Sleeping Dogs Review
When looking back on open world games that have expanded upon the Grand Theft Auto template in the last few years, its hard to recall one that has truly succeeded in each individual part of its gameplay. Open world games have always been praised for their ability to give you freedom in atmospheric worlds that convey and sense of time and place, but often struggle in providing compelling mechanics that make you want to experience all there is to offer in that world. With Sleeping Dogs, I expected to find something along those lines as well. Instead, what I got was a tightly designed game that manages to deliver an open world experience with solid mechanics, that come together to create one of the best open world games in recent memory.
Sleeping Dogs has you playing Wei Shen, an undercover cop returning to his hometown of Hong Kong in order to take down the Sun On Yee, a triad organization that has its roots deep in the city. Throughout the game, Wei struggles between his duties as a cop, a personal vendetta to avenge his sister, and a growing sense of loyalty that begins to grow as he becomes closer to members of the triad. The characters are great, and Triad members like Winston evolve from more than just a generic muscle head triad. Part of the appeal of the characters comes from the excellent voice cast, which stars Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen, Emma Stone as Amanda, and Tom Wilkinson as Superintendent Pendrew, just to name a few. The story starts off fairly slow, but around halfway through the game things pick up fairly quickly and it gets hard to put the controller down.
What separates Sleeping Dogs from the competition is its gameplay. From hand-to-hand combat, driving, shooting, and free running, each element manages to fun and engaging throughout. True to its Hong Kong action film roots, the game prioritizes melee combat over all.
The combat plays alot like a slower version of Batman: Arkham City's melee combat. You can switch between heavy and light attacks, and combos can be interrupted at any time for counters. Some enemies can be grabbed and subjected to brutal contextual executions, which are particularly satisfying, if a bit over-the-top. Shooting benefits from a "Less is More" approach, as you don't actually get a gun for a while, and you can only carry one firearm at a time. It relies so heavily on Slo-Mo that its easy to see why they would ease off of the shooting sequences. What few sequences of shootouts there are a backloaded on the last half of the game, and they stay exciting and avoid repetition by staying relatively simple. The driving controls feel very loose, but manages to give a great sense of speed. I loved the race sequences, and you can tell that United Front Games really wanted to put their racing genre experience on show. The free running sequences are in no way original, and they don't really give a whole lot of freedom to what you can and can't climb. Despite this, they were fun and varied enough to provide a break from the other elements of the game.
All of these elements managed to combine into a tightly designed game with a lot to do. The main story lasts for about 15 hours, and with the extra side missions it can easily go for around 30 hours. After I finished the main story, I immediately craved more in any way I could get it. Its one of the few open world games that managed to hook me in as a result of great gameplay mechanics rather than just wanting to experience more of the world. I played the PC version on my fairly modest system, and quite frankly its easily one of the best looking games I have ever played. Hong Kong at night is incredibly beautiful, and zipping through the city actually makes you want to drive to missions instead of taking a taxi.
Sleeping Dogs has a few nagging issues though, mostly stemming from pacing and small technical problems. The game suffers from poor pacing, particularly in the ending. I couldn't help but feel like an extra 5 missions or so would've really given the player a much stronger feeling of satisfaction and conclusion. Wei's rise through the ranks happens a bit too quickly, and some of the exposition on his backstory seems rushed. The progression levels used for Triad and Cop seem to have been a missed opportunity. I would've loved to see a mechanic of balancing the two, with story implications later on. Instead, they were only used for progression of move sets and abilities. Technically, while the PC port is fantastic, a microstuttering issue during the daytime is rather annoying, but far from game-breaking. The game is a bit too easy throughout, and while melee combat seems adequately balanced, shootouts suffer from average AI, and incredibly powerful bullets. Lastly, a new game plus feature would have been greatly appreciated, considering that the moves unlocked towards the latter half of the game - particularly the Muay Thai elbow - are the most exciting.
Its hard to believe a game with the troubled development that Sleeping Dogs had ended up being so good. United Front Games succeeds with Sleeping Dogs by designing an open world game around fun elements, and not the other way around. For me personally, Sleeping Dogs is the first open world game to combine great individual elements into something that I highly recommend to anyone.