We wake a Sleeping Dog, and discover a slick, gritty title that every PC gamer should try out.
By Tim Colwill on August 15, 2012 at 3:35 pm
For a title which has been bounced between multiple different publishers, re-named, re-branded, dropped like an over-budget hot potato and then picked up again, you’d expect Sleeping Dogs to be a bit, well, messy. It’s all too easy for the creative vision of a game to become scattered in multiple directions, or for poor code to creep in as a result of too many cooks furiously trying to spoil the broth.
Against all odds – and perhaps, in spite of them – Sleeping Dogs is none of these messy, broken things. Sleeping Dogs is a tight, beautifully executed experience that neatly blends open-world kung-fu action, dark criminal drama and just the right touch of sandbox tomfoolery into a package that Square Enix are either very lucky (or very canny) to have grabbed when they did.
Sleeping Dogs puts you in the shoes of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong trying to infiltrate the triads who run the town – forced to commit criminal acts to keep his cover intact, but always trying to keep sight of who he is underneath. It’s a tried and true storyline and developers United Front play it to perfection, with some magnificent voice acting, incessantly gratuitous swearing and some truly gruesome cut scenes. There’s some unfortunate stiffness in the animations which can make some of the more emotional moments a bit surreal, but like any good story a bit of suspension of disbelief on your part goes a long way to making it work.
The city of Hong Kong itself is massive and has four key districts, each of which looks somewhat similar at first but will eventually come to take on a life of their own as you scream through them at hilariously illegal speeds. This is probably where suspension of disbelief is required the most: your triad bros will initially harass you about how you’re probably an undercover cop because they haven’t seen you kill anyone, yet on any given drive across the city I’ll fatally run over 6-12 pedestrians, total four cars and show up for the mission in my boxer shorts by rolling out of a burning car as it careens down the street and explodes (killing yet more pedestrians).
Mechanically, the game takes this sort of anarchic nonsense into account: you score Cop Points or Triad Points depending on the level of legality you choose to exercise before, during and after your missions, and although this affects how quickly you level up in the respective skill trees, it has little to no bearing on the story besides whether or not you appear in a cutscene with gigantic burn marks across your torso. There’s a third score tracked as well called ‘Face’, which is essentially your reputation around town and affects what clothing brands you can pull off in public as well as the way some enemies will treat you.
Face is increased by doing favours for people and running errands and, in true open-world world fashion, every second person wants you to help them out with something. I sort of gave up after a dozen or so random errands to focus on an increasingly gripping storyline, but there’s a delightful variety in these favours and completionists will certainly be sinking more than a few hours into finding and finishing them all.
At any given time Wei Shen might have one or more available missions which he can access from his phone, pulling him in different directions between the cops and the triads. The missions can range from the high-octane adrenaline festival of smashing through a drug warehouse to something as simple as taking your boss’s wife shopping for her wedding dress or singing karaoke with a nice girl at a local club, and it’s this dichotomy of banal personal interaction with gang violence that makes Sleeping Dogs such a delightful experience.
Unfortunately this is also an area in which United Front drops the ball a little: although most of the story missions are tightly scripted and well-voiced, Wei Shen’s romantic interactions with the ladies of Hong Kong are littered with teeth-clenchingly awful dialogue and a depressing predictability that is in stark contrast to a dark, brutal and well-written main storyline. Save points also suffer from a bit of inconsistency, and saving after you’ve completed a stage of a mission will often be interpreted as “start the whole mission from scratch again when you reload”. Fortunately for the most part, checkpoints within the mission are pleasantly frequent.
It’ll be hours into the game before you even get your first gun, and so mastering the art of unarmed combat is essential. Sleeping Dogs borrows heavily from games like Batman: Arkham City, and features the same slick brutality that made combat in that game such a joy. The use of environmental effects in combat is superb: grappling an enemy highlights nearby objects around that you can use on them, from shoving their head into a ventilation fan, tossing them bodily into a dumpster or just kicking them hard into a phone booth and watching change fall out, combat is a gloriously over-the top affair that will make any kung-fu movie fan grin from ear to ear.
Once you do get a gun however, to its credit, Sleeping Dogs managed to avoid losing its way. Vaulting over cover into armed enemies give you a sweet slow-motion disarm, or if you yourself are armed, the chance to do a sweet John Woo-style bullet-time event. In fact even when guns enter the game it still feels like unarmed combat is the way to go, and it’s certainly the area that United Front have put the most love into. It can be a bit easy from time to time as enemies flash violently red when they’re about to attack, making counters and follow-up combos almost criminally easy even against grappling enemies or ones armed with knives – but with the wide variety of options available for breaking necks and cashing cheques, you probably won’t care.
Here’s some footage from my recent Hong Kong holiday. Download it in HD from our file library.
Naturally, Sleeping Dogs allows you to take your violence to the streets as well, and you’ll be spending a lot of time cruising them (on the left hand side, finally). The car handling is heavily towards the arcade end of the spectrum, which fits perfectly in with the nature of the game and allows you to pull off some mad stunts without having to worry too hard about the specifics. You can use your car to ram other cars off the road with the push of a button, leap out of it onto the roof of a nearby car for an ‘action hijack’, pop your head out the window and spray other cars full of bullets, or even just open your driver door as you go past to smash some poor pedestrian into a paste. In a delightful twist, many missions require you to drive normally and obey the road rules to stay undercover, which is surprisingly difficult to do. Pro tip: don’t lean on the horn.
The driving sections do have their down sides: camera control in the car scenes is frankly bewildering, and any attempt to adjust the camera will be met with it fighting against you and swinging around to whatever direction it thinks is best. If you just leave the camera alone it’ll generally do an excellent job of things, but trying to sweep it around as you drive will just result in crashes, and – unlike Saints Row – you probably won’t survive. Car physics can also be a bit glitchy, with my car once or twice rocketing into the stratosphere and forcing me to reload as a result of slowly reversing over a small rock (curse my amazing suspension).
Sleeping Dogs embraces PC gaming with a frankly scary level of enthusiasm that other developers would do well to imitate. The engine is full of all sorts of options, and looks simply amazing with world density pushed to max, SSAO cranked all the way up, and HD textures plastered on every surface. Yet despite this embrace of the PC’s potential power, I found that keyboard and mouse functionality is sadly somewhat cumbersome. While the addition of a mouse makes you a headshot wizard in gunplay, for driving, running, kung-fu fighting, or just… well, pretty much everything else, plugging in a controller is the way to go and will save you a lot of grief.
This is the sort of game that we as an industry should be encouraging more of. To pick up Sleeping Dogs just to tide you over until GTA V comes out is to do the game a disservice: Sleeping Dogs is not just a great PC game, but a great, mature title in its own right that shows a surprisingly welcome depth and complexity. If you’re a fan of Hong Kong gangster films, open worlds of any kind, or just after a refreshingly dark storyline, do yourself a favour and check it out.
- Dark, gritty storyline with excellent voice acting
- Slick, varied combat with great environmental effects
- Fast, fun driving
- Huge variety of missions and minigames
- Great PC support with full options and HD textures
- Poor mouse and keyboard support
- Bad camera controls while driving
- Combat is perhaps a bit too easy
- Some of the romantic dialogue is truly awful