Review: Sleeping Dogs

Sleeping_Dogs_HangingOut

Before Sleeping Dogs was grabbed by Square Enix and taken off life support it was potentially just another notch in the True Crime franchise’s belt. Jettisoned by Activision and losing the series’ name (True Crime: Hong Kong to Sleeping Dogs) could have been the cloud’s silver lining.

It’s an engine block party!

Unburdened by the weight and pressure of living up to previous incarnations and expectations it now had the opportunity to stand and be counted on its own merits and let the mah-jong tiles fall where they may.

As a long time fan and advocate of Hong Kong cinema Sleeping Dogs has been on my radar for quite some time. This Frankenstein of a game incorporates vicious hand-to hand combat, a mostly solid parkour mechanic, fluid gunplay in an open sandbox and manages to find a neat balance between all three while adopting a more serious straightforward tone. You may have noticed I neglected to mention how the driving and racing stack up in the previous sentence. The less said on that front the better (but I will elaborate a little later in the piece).

You play undercover cop Wei Shen who returns to Hong Kong after many years overseas following the drug related death of his sister. Approached by the HKPD he is entreated to reconnect with his childhood buddies, now all Triad ‘associates’ and manipulate his friendships to take down the criminal organisation known as the Sun On Yee. The story isn’t going to win any accolades for originality. This type of plot is almost a HK cinema staple with variations seen in classic films the likes of A Better Tomorrow II, The Killer and the inspiration for The Departed, Infernal Affairs.

The tone and sheer brutality is a refreshing change of pace and befits the setting. I would have liked to have seen Wei Shen’s struggle get a little more depth as he is torn between remaining true to his law-enforcement ideals and the bonds on honour and loyalty formed with his criminal cohorts during his meteoric rise up the ranks. To discuss the plot any further would enter the realm of spoilers and a big part of the Sleeping Dogs experience are the jaw-dropping moments you never see coming.

This dichotomy breaks down the core mission structure as well. Main story missions earn you Triad XP, which you can use to upgrade your more violent tendencies. By the same token, Cop missions such as solving major cases or clearing out a seedy alley of scum, hacking security cameras and making drug busts earn you XP to upgrade your ability to protect and serve. Then there are favours you do for the locals to increase your ‘face’ or respect rank garnering passive bonuses, a stable of ladies to woo and seduce (no pun intended), hidden briefcases filled with cash to discover and prayer shrines offering a permanent health boost as you become more in tune with the universe.

There’s plenty to see and do in Hong Kong and the best way to suck the meat out of the chicken feet of Sleeping Dogs is to comprehensively work your way through both the main story and side missions simultaneously. Take your time and smell the rose blossoms. Why not take in the sights and give karaoke a whirl, bet on a cockfight, hit an offshore gambling den or unleash your fists of fury at a martial arts club? It’s all on the menu and a great way to build up your face ranking.

What about the combat, you say? It’s bone-shatteringly, face-smashingly, hospitalisingly awesome. You begin with a ho-hum level of kickarsedness, but diligent training at your dojo and uncovering the hidden jade statues long lost to your master unlocks more brutal finishing moves, counters and combinations. UFC poster-boy Georges St-Pierre added his expertise to the flow of the hand-to-hand component and threw in a dash of Steven Seagal limb snapping for good measure. The end result is sure to make you wince.

I’m talking about elbows to the temple, caving in kneecaps and forearm snaps and that’s only the beginning. Pick up a cleaver, kitchen knife or crowbar and eviscerate the competition or if you’d prefer utilise your surroundings. Environmental finishers open up once you grapple (as well as a brutal ground and pound) and they have to be seen to be believed. Mash faces into fan blades, fire them up in a kiln, carve them limb from limb with a band saw or toss them into a fuse box and watch the electric boogaloo. It’s all about context and the opportunities are always there. This coupled with your free-running abilities make for some silky smooth unarmed moves.

Once you’re locked and loaded it’s all about bullet time. On foot it’s pretty much your stock-standard third person shooter until you slide your arse across cover. Momentarily you’ll slip into slow motion which can be extended with subsequent headshots allowing for some crazy chaining opportunities as you become the star of your very own John Woo styled bullet ballet. A bit more of a fluid transition between the martial arts elements and firearms could have really paid off big time. Each works rather well on its own, but a combination of the two allowing you to seamlessly incorporate both styles into combat would have been an absolute game changer.

While the majority of the gameplay is rock solid and the plot worthy of any Golden Harvest production the biggest letdown by far is the vehicle handling. While on water the sway and drag compensate decently enough, but the same attention to detail is sorely lacking on the asphalt. Cars and motorbikes either move so slowly you could overtake them with a rickshaw or so god damned fast you almost take flight.

The balancing is so incredibly off it’s mind-blowing and if you take into account members from the Need For Speed franchise were brought on board to focus predominantly on these mechanics alone you can’t help but wonder what were they were thinking. This is only compounded by the insane rubber banding during any of the race events you participate in.

Regardless of the make and class of car most races end one of two ways. You are either so far ahead it’s laughable or so far behind there’s almost no possible way to catch up. On several occasions I witnessed a pack of five cars literally take each other out of contention and wait for me to overtake for the win, which is downright ridiculous and tainted an otherwise engrossing experience. The only saving grace is the gunplay behind the wheel. Here the faults are far less noticeable as you focus on shooting out tyres in slow motion and sending the never-ending hordes of pursuers to explosive fiery death time and time again.

Sleeping Dogs may be a little rough around the edges but those who delve deeper will find it truly rewarding. Brimming with humour we’ve all come to expect from such styled sandbox games these are mostly used to offset the more serious events that shape Wei Shen’s journey. The characters feel fleshed out and not merely caricatures, the fisticuffs are unbelievably addictive on par with Batman: Arkham City and the deep voice over talent is surprising, boasting the likes of Will Yun Lee, Tom Wilkinson, Lucy Liu, Kelly Hu, Emma Stone and the magnificent James Hong (for more on the voice actors check out Josh’s exceptionally in depth break down here). Not quite Grand Theft Auto or as left field as Saint’s Row, Sleeping Dogs walks its own path and I’ll be praying to Buddha it gets a sequel so United Front can truly show us what it’s made of.

8.5/10

What the fuck do you mean John Woo’s not interested in directing?

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Dave Kozicki

Shotgun Samurai
Video game reviewer, presenter and enthusiast. Film and TV-aholic. Pop culture geek. T-shirt and sneaker addict. All around nice guy and one hell of a sexy beast. Writer for Official PlayStation Magazine AU, AusGamers and Hyper Magazine.
  • The Chad

    Which of the three platforms do you think would provide a better experience? Is there anything better when playing on consoles or should I just get it on PC for the pretties?

  • kozeeii

    I’ve only played review code thus far. I’d say either get it on console and install it for a smoother experience or wait till tomorrow as Josh will be breaking it down on PC.

  • The Chad

    I have to wait until I get paid (this thursday) before I can get it anyway. I’ll check out Josh’s thing before I purchase.