If you’d asked me at the start of the year to name a game I thought was going to be terrible, I would have said Naughty Bear 2. Given that everyone else would have said that, I would have followed it up with Sleeping Dogs. The game had already gone through so many iterations and publishers that I gave it next to no chance of being a top title. It had gone from being an original IP to a True Crime spinoff and back again. It had been dropped by Activision and picked up by Square Enix. There was just no way I could see a game with such a troubled development becoming a great experience. Imagine my surprise when after 20+ hours on the streets of Hong Kong, I still wanted more.
The first thing that really grabbed me was the story. Paying homage to classic Hong Kong movies such as Infernal Affairs and Police Story, Sleeping Dogs told the tale of undercover detective Wei Shen, an officer on loan from the USA, as he attempted to infiltrate the local triads and take them down from within. The plot unfolded in a more than competent manner and I found it easy to get caught up in Wei’s trials and tribulations as he rose through the ranks of the Sun On Yee (the name of the criminal organisation) and tried to keep his true identity secret. I found all characters to be fleshed out and believable, which only added impact to the story. The developers should be congratulated for not dipping into the well of Asian stereotypes for inspiration. By and large the inhabitants of this virtual Hong Kong were not clichés and this meant I was free to enjoying the story without cringing at bad accents and cheap Mr Miyagi imitators.
This would have meant nothing if the game wasn’t fun to play, but I am happy to report that Sleeping Dogs’ gameplay proved to be as good as, if not better than, its story. Hand to hand combat was a big focus and the developers took more than a few cues from the recent Batman games. Melee combat was a game of move and countermove and it worked exceptionally well. Dropped weapons could be picked up on the fly, the environment could be used to take down enemies (head through a fish tank anybody?) and devastating counterattacks could be unleashed. I often found myself picking fights with gangsters simply so I could enjoy more of the skull crushing action. The gunplay, unfortunately, was probably the weakest part of the game. The firearms were inaccurate and the cover system a little fiddly. It wasn’t broken by any means, it just seemed like it needed some fine tuning. Luckily I was only forced to use guns on a few occasions and most situations could be solved with a crane kick to the head.
Movement was also impressive. Whether I was on foot or behind the wheel of one of Hong Kong’s many modes of transport, getting about the place was a blast. Running utilised a parkour style system that had me chasing down gang members and leaping over rooftops with glee. Driving was equally satisfying, with cars, boats and motorbikes all handling well. In fact, unlike other games in the genre (*cough* GTA IV *cough*), Sleeping Dogs saw me actively searching for the racing side missions instead of avoiding them like the plague. It was also the first game I had seen in the genre to do vehicle combat well. I could sideswipe chasing cars with the press of a button, leap from one car to the next and even enter a “bullet time” state to pick off pursuers with an automatic weapon.
While cruising around Hong Kong following the story and taking in the sights was fun, I found even more to keep me entertained with the large variety of optional activities. Be it the aforementioned racing events or chasing down delivery trucks or collecting protection money, all of the missions had been put together with care and in no way felt like time fillers. One highly enjoyable side quest tasked me with hacking security cameras all around the city. Once I had done that (and beaten up the large group of thugs protecting them), I could access the cameras from my home base and initiate arrests on gang members conducting illicit activities within their sight. It was this variety and originality that had me engaging in these missions whenever the opportunity arose.
There were a few bugs (including one which made me reset the console during the final mission) and a general lack of polish in some spots. One notable instance of this was when I was informed I could upgrade my character. The words “Press Select to Upgrade” would appear on screen when in fact I had to press Start. A minor issue, sure, but a noticeable one nonetheless. The graphics also seemed to be a little out-dated at times, with a fair bit of pop in occurring, especially if I was driving at high speeds.
To say I was surprised during my time with Sleeping Dogs is an understatement. I had an absolute blast and the fact that it came out of the blue only sweetened the feeling. With a top story, excellent hand to hand combat and a fully fleshed out world that is a joy to traverse, this game deserves your attention. I simply cannot wait to experience more adventures with Wei and this band of misfits, corrupt cops and cranky old cooks. Be it DLC or a sequel I just want to spend more time in this universe and really, there is not a greater compliment I can pay than that.