About the highest praise I can think of for a game is that it makes you feel something. More often than not, it’s simple emotions – happiness and joy, or sadness, even anger. Sleeping Dogs does all that and more, but it takes an interesting step sideways.
It makes me want really good Chinese street food.
That’s how a good a job the team at United Front and Square Enix have done in realising their virtual Hong Kong. It is a sprawling, often confusing city of dark laneways crammed with garbage, alongside gleaming glass towers practically dripping with wealth; it is a place of both tradition, and quicksand-like shifts in loyalty and values.
Most of all, in Sleeping Dogs, Hong Kong is a city with never a dull moment.
Infernal (game) affairs
The basic premise of the game is classic Asian crime cinema. Boy leaves Hong Kong, becomes a cop, returns to Hong Kong, goes undercover, deals with a morass of moral and legal grey areas that make him a nervous wreck. If you wanted to get all reductionist, you could call it Infernal Affairs (the film that The Departed is based upon) with Parkour. But that would be an injustice.
A lot of open world games try to hide the fact that they’re basically drawing on the GTA formula, but in Sleeping Dogs that DNA is pretty obvious. The world is ever in motion, with street and foot traffic everywhere, weather, a day/night cycle that is something to behold, and side missions and hidden stuff all over the place, plus a pretty good range of radio stations to explore while driving around. There’s also a convenient amount of roadworks that just happen to leave handy ramps everywhere, too, always a clear sign that any game kind of wants you to have fun every now and then.
However, the game certainly leans less toward random destruction and stunts, it must be said. In fact, the game rewards you more for good driving than it does running people off the road, which does take some getting used to. Also, too much wanton damage to the city – and its people – will cost you in terms of money and some experience.
All of this is because you’re playing a cop who’s only playing at being a criminal, rather than just a straight criminal, and the difference – though not radically enforced – is enough to give the game a very different feel. Sure, you’re often evading police, and it’s pretty easy to rack up quite the damage bill while chasing down gang-members, bad debts, and racing gangs... but it’s still fun.
The real meat of the game, though, are two different and at times difficult to juggle quest arcs. First up, as an undercover cop, you need to infiltrate and get to the top of one Hong Kong’s major gangs. On the other hand, you’re also expected to assist other police officers in making drug busts and taking down other criminals, like street racers. The two threads are well woven, and it often does feel as though you’re constantly walking a tight-rope between two worlds – the fact that you wake up each game ‘morning’ with nightmares ringing in your ears, and with the shakes, helps too – but it’s actually just very clever smoke and mirrors.
Which is not to detract from the game! But it does occur to me that it’s an opportunity lost not including some real decision-and-consequence stuff in the game.
The one big departure from the classic GTA model is the far greater focus on action. This is a game inspired by Hong Kong cinema after all, so it models gun-fu, brutal martial arts, and thrilling car chases. Sleeping Dogs takes a slightly different approach to each; driving is definitely of the arcade mode, and while it’s easy to wreck other cars by using an active ‘sideswipe’ attack, it’s pretty hard to wreck any vehicle you’re in. Similarly, gunfights are pretty abstract, with loose ballistics and a distinct reliance on explosive effects and slow motion.
The martial arts, however, are much more interesting. In fact, there’s an entire quest chain built around returning ancient statuettes to your old sensei, which in turn lets you unlock new moves – and you generally won’t get to learn all of them. There’s simple combo-strikes, heavy and light attacks, grappling and throws, and some gruesome environmental fatalities. Particularly satisfying is how fluid it all is – you can move from countering one enemy, laying him out, kicking another to break his leg, stunning yet another, and all of this giving you time to grab another guy and toss him through a fish tank.
The difference in abstraction in all these systems actually makes the game better. Though you might want to get a second mouse as a back-up – this game’s murder on rodentia!
There’s a lot of ways to improve yourself in game, too. The main character, Wei, can get quick boosts by slurping down drinks and street food, or earn Cop or Triad XP from respective quests to learn skills in those areas. Impressively, you’ve got to balance the two; destroying property takes away from Cop XP, for instance. Side missions and other game elements get you XP on another track, called Face – this improves various reactions, and unlocks bonuses like new vehicles or clothes to buy.
And all of this richness of gameplay comes on top of a game engine that’s been optimised for serious gaming rigs. Sleeping Dogs looks absolutely amazing on PC, and part of the joy of the game is in just driving around the neon canyons and twisting mountain roads. I’ve visited Hong Kong a couple of times, and the rendition is note truly note-perfect.
Considering the game’s rocky road to publishing, it’s an impressive feat that it is such a polished and well-rounded product. That it’s gotten such attention on the PC is just icing on the cake. If you like open world action, or Hong Kong cinema, this is an essential part of your collection