It doesn’t matter where you go in the world, one cityscape is very much like another. Sure, each has their landmarks and the natural differences due to the local culture and colour, but each is home to business and residential areas; dingy alleys and lurid, neon-lit strips. The recreation of Hong Kong to be found in United Front Games’ recent Sleeping Dogs is no exception to this but the team has focussed on scope rather than scale, providing a playground that can easily be counted among the best contemporary open-world settings of recent times.
The map is divided into four segments with each representing a different district of the real city. Each of these areas feels distinct from the others adding a kind of natural diversity to the experience, even if you are usually completing very similar objectives time and again. This being said, although the environment is rife with inspired architectural cues and a certain spark of liveliness, one doesn’t really get the feeling that this is replicating a different culture as you walk or drive around. Yes, many signs are in Cantonese (or so I choose to believe considering I don’t know the language) and the random pedestrians on the street occasionally do bust out in the chirpy language, but it still doesn’t feel as though the divide has been emphasised enough. Maybe it is simply that the uniformity of cities worldwide fails to create the same sense of uniqueness that a more rural area would. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t take anything away from the fact that this world, and the game as a whole, is immersive enough to offer players a suspension of reality.
Or perhaps a better phrase would be an approximation of a different reality. Following in the vein of other open-world games, Sleeping Dogs leaves you free to wander about its city at will, partaking in a number of different activities. You can buy clothes and cars, gamble in various ways and happen across dynamic events outside of missions related to the main campaign, among other diversions. Impressively, these opportunities of side entertainment are, for the most part, fun enough and give you the feeling that they provide some sense of progression. In keeping with this nature of extraneous content, you are introduced to a couple of romantic interests who introduce you to further deviations from the core gameplay, but seem to serve little more purpose than this. After their initial introductions, and no more than a couple of ‘dates’ organised via your mobile phone their existence is forgotten, leaving one with the impression that either that their inclusion was an afterthought or that the developers ran out of time to flesh out the experience further. You do gain other contacts as you progress that also grant you the opportunity to pick up extra cash and lengthen the game, but it starts to feel samey after a while.
No matter the merits of them, these activities are only digressions. The meat and potatoes of the game is firmly entrenched in the campaign and it is very clearly here that the most effort has been expended to provide an experience that is always fun and engaging enough to keep you invested in the ongoing narrative. On the gameplay front, Sleeping Dogs sticks closely enough to the protocols that have driven similar games for years. You travel from a base of operations to a mission marker, watch a cutscene and go on to complete one or more objectives to unlock the next part of the story. These missions are based primarily around committing violent acts, but the game tempers this somewhat thanks to the inclusion of three different XP bars that grant you different bonuses. Triad XP is earned by taking out your opponents in inventive ways, hijacking vehicles and basically proving your combat effectiveness. Police XP is actually lost by committing felonious acts, such as causing property damage and injuring civilians. With these different forms of experience providing different bonuses as you gain them it does behove you to find a balance between them, though this is rarely as simple as it might seem. The third kind of experience is Face, which is most easily increased by completing side missions and unlocks an entirely different set of passive skills.
Despite the fact that violence is rife throughout the campaign, surprisingly much of it goes by without giving you a firearm. Instead, it relies on the melee combat system, which is a strong inclusion. A single button is used for direct strikes, while holding it in allows a heavier attack that varies its effect depending on where in the combo chain you elect to use it. Besides this, you have the ability to grapple enemies or counter their strikes with QTEs being used on the occasions that you are grabbed. It all works very well, bringing back memories of Rocksteady’s Arkham series. When you finally do get your hands on a gun it can be difficult to acclimatise. I’m not really sure of why this is. It could be because you’ve spent the last dozen hours without even thinking about that kind of weapon, the somewhat loose aiming reticule or a slightly askew controller configuration, but this discomfort is made up for by the inclusion of a form of bullet time. Making it easier to dispatch your foes, it is activated for a set period of time after leaping over a cover object though its duration can be extended. Many missions also feature a driving segment and it must be said that the vehicle handling in this game is sublime. Each vehicle possesses different traits, as is to be expected, and there is no other word to describe the feeling than excellent. They strike upon a near perfect balance of realism and arcade styling.
The missions themselves start out feeling by-the-numbers. Simple objectives carried out in a static environment, but things ramp up providing plenty of diversity and a wealth of spectacle. Light platforming elements are often fused with the on-foot gameplay (granted sense and context by the inclusion of a parkour-like traversal mechanic); shootouts take place in a variety of brilliantly crafted outdoor and indoor surrounds and vehicle chases are supplemented with magnificent set pieces of destruction. It is simply engrossing and the pacing is pitch-perfect, ensuring that the game feels fresh for the duration.
This eminent quality is backed up by a narrative that follows the trend of the game’s parent series, True Crime. You play as Wei Shen, a Chinese-American undercover agent in the Hong Kong Police Department that has made in-roads with the Sun On Yee Triad thanks to a childhood connection with one of the members that he ‘happens’ to cross paths with. You are quickly introduced to Winston Chu, the Red Pole of the faction that Shen enters into, and the key members of his crew. The narrative presents a duality with Shen struggling to keep his cover intact in the midst of an escalating turf war between Chu and his rivals as well as trying to maintain his grip on the job at hand as granted him by his superior officers. These two threads are woven together to create an invigorating dynamic that makes it easy to sympathise with Wei’s plight. Backing up the strength of it is the capability of the plot to make you feel a wide spectrum of emotions if you are invested enough. Another note is that I actually felt bad about going off-the-rails in the open world outside of missions. I’ve never had that happen before.
And that is not a difficult ask. The true charm of the game comes from a number of different areas. The characters all feel realistic with their multifaceted personalities, personal motivations and some truly great voice acting. Themes of brotherhood and family and the honesty and trust that naturally come with it form the cornerstones of what the game has to say; a refreshing change from the blandness of most other games when it comes to this aspect of storytelling. Tempering the brilliance somewhat is a plotline that frequently comes across as clichéd, and a small number of tonal inconsistencies, but the final word is that there is a very solid experience to be found here.
Unfortunately, the technical aspects of the production let it down a bit and betray United Front’s standing as a less established and less well budgeted studio than some others. Throwing this into sharpest relief is the visuals. I’ve already waxed lyrical about the design of the city but it must be admitted that some of the areas are difficult to navigate thanks to the sameness of your surrounds. The reuse of assets is understandable, however, in a game of this ilk as is a lower standard of graphical computation. It simply comes with the territory. Basically, there is nothing wrong with the quality as it stands but there is room for improvement. This same sentiment can be applied to nary every aspect of the image; the character models and lip-synching efforts, vehicles, particle effects; everything that matters.
Similarly, the in-vehicle radio, though following in the footsteps of Grand Theft Auto, features a soundtrack made up primarily of tunes that aren’t so much in the public consciousness. The team has gotten around this with a good amount of diversity, but these tracks just lack a certain excitement. Oh, but the choice to include a channel dedicated to classical music is inspired. What remains of the audio design also subscribes to a generally high standard.
Before rounding off, I just want to make a few further notes regarding the gameplay. First off is that the game enjoys a rather robust collectible list. Health shrines do what you might expect, expanding your health bar ten percent for every five that you find, with a total of fifty dotted around the map; Jade Statues allow you to upgrade your combat manoeuvres and learn new ones at Dojos and Lockboxes grant you cash, clothes and, occasionally, weapons. The latter of these sometimes come with a combination lock picking minigame that seems superfluous. I’ve never really been a fan of collectibles, but considering each of them grants bonuses, it certainly is worth getting them when you can here. In the same vein, you can purchase a variety of foods and drinks that grant you combat buffs. It’s only a small thing, but it helps.
All of that and there is even more to be discovered in Sleeping Dogs. It is home to a wealth of content that can keep completionists playing for a decent length of time. Even those that choose to ‘fire-and-forget’ can be drawn back to this game thanks to how brilliant its design is. It isn’t without shortcomings, but when you consider that this is a debut outing from a studio that hasn’t created a game like this before you realise that this is more than just a very strong game in its own right. Like the original Assassin’s Creed, this is a great foundation for a future franchise. I was expecting something good, but Sleeping Dogs managed to give me one hell of a surprise.
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 9/10
Gameplay/Design – 9/10
Visuals – 7.5/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting Appeal – 8.5/10