off the same trick) you see people eating noodles, arguing in the street, carrying shopping home. There are the usual AI difficulties and oddities of course but it’s nice to feel immersed in a world.
So what you might ask? GTA IV had a living city with huge amounts of detail. Yes, it did, but it was also incredibly dull. GTA IV represented an incredible technical achievement but as many agree, it just wasn’t that fun. Sleeping Dogs has managed to keep the arcadey feel that works so well in Saints Row and mixed it with a more realistic, gritty setting. A lot of this has to do with the handling, cars are less realistic and much more nimble than GTA’s square wheeled monstrosities, but the biggest change is the notable lack of firearms.
Sleeping Dogs avoids the usual sandbox staple of increasingly loading you up with more weapons from the start, you’ll often find yourself weaponless and with just your fists to fall back on, so most of your fighting will channel Kung-Fu movies of old with shocking environmental kills and a wide variety of over-the-top moves to dispatch entire hordes of thugs and gangsters. There’s no permanent inventory so even if you do find a gun, you’ll lose it next time you die or go through a cutscene most of the time. Thankfully when you do get a gun it feels kind of special. Shooting enemies has a pronounced effect and a headshot is always a kill, and in true movie-style a shot to the tyres of a bike or car will send it flying into the air shortly before exploding violently.
The story is strong enough to keep me hooked throughout the twenty-hour playing time, although it hits a lot of familiar beats that’s fine as the game never pretends to be more than a homage to its inspirations. All of the voice acting is convincing and the major characters are a little more three dimensional than you would expect.
There are some flaws with the game that can’t be avoided. As with most open-world games there’s a ridiculous number of glitches that will find you stuck or flying through the air for no reason. Often you will see things you should be able to climb on, but you can’t. Generally these can be ignored and are the exception rather than the rule, but don’t be surprised to find a new annoyances along the way.
There’s no multiplayer to speak of, but filling in is a leaderboard system based on a huge number of stats. When you’re driving down the road you’ll see a timer in the corner counting how many seconds you can go without crashing. It’ll also tell you what position you are on your friends list and what the next time is. This makes usually boring drives to the next waypoint a whole lot more fun as there’s always that little competitive temptation.
So in conclusion, if you like open-world games like GTA, this is definitely worth your time. If you like Kung Fu films you’ll love it. It’s not game of the year material but it’s an incredibly competent and stylish entry into what is becoming a fairly crowded genre.