Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360, PC
Release Date: August 14, 2012
Right off the bat, let me address the elephant in the room: no actual dogs are in Sleeping Dogs, let alone ones that aren’t awake. Strike one. You don’t even play as a dog. Strike two. Just like hockey, developer (and obvious liars) United Front Games were on the brink of striking out and that doesn’t even include Sleeping Dogs‘ hellish development cycle. It didn’t even look like Sleeping Dogs would ever see the light of day and if it did, we all had two possible taglines at the ready: “Dog Crap” or “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie.” Brilliant stuff. But now I am at a loss for taglines because Sleeping Dogs overcame its many obstacles and achieved something far greater than most cynical crystal balls could predict.
Sleeping Dogs comfortably slips you into Wei Shen’s shoes, an undercover cop tasked with infiltrating Hong Kong’s most dangerous gangs. His street knowledge coupled with his badge allows unbridled access to each side of the legal fence, granted he can keep himself from being outed. The Triads have lingering suspicions and the cops don’t approve of Wei’s rough tactics, a balance that the game plays with throughout the many hours.
Cop stories that force the protagonist to play both sides are undoubtedly common within every medium, but the presentation and polish is what can make even the most trite subjects worthy of experiencing. Through quality acting and interesting story beats, Sleeping Dogs becomes more than a humdrum rerun of a predictable narrative.
That’s not to imply that Sleeping Dogs doesn’t have a tendency to stroll down Cliché Lane (it does sometimes) but the characters and situations make it worthwhile. Wei is a strong frontman, a person that balances being likable dude and a gruff badass. Completing the job stems from his ability to outwit his enemies and respectfully deceive his allies, both of which are easily admirable traits that flesh him out as a multi-dimensional character. Even his naiveté shows his flaws in a way that better rounds him out as a person.
Wei isn’t alone in his journey, instead surrounded by a seedy crowd of Hong Kong’s toughest gangbangers and Triad overlords. Despite having the potential to be throwaway archetypes covered in tattoos and aggressive attitudes, this rough bunch, good or bad, steadily carries the game along with Wei. Cutscenes are prevalent enough to characterize most of the cast from the Red Poles (local gang leaders) to the many street gang grunts and the sublime voice acting makes their screen time more engaging. Wei meets an array of allies and foes, but the game does a good job of focusing more on the ones that matter. This way the game can introduce a whole bunch of faces but can intelligently hone in on the ones that are more important to the story.
Weeding through the story can sometimes be the hard part. Sleeping Dogs has a simple premise, one consisting of taking down the gangs, but has a structure that doesn’t fit the package that it is in. To put it simply; it has an episodic structure, but it isn’t in an episodic game. Like some sandbox titles, it has a bunch of peaks and valleys to properly sustain its longevity. It works in some “episodes,” but some missions don’t contribute to the overarching plot and can feel like a slight waste of time. Most games get compared to movies, while Sleeping Dogs would be akin to a television series. A structure such fits well enough, but has its flaws in a full, big-budget game.
Sleeping Dogs stands in line with other open world games and presents a similar array of gameplay mechanics. Driving is the easiest and most common way of travel, cover-based shooting helps when eradicating hoodlums, and hand-to-hand combat lets you deal with dudes when they run up in your grill; all of which are functional here. When considering its peers, each has differing levels of quality.
Shooting is the weakest pillar. Pulling a trigger doesn’t drag down the experience; it just isn’t very open or different. Wei can only holster one measly weapon and the opponents don’t have suitable AI outside of standing there and stupidly soaking up shells. Gliding smoothly over cover in slow motion and/or disarming a foe is novel and flashy, but it doesn’t suddenly make busting a cap that much more impressive. Shooting serves more as a method of breaking up the pace.
Driving is easily the most enjoyable gameplay element. Once you acclimate to driving on the wrong side of the road (YES IT’S THE WRONG SIDE), the buttery smooth steering wheel controls just like you’d want it to. Straddling the line between arcadey and somewhat realistic, Wei can pull some stunt driver-esque moves, but it’s all in the name of fun. Hopping from car isn’t something completely serious and aggressively ramming your car to the side looks silly but both are which are new ingredients added to the open world stew. Races benefit from the solid driving, making these side activities ones worthy of seeking out.
Hand-to-hand combat is… well, significantly more complicated. On a fundamental level, Wei can strike, counter, and grapple. Fighters will circle around Wei and wait for their moment to strike, using different weapons along with throwing in enemies with unique attributes (ones that can shake off grabs or power through your punches, for example). Combo attacks are also available once you’ve snatched the appropriate collectibles or leveled up, giving Wei more than the basic punching and kicking.
All of it sounds peachy on paper, but gaping holes appear in execution. Bruce Wayne was an obvious inspiration for Wei, but Sleeping Dogs lacks the subtleties that the Batted Man flawlessly executes. Rhythm is completely absent in Hong Kong’s arenas, meaning it can feel mashy and not nearly as free-flowing. Batman’s ability to seamlessly strike from one opponent to the next while maintaining a rhythmic combo are the finer details Sleeping Dogs just doesn’t have.
But on the whole, the brawling mechanics serve the game well. Breaking some chump’s arm and roundhouse kicking three of his buddies in a swift fashion is still honest fun. Like the shooting, these mechanics are fine; it’s just that other games that have solely focused on these systems outdo Sleeping Dogs at almost every turn. Still, it doesn’t rob the game entirely of good moments since both the shooting and brawling do just enough correctly.
Although usually lacking in original compositions, a soundtrack in an open world game can define the experience in a way that most other games can’t aspire to. Sleeping Dogs falls into that lucky category but doesn’t crumble under such pressure. A collection of unique radio stations accurately emanates a Hong Kong atmosphere through local music but also succeeds in mixing in a hair of American tunes to make the player feel at home. The “American” songs strike the right balance of familiar hits and unknown artists, but the real star is the Hong Kong music. I had no clue what was being said in every jam, but the catchy, atmospheric beats and foreign language felt so right while cruising.
Wei doesn’t kill hookers nor does he wield an almighty dildo bat, but he carves out his own niche in this immensely popular genre. Sleeping Dogs gets overshadowed in some areas but enough of its components come together in a key way, resulting in a package that fits the oft-said description, “greater than the sum of its parts.” United Front Games may not have delivered any adorable puppies, instead giving us a kick-ass game worthy of a look. I guess that’s a fair trade.
An actual sleeping puppy:
+Plenty of differing gameplay mechanics from brawling to driving to gunplay
+Great soundtrack that has a healthy blend of foreign and American music
+Engaging story with fantastic acting
A dog that shits on the carpet:
-Story can hit lulls too often
-Although shooting and brawling have their bright spots, they don’t come close to the best