Sleeping Dogs, by all accounts, never should have made it to store shelves. It once existed under the banner of Activision, as a reboot of the publisher's True Crime series of Grand Theft Auto knock-offs. And then it was canceled. Activision coldly stated that those in charge did not "believe that it would have ranked as a top title in the competitive open world genre." In this regard, Activision was perhaps not incorrect in its assessment of the title's potential. The finished game--which only made it to release thanks to a last-minute rescue from Square Enix--won't be remembered as one of the world's great open-world crime games. But it will be thought of as a good, solid one that did enough right to be mostly fun from start to finish. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
What is wrong with Sleeping Dogs is mostly just the stuff inherent to open-world crime games. That makes sense, since Sleeping Dogs is largely a patchwork of ideas taken from other, more memorable such games. Car thievery, sometimes awkward gunplay, a plot rife with cliche and ludonarrative dissonance, a visual engine that often sacrifices detail in favor of size, and so on and so forth. However, those issues don't add up to a sum large enough to overshadow Sleeping Dogs' strengths, which are several.
While it won't win any awards for originality, Sleeping Dogs' undercover cop tale is nonetheless one worth seeing through from start to finish. As Wei Shen, a Hong Kong-born, American-raised cop with some serious family issues, you find yourself tasked with infiltrating the notorious Sun On Yee sect of the Chinese triads. Shen, as voiced by Will Yun Lee, is either a man pushed to the edge of reason as he sinks deeper and deeper into a criminal world he can't control, or a total sociopath, depending on how you play the game.
That isn't to say there's any player choice to speak of in Sleeping Dogs. And, in fact, some of that sociopathy bleeds into the main narrative as well. Presumably, Wei starts out as a guy just trying to do his job, working his way into the ranks of the triad by doing typical grunt foot soldier work (collecting protection money, beating up thugs, making veiled threats to innocent people), but after a few hours of story, you're already up to gunning down scads and scads of rival gangsters, running multiple triad businesses, and basically causing more property damage than a year's worth of monsoons.
The juxtaposition between Wei's job of serving the public trust and Wei's action of shooting, punching, and running over hundreds of people never quite balances out. It's easier to swallow when you're playing as a gangster or other morally flexible type, but Wei's status as a Hong Kong police officer makes it kind of hard to process the visual of him shooting out the tires of a cop car and watching it explode into a ball of fiery death.
Fortunately, the plot has just enough intrigue to hold your attention throughout. There are some genuinely surprising (and brutal) twists and turns throughout the campaign, and the voice talent is top notch. Lee is joined by a host of major actors, including Tom Wilkinson, Edison Chen, Lucy Liu, Kelly Hu, James Hong, Yunjun Kim, and Emma Stone. Occasional dead line readings aside, most of the actors get into the roles with suitable enthusiasm to keep you engrossed in the story. The only real bummer is that several of these actors are stuck with characters that disappear nearly as quickly as they arrive. It's especially true of the female actors, who are mostly relegated to brief "girlfriend" missions, where you quickly seduce, and then forget about women you meet during the course of the main plot. It sounds great on paper to have Emma Stone voicing your video game, but it's pretty lame that she only sticks around for two rather dull scenes.
Even when the story sags, the atmosphere in Sleeping Dogs is top notch. The territory of Hong Kong is captured well in spirit, if not total accuracy. The world around you is more like a greatest-hits collection of notable Hong Kong landmarks, condensed into a smaller island that still offers plenty of narrow alleyways and bustling streets to explore. The graphics engine isn't overly impressive, and you'll see plenty of blurriness in the background visuals--less so if you're playing on a recent PC. But when driving or running around, you don't necessarily notice it. The incandescent lighting, the blunt mixture of Cantonese and English often shouted in your direction, the hilly, often confusing streets of the city, it all feels authentic.
Granted, most people's perception of Hong Kong comes from the region's action cinema. Fortunately, developer United Front Games has added a few stylistic touches that certainly play to memories of movies like Infernal Affairs and Hard Boiled. Most notable is the hand-to-hand combat, often a liability in games like these. Instead, this system is the game's greatest strength, mirroring Rocksteady's Batman games by employing timing-based counters and dynamic combos. It's a remarkably smooth-feeling combat system. Counters are intuitive, and the moves are actually pretty easy to remember, if sometimes a bit difficult to time. The game is good about spacing out new abilities over the course of the game, as well. So even as you near the game's end, you'll still have a few things to learn.
There are environmental attacks as well. Brutal, savage ones that rival The Punisher in sheer nastiness. By simply dragging enemies over to a highlighted object and pressing a button, you can do everything from merely dumping an enemy into a dumpster, to grinding their face off with a miter saw. It's bloody, downright horrific stuff, the kind of thing that will undoubtedly elicit laughs of shocked delight for many, myself included. Those with less steely stomachs, however, might want to stick to the dumpsters.
Gunplay is hit and miss, with a greater emphasis on miss. For the first half of the game, there actually are no guns. It's mentioned that Hong Kong is a place that simply doesn't have a lot of guns. Then, suddenly, there are a lot of guns. The shift from "occasional pistol I don't really use" to "where is that goddamned machine gun because holy shit there are nine of those guys with automatic shotguns" is rather abrupt, and perhaps unnecessary. You have the ability to slow down time while shooting, either by diving over cover spots or when driving. This does have a great look to it, as guys go flying backward, and cars cartoonishly fly into the air before exploding accordingly. But the aiming is underdeveloped, leading to a lot of guesswork when popping out from cover. It's the kind of thing where a snap-to function probably would have saved the day. As it is, you can get through gun fights okay, but it's not as much fun as it ought to be.
The core campaign runs maybe 10 hours, and features only a few dull missions amid 20-some-odd entertaining ones. The same can't be said for the game's various side ventures, which range from moderately amusing distractions to complete and utter wastes of time. You can do drug busts, which generally involve beating up some guys, participating in a lame hacking minigame, and running back to your apartment use the hacked police camera to bust drug dealers. It's exactly as annoyingly repetitive as it sounds. Or, perhaps you can do some of the help missions, which involve walking up to people on the street who inexplicably know you by name. Generally you cart them around the city, go beat up someone for them, or maybe chase someone down. Fine, but nothing to get excited about. There are street races, which come with a Fast and the Furious-lite subplot about street racers getting killed, but once that's wrapped up, they're not really worth doing any longer. And then there are the dates with the previously mentioned ladies, where you will take pictures of them, drive very fast for them, or do karaoke for them. The karaoke section is maybe the one side venture of value, since it accurately represents the aural hell that is being in a karaoke bar while stone cold sober.
So perhaps Sleeping Dogs isn't one of those games you'll want to keep on playing long after you've seen its story's conclusion. But while you're engaged with that story, this is an effective open-world experience, filled with interesting characters, some exciting action, and enough unpredictability to keep you hooked. It might feel familiar, but that doesn't make it any less fun.