Sleeping Dogs takes so many ideas from so many different games and executes them all perfectly.
When playing Sleeping Dogs, one could be forgiven for thinking the game doesn’t have a single original idea in its head. The melee combat is taken from the recent ‘Arkham’ series of Batman games, there’s a free-running aspect from Assassin’s Creed, the gunplay has a bullet-time mechanic that feels very Max Payne-esque, sound effects are lifted wholesale from Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and the story is the ‘thug climbs the organized crime ladder’ tale from every crime story ever made. However, Sleeping Dogs not only perfects these mechanics, but also has a few clever ideas of its own that makes the whole package markedly better than it has any right to be.
Perhaps I oversimplified the story a bit. There certainly are elements of the usual crime story to be found here, but everything is not as it seems. The street thug of the day, Wei Shen, is actually a Chinese-American undercover police officer called back to his childhood home in Hong Kong to infiltrate the Sun On Yee: the triad that got his late sister hooked on drugs. Luckily for the HKPD, several of Shen’s childhood friends are now members of the triad in question, which gives him an easy point of entry.
From there, Shen has to balance his true identity as a police officer against the ideals of loyalty and brotherhood the Sun On Yee preaches. As Shen found himself getting more and more attached to his fellow gangsters, I found myself feeling the same way. There were times when I totally forgot I was a cop at all; sometimes the characters are just that interesting.
The overarching theme of conflicting loyalty in Sleeping Dogs manifests in gameplay as two different experience bars with corresponding upgrade trees. You start each mission with a full Cop experience bar, which goes down if you hit things with your car, injure civilians, or stumble during free-running. The Triad experience bar, on the other hand, starts at 0 and goes up whenever you kill an enemy, counter an attack, damage an enemy vehicle, land a headshot, perform an environmental kill, or use a special late-game counter move.
Finishing a mission with a full Cop experience bar is nearly impossible, since you’ll be hitting a lot of things in one of the many car chases to be found in Sleeping Dogs. But you still get a reasonable amount of experience either way, and you’ll quickly find an upgrade tree that suits your playstyle.
When it comes to the particulars of Sleeping Dogs’ plot, it’s better to look at the trees instead of the forest. A late-game mission where break into a high-ranking gangster’s house in order to convince him ghosts are messing with his Feng Shui sounds fantastic (and it is), but how it fits into the overall story is kind of silly. It’s all a tangled-up mess of double crosses, gambits, and scheming that won’t make a lot of sense until you see the final batch of post-gameplay cutscenes. The story is at its most interesting when you’re just spending time with the characters.
That isn’t to say the individual story missions are bad. When it comes to gameplay, you’re going to see a bit of repetition, but the dressing is usually quite entertaining. Side missions tend to be a little more light-hearted, whereas the main game has you engaging in shootouts with murderous catering staff, racing against time to save a fellow gang member from a premature burial, or kidnapping a rival and bringing him to an old Chinese woman so she can interrogate him with a meat cleaver.
At times, it seems like mowing down pedestrians in a chicken cart goes against the story, but it was never an issue for me. It’s an option and nothing more. If you want to create that dissonance, that’s entirely up to you.
I mentioned some repetition, but it’s really not a bad thing at all, since the gameplay itself is solid at worst. The tried-and-true ‘Arkham’ combat system works here, as it did in those games, and is elevated with the addition of satisfyingly brutal environmental takedowns. Driving around Hong Kong is fun, when you’re not on a mission and trying to get a full Cop experience bar, and there are plenty of sick ramps and street races to keep the driving enthusiast happy. That isn’t to say the driving is perfect. There were moments where I hopped on a motorcycle to chase an enemy, but by the time Shen had revved the bike up and put on his little helmet, aforementioned enemy had already escaped. Sometimes the animations get in the way of the driving, although that luckily isn’t the case with the combat.
The gunplay, however, is my favorite part of playing Sleeping Dogs. See, vaulting over cover results in a bullet time mechanic, and there are very few things I enjoy more than taking out an entire room of thugs with one bullet apiece in slow motion. It’s not a good idea to try playing the entire game like that, because sometimes there isn’t another piece of cover to hide behind, and you’ll need that once the slow-mo wears off. You won’t do any shooting outside of missions though, since guns are scarce in Hong Kong. The only way to get one is to steal a pistol from a beat cop, but you won’t stay alive for very long after assaulting an officer of the law.
As a result, the side activities in the sandbox have you doing a bunch of other things; most of which end up with either a car chase or a fistfight. Like the story missions, the dressing is what makes the side missions so interesting. If you don’t feel like doing the structured missions, there are collectibles (that can either give you money or increase your health), races, karaoke, and just random things you can do in the world that the game keeps track of then ranks you against your friends. I want to go back to Sleeping Dogs’ open world when I have the time, but I’m sure there are many players who would disagree. Special mention, however, must be given to the incredibly dull ‘girlfriend’ missions. If the idea that Shen is sleeping with attractive Chinese women is enough for you or you want to hear Emma Stone in a video game for about ten minutes, then by all means hunt them down. In the game’s defense, they’re not terrible and they’re never forced upon you, but my God are they boring.
I imagine designing Sleeping Dogs involved a lot of copy and paste, but I can’t hold that against it. Everything done here is done so well for the most part that it’s hard for me to imagine the game doing anything else. There are some minor issues with the story and open world mayhem clashing at times, but that’s up to the player. Sleeping Dogs is still a fantastic game that is easily worth your time and money.
(Version reviewed: Xbox 360)