Sleeping Dogs review
The true crime is this game excelling in most areas and being mediocre in others
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix
What was once the third instalment in the True Crime series, Sleeping Dogs is like a breath of fresh air in the sea of banality that is the summer of 2012's video gaming line up. Even when that's not considered, Sleeping Dogs is a game that knows exactly what it wants and gives you what it knows you want - a compelling storyline and a host of things to do when you want a break from said story. Perhaps it won't set your world alight as at a cursory glance, the only truly special things about it are the parkour elements and the story, but it's easy to get engrossed in this game and see it as it is, which is a pretty damn good game marred by some ill conceived elements here and there.
You play as Wei Shen, a police officer who is sent deep undercover into a Triad gang known as the Sun On Yee. His objective is to take them down from the inside, though to do so, he must earn the trust and loyalty of the triad gang, least of all his childhood friend and lackey of the Triad, Jackie; and its feared leader Winston Chu. Over the course of the game, Wei earns their loyalty and gets closer to achieving his true objective, but the police superintendent Thomas Pendrew fears that he is becoming one of them. Given the way that the story's told, it would appear that he is getting closer to the Sun On Yee for real, as opposed for the express purpose of infiltration. Throughout the game, Wei will be conflicted by his decisions - he is against committing crimes and he is a police officer, yet he must instigate street brawls and essentially *bleep* shit up in order to gain the trust of the Sun On Yee. It especially hits home whenever Wei and any of his fellow officers interact with one another, and then the last third of the main story drives it further home with its plot twist. In essence, it's easy to get sucked into the overarching narrative.
But it's not just about the bigger story; it's also the little things that keeps the story compelling and emphasizes said bigger story. Due to the police officer and Triad member dynamic, what you do in the open world doesn't necessarily contradict the story. It's a tiny little detail, I know, but it's one worth acknowledging, especially when fellow sandbox games like Assassin's Creed throws story to the wind and just has you stabbing people. Meanwhile, whether you hijack cars and drive like a maniac or simply use cars that you've bought and try not to smash everything up is perfectly justified by the story. Shit like that can further immerse you into the game world. Then there are the arcs, which gives Wei and the rest of the cast room to develop their relationships with one another as well as their characters. By the end of each arc, you'll be leaving enriched by the experience and a little more in the know about Hong Kong (which is where the game takes place, by the way) and the world that the Triads live in.
Because of these elements, the sandbox gameplay works well with it. You'll be given a series of story missions, which will involve driving to a location and then running into rival Triad gangs which must be beaten up, shot down or rammed into, depending on the circumstances. Like any good sandbox game, the missions have context to the cutscene played to introduce it as well as the events that had unfolded prior to said mission. It's not just about beating up random gang members; you may need to chase down gang leaders, or investigate drug deals. You may even need to leave surveillance bugs so you can snoop around and get information without actually being there. Whatever sequence of events you do, you do because it makes sense in the context of the story. Unfortunately, because Wei is deep undercover, the police won't think that you are a fellow cop, so you may need to get away from the cops, either through getting out of their radius (as indicated on the minimap) or ramming into them until they stop... I, too, question how the latter works unless they all die in the cars before calling for backup. At any case, the missions do a wonderful job of showcasing what this game has to offer.
The best thing this game has to offer is its masterful hand to hand combat mechanics. Taking cues from the Arkham games, Wei has access to a number of punch and kick combos, grabbing attacks and counterattacks. All of these actions flow very well into one another, whether you're wailing on one enemy or you're changing targets, not to mention that counterattacks automatically counter an attacking assailant as long as you remember to press the button as you're about to get hit (they'll have a red outline around them to help you out). The smoothness is complimented by competent enemy AI – they'll know to attack, block or grab whenever necessary, depending on what type of enemy they are (generally speaking, the bigger they are, the more into grabbing they are). You'll therefore be required to utilize the options that you have – grabs, stronger attacks (hold down square and then release), different combos, environmental hazards (like fans and dumpsters) and even weapons if you can disarm somebody holding one; there are plenty of options without ever feeling overwhelming. Fights can be a bit easy once you've gotten the hang of combat, but everything that's put into this element of play compliments one another so finely, that it's easy to overlook that.
But the second you're given a gun, that's when it starts to show that maybe this game isn't quite perfect. The gun mechanics aren't horrible or anything, and the scenarios are also competent enough to work, but I don't know, after that masterfully done hand to hand combat, the shooting mechanics just feel sloppy by comparison. Aiming is sensitive, which means you'll need to move the right analogue stick in small increments if the target is nearby. There is a sort of auto aiming function... when you vault over cover and hold down the aiming button, it'll position itself towards the nearest enemy and if you press a direction on the stick, it may or may not automatically target the nearest enemy in that direction - it has a bad habit of either doing that or simply moving a bit to that direction. Oh, and time slows down around you when you perform a vaulting shot - I have no *bleep*ing clue how that works, but apparently, Wei is not only a kung fu prodigy, but also father goddamn time! This is supposed to aid you in nailing headshots, which will net you more Triad points than simply killing them (more on this later), but really, it's just a matter of compensating for less than stellar aiming controls. I'm not suggesting that it's horrible because shooting at least works and shootouts can still be intense and exciting, but the shooting just isn't as exciting nor as satisfying as a good old fashioned beatdown in this game.
After completing a mission, you'll be graded on how you cause chaos and also how you keep order in the city. Triad points are gained through creatively beating down your enemies, getting headshots and destroying their vechicles, while Police points are reduced through smashing property, smashing cars and killing civilians (not rival Triad members; just ordinary, everyday citizens). Once you gain enough to advance a level, you'll gain a skill. With Triad points, you'll learn some extra hand to hand combat skills as well as coping with failed attempts at kicking ass. With Police points, you'll gain better usage of firearms that'll make the shootout segments easier like longer slow motion time or faster disarming with less struggling. These actually give you incentive to replay the missions if you didn't do too well on them in order to get the most out of both categories, although I do think it's unnecessary to get all of them as you most likely won't get there before finishing the game anyway. Just... for tropies, I guess.
In order to make navigation around Hong Kong quicker and easier, there are cars that you can either buy from a dealer or steal from somebody that you can drive aroung with. Driving is a little tricky to get the hang of because car speeds range from a tortoise in a chronic state of bullettime to making Vanquish look like a tortoise in a chronic state of bullettime by comparison. However, due to the intense speed of your vehicle, the camera has an odd habit of shaking like somebody with Parkinson's, which can actually be a little annoying since you want it to stay straight. It's not too shaky, but it's noticeable and a bit of a pain.
Like any sandbox game, there are a wide range of side missions to participate in. Unfortunately, these are rather hit and miss in quality. Side missions involving street races, parkour and laying the beat down on gangsters are a lot of fun; anything involving "identifying" drug dealers and that broken ass karaoke minigame are complete shit. Starting with the bad stuff, when you're fancying yourself being a cop, you'll have to take down some gang members - sounds great so far, but then you'll be required to hack a security camera (via entering 4 unique digits from 0-9, with six tries to get it right), rush back home, watch surveillance footage and pick the guy the police badge eventually appears over... almost like a waste of time after a fun fight. The karaoke is what would happen if Guitar Hero was controlled by a controller - in essence, it sucks balls due to the tedium derived from holding the left analogue stick up or down (either all or part of the way) in correspondence with what's on the screen. The icing on the cake.. is that the karaoke is actually something that you're required to do as part of a main story mission... TWICE! Goddamn, they must've been proud of this one to make us do it twice! Not to mention the underdeveloped relationship aspect - okay, so apparently, a relationship consists of doing maybe two things for a girl and then completely forgetting all about them. Wow, maybe I should try this for my next relationship!
But no need to worry, as you can do fun stuff, too! Street races consist of racing five people through a section of the city, which really expresses how well designed the layout of the city is for driving. There are sections that are square in shape, some wavy roads and curves that can make for some intense races whilst having a basis in city structure, and some even involve going through back alleys which brings that much home. There may be some rubber banding AI in there, but it's not as bad as it could've been so... take what you can get. You also have Fight Clubs, where you simply beat up six sets of enemies for a few bucks. There are a series of favors you can do, which involves some parkour (it basically amounts to pressing the X button whilst running up to something you can jump/climb/vault over to chase someone down or show off for some kids), some driving to escape from the cops (you'll need to get out of their radius as shown on the minimap either through some tricky manuevering or just ramming cop cars until they're too damaged to keep going), fighting or racing. WIth all that in consideration, there are at least half that are worth it for more than just the rewards, so it doesn't just feel like a waste of time.
Sleeping Dogs does, for the most part, look brilliant. I've noticed some parts during cutscenes where models have sluggish and jerky movements, and there are a fair amount of blurry textures in the background visuals (blurrier than they ought to be in some cases – there's a difference between keeping the background out of focus, and simply having a blurry background). Beyond those however, you have some rather neat graphics. The city is big and expansive, yet there isn't much in the way of pop up or slowdown, and the field of view seems to be high enough when given the design of the city as objects appear in front of you, even a fair distance away. When there's focus on something, the textures are detailed enough to almost look lifelike. The lighting is also excellent. Not quite at Alan Wake's level, but the shadows are in the right place and the incandescent lights in the city make your stroll/jog/drive through Hong Kong feel more authentic. In tandem with the sort of maze-like design of the city with there being so many buildings, it's a lot like you ARE in Hong Kong! The most impressive thing about this game, though, are the in-game animations, especially what you see in combat. As it flows like a river, it really gives you a sense of movement, as well as satisfaction after delivering or receiving a beatdown, or even doing some parkour. With that much flow, it's just... wow. They're not quite perfect, but they're pretty damn impressive.
The sound design is... well, it's rather hit and miss. On one end, you have the soundtrack, which is part typical modern video game orchestral fare that does at least inspire epicness and drama, and part licensed songs that are on car radios. The licensed songs are of surprisingly poor quality as the production sounds rather muddy, like it was downloaded off of the internet at 128kbps. Not to mention that most of the songs are... okay. There are a handful of songs that I really enjoy such as Deep Purple's “Fireball”, Queen's “Dragon Attack” and Black Stone Cherry's “Changes”, and at least each radio station have their own varieties of music. However, a lot of the songs just lay in the background and never really stand out as anything more then “eh, it sounds alright, I guess it pumps up my street racing experience”. The original soundtrack isn't a whole lot differe as it's not really melodic or anything, but it does a decent enough job of conveying just the right emotions, so it's not all bad. On the other side of the fence is the voice acting, and holy shit, it's really good! The amount of conviction coming from each actor and actress is enough to really draw you in. It's a lot like watching a movie as these people never miss a beat. The accents are also authentic, never degenerating into typical Asian stereotypes, although given that the actors are Asian, that's no surprise. I suppose you could say that this should be encouraged more often to avoid stereotyping... if it's possible to make such arrangements, of course. Either way, this has some of the finest voice acting in this generation, and it really shows that video games can make a legitimate attempt at matching movies in terms of story-related immersion.
When it comes to video games, good stories tend to either result in what essentially amount to interactive movies, or games with mediocre gameplay. I'm happy to report, however, that Sleeping Dogs doesn't fall into either category. A few mechanics aren't quite as good as they could've been, but what this game does right, it *bleep*ing does right! The hand to hand combat engine is especially a wonder to behold – I'm aware that it's already been used in the Batman games and that piece of shit Spiderman game based off of that piece of shit (and 100% unnecessary) movie reboot, but United Front's interpretation of it is one that's rather addicting and a lot of fun to utilize. In fact, if this game does anything gameplay related quite right, it's that while it takes elements of other games, it makes them into its own thing. Originality is nice to see, but if you can refine or at least make other peoples' ideas into your own and kick ass whilst doing so, then you're awesome.
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