Review:- Sleeping Dogs

Game: Sleeping Dogs
Format: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Developer: United Front Games
Publisher: Square Enix

Sleeping Dogs emerges from a publicly troubled development period that might have given us cause to expect a dud. Originally announced as a new entry in the little-loved True Crime series, the game was dropped by its original publisher Activision, who bluntly stated that it “wasn’t good enough.” Swiftly picked up and re-titled by Square-Enix, we can now find out for ourselves whether or not no-one’s favourite games company was right.
No, they were totally wrong.

Sleeping Dogs is not an ambitious game. It seems to have no intention of re-inventing the open-world action/crime genre. Instead, like many of its characters, it is content to be a brazen-yet-loveable thief. Thirty hours spent exploring the game’s atmospheric and beguiling recreation of Hong Kong reveals not a single idea or mechanic that could honestly be called new. Instead, United Front have taken ideas they clearly enjoyed in other games and bolted them to the chassis of Grand Theft Auto.

Arkham Asylum’s flowing, counter-based combat system is here, along with a scaled down version of Assassin’s Creed’s parkour, Max Payne’s shooting and even a dynamic “action hijack” system that calls to mind early PSP action game Pursuit Force. That all of these elements work together as well as they do is in no small part thanks to the clarity  with which United Front have approached their main theme: homaging Hong Kong action cinema of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Sleeping Dogs’ combat system never ever gets boring

The main character Wei Shen is an undercover cop infiltrating the Sun On Yee (an blatant reference to the real Sun Yee On triad organisation – they don’t even change the Chinese characters used to write it) with the aim of tearing it down from the inside. What follows is a tour of most of the iconic moments from Triad cinema, from a shootout in a hospital to machinegun duels in speedboats. There’s no big action set-piece in a gambling den or an abandoned church, nor any sniping during the Dragon Boat race, but something has to be put aside for a sequel. It’s done well and with affection, though the whole thing never coheres into anything that feels properly Chinese, as becomes suddenly apparent if you play it immediately after watching any of the films it references.

There’s fairly little Chinese dialogue in the game and almost all of the featured characters are voiced by Asian-American actors, while most of the music on the radio is Western in origin. Perhaps it might have felt in danger of seeming more like a game set in San Francisco if it weren’t for the game’s excellent evocation of the city itself. It’s a hypnotic mass of neon and glass with narrow roads winding up steep mountainsides and cluttered shanties clinging to the edge of the dilapidated dockside. It’s packed sense of ramshackle modernisation and ill-planned verticality combines with excellent ambient audio to enable immersion into the fiction. It never quite achieves the sense of dynamic, organic life that Rockstar have somehow conjured with their two big open-world titles so far this generation, but it is still something of a masterclass in creating a city environment that is persuasive and entertaining to interact with.

Vehicle handling is a bit light and imprecise, but competent enough

Each new mission is a pleasure that builds upon the last, with each new skill unlocked adding to the possibilities for tactical play and the potential for sheer fun. My personal favourites were the limb-breaking grapples that cause all surrounding enemies to panic and run away, and the special counter, unlocked near the end of the game, that leads into a furious Bruce Lee-style torso-pummelling.

Environments are also littered with interactive elements that can be used to murder people who particularly irritate you (shoving someone’s face into a stove then watching as they run around shrieking with their head on fire never gets boring). Vehicle handling is not what it could have been, being somewhat twitchy and lacking in weight, but it rarely causes any major problems that can’t be fixed by simply buying a better car.

Review Round-Up

Graphics: 3/5 - Not a standout in most respects, with some dodgy textures and frequently slightly stiff animations. From a design standpoint, however, it does a lot right.

Sound: 4/5 - Voice-acting is of an excellent quality throughout, with Will Yun Lee giving a masterful performance as main character Wei Shen – he is charming and likeable in a relaxed way while still retaining a slight edge, a hint of internal conflict and mania that occasionally bursts through to the surface to great effect. the ambient audio in the streets is also excellent, helping to create the impression of a busy, bustling metropolis even when that is clearly not exactly what is on screen (road and pedestrian traffic can be a little sparse, especially compared to the snarling hell that is the real streets of Hong Kong).

Gameplay: 4/5 - A talented thief, Sleeping Dogs pinches every single one of its ideas and uses them to great effect. The occasional frustrating glitch notwithstanding, this is a game that knows never to allow any one element to outstay its welcome, with missions gamely mixing up car chases, foot-chases, hand-to-hand brawls, and slo-mo gunfighting.

Longevity: 3/5 - It’s possible to see everything the game has to offer in around thirty hours. Side-distractions include the now-obligatory hunts for collectibles, car-stealing and debt-collecting jobs, back-alley fight clubs, street-races and, best of all, karaoke featuring A Flock of Seagulls, Cyndi Lauper and Robert Palmer. All mission are re-playable from the game’s Social Hub score-tracking menu, in case you want to go back and try to perfect detonating that massive petrol tanker while soaring through the air on a somersaulting, flaming motorcycle.

Overall: 4 out of 5

There is not much here you haven’t seen somewhere before, but you’ve probably never seen it all in one place, nor done with quite this level of grinning, joyful self-assurance. This is a game that marries a desire for weighty narrative with an understanding of the value of simple, lunatic messing around. Its best moments, which are many, bring to mind a sort of breathless fusion of Infernal Affairs and Saints Row, with more kung-fu. It pushes at no boundaries, but is blissfully happy to hop up on top of them and do a happy dance instead. That’s something of a rarity these days, and more than enough reason to be thankful that Square-Enix didn’t just let sleeping dogs lie.

- Elliot Mears

Fri, August 24 2012 » PC/Mac, PS3, Reviews, Xbox 360

3 Responses

  1. Barry August 24 2012 @ 10:08 am

    I got this yesterday. havent played it yet but Im really looking forward to it

  2. ChronoJoe August 24 2012 @ 1:31 pm

    Nice review.

    Btw caught a typo at the end. ‘Quit ethis’ jumbled the two words together. This would actually pick up on a spell check, I recommend using one before posting reviews.

    Good, well written review that aside though. Enjoyed it. :)

  3. Mightyles August 24 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    They’ll have to fire the proof reader! :)

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