Sleeping Dogs is a project that almost didn’t see the light of day. The project was seen as an attempt to emulate and even eclipse the Open-World style sandbox crime game scene which is dominated by Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row respectively, but with some novel twists to the formula. Apparently these twists gave publisher Square Enix enough stress to consider pulling the plug and leave the game unfinished and unplayed by the masses. But they didn’t. The game is out. But does it impress?
You play as Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has been charged by the Hong Kong Police Department with the monumental task of infiltrating the Triad group, the Sun On Yee. However, a dark secret involving his family causes Wei to have a personal vendetta against the gangsters and cold-blooded killers, more than enough to forget his duty and dish out personal justice. As Wei ascends higher and higher throughout the ranks, he must remember his loyalty to the badge without blowing his cover, or become another one of the Sun On Yee’s victims.
The story of Sleeping Dogs is, believe it or not, the biggest draw of the whole experience. The encounters spent with the gangster characters are dark, brutal, and occasionally border on the unpleasant. The sequences with the police handlers are intense, morally gray, and help gauge the severity of psychological duress that Wei Shen has undergone. But, most importantly, the story remembers juxtaposition. The tone manages to go between the sweet poignant levity of helping a tourist find her way around town, and the horrible viscera of watching a lady with a meat cleaver chop someone who wronged her into gooey chunks. The pacing of all of this manages to, without a single dip, keep the constant terror of Wei’s cover being blown without it becoming overbearing or bleak, humanizes the characters but not in a melodramatic way, and keeps the narrative taut.
The gameplay also helps reinforce this narrative focus. Every mission in the game’s sandbox of Hong Kong merits a dual experience bar system. The Triad bar increases whenever you are particularly brutal against your enemies. Shooting them in the head, running their car off the road, breaking a big guy’s leg in front of his buddies, etc. all raise the Triad bar. Alternatively, there is the Cop bar, which represents Wei Shen’s loyalty to the badge in gameplay form. You gain experience by doing Police specific side-missions, but lose from a set amount during a regular mission if you cause property damage, steal a few too many cars, or just flat out murder innocent bystanders. Driving on a sidewalk to head off a guy you’re supposed to take out might be easier, but try explaining away having to run over ten pedestrians to do so when you’re supposed to be working towards the greater good. Also, this system causes plenty of qualms when it comes to gunmen using human shields. Both experience bars fill out upgradable skill trees which range from increased damage resistance to being able to steal cars quicker, both of which have their practical uses. This system is a cunning piece of narrative through gameplay that helps link the player to Wei Shen all the way to the end credits.
Thankfully, Scorcese-esque suspense isn’t the only thing holding Sleeping Dogs together. The world map is huge with a lot to do. You can attend cockfights, go to karaoke bars, steal cars, street race, plant bugs and surveillance equipment to help the police bust drug dealers, and even do favors to help increase your reputation with a novel “Face” bar that determines whether or not you can “pull off” certain articles of clothing or access certain perks like having a car delivery guy on speed dial.
If you’re looking for exciting gunfights, don’t bother with Sleeping Dogs. The combat gameplay is more in line with a John Woo kung fu movie. More often than not, you will be fighting several thugs at once with powerful punches, kicks, throws, and occasionally slamming their teeth into a guard rail. The gameplay here is quite gratifying. Grinding a man’s face off with fan blades, disarming a second guy with a knife by snapping his arm, and throwing a third guy into a dumpster just feels more satisfying than hiding behind cover and occasionally shooting at thugs.
It is unfortunate that whenever Sleeping Dogs does throw gunplay into the mix, it is underwhelming bland and uninspired. The set-pieces to justify the shootouts are well staged but the actual gameplay is a chore of shooting enemies with little challenge with a mix of bullet-time and parkour-style navigation that any veteran player will easily forget.
Sleeping Dogs is a reliable graphical experience. The character models are animated well and the framerate is solid. There are some areas where weird hiccups will happen. One example is in a cut-scene where Wei was talking to another character as a bus drove right into him and stopped flat like it hit a brick wall with no attention paid whatsoever. Also, there are some odd moments where the lighting is just a little bit off and loading screens being a little too long.
Sleeping Dogs has an all-star cast of voice actors who all bring their best. The talents of Tom Wilkinson, Robin Shou, Lucy Liu, James Hong, and Emma Stone are all on hand and are consistently great with their performances. The use of music is an atmospheric mix of orchestral, C-Pop, Europop, and various Metal, Rock, and Techno radio stations which helps give the game a certain exotic quality.
Sleeping Dogs is an interesting experimental take on a sandbox crime game. Its novelties are handled well, the story is well told, and the mix of open-world exploration with hand-to-hand martial arts combat is a mix that helps it stand out from other series like it. The main story has a solid eight or so hours behind it, and there is a Replay Chapter mode if you want to relive certain parts again. While there is no Multiplayer, there is a detached Social Hub for you and friends to compare scores in various areas. The experience as a whole is a bit rough around the edges in minor areas, especially once the third act rolls around which lends credit to the project’s troubled production. But, there is more good than bad to be found past all of that.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t a perfect evolution of the sandbox crime game, but it has a lot of uniqueness to offer. If you’re looking for something a bit different, there is plenty on display here. Come for the mini-games and Hong Kong location, stay for the gritty cop drama and kung fu.
AAG Score: 8.5/10
+ Well-Told Narrative
+ Great Voice Performances
+ Cathartic Kung Fu Gameplay
- Graphical Hiccups
- Shoehorned Gunplay
- Feels Unpolished at Times
Written and Reviewed by Tyler Chancey