The Hounds of Hong Kong
There are a number of subgenres out there which you cannot develop a game in without inevitably clashing with some industry behemoth. For the MMO genre that behemoth is World of Warcraft, for modern military shooters it’s Call of Duty, and for open-world crime games it’s Grand Theft Auto. Seriously competing against these classic titles means creating a game that either outperforms them at what they do best, or adds some new, high quality features of its own to the mix. Sleeping Dogs is an open-world crime game from United Front Games that doesn’t entirely succeed in either of these categories, but manages to add enough variation and capitalise on its strengths well enough to make it much more than just an Oriental GTA clone.
Sleeping Dogs’s story centres on Wei Shen, an ex-U.S. police officer returning to his birthplace of Hong Kong to go undercover and infiltrate one of the city’s most dangerous gangs. Shen’s attempt to walk the razor-thin line between being an upright enforcer of the law and a respected member of the infamous Hong Kong Triads is not only one of the driving forces behind the drama, but also one of the major gameplay systems. While most games might tackle this moral duality for the protagonist by giving the choice of either going down a “Good” or “Evil” path, Sleeping Dogs instead has a single preset route for its story and awards separate “Cop” and “Triad” experience points to spend on character upgrades depending on how you behave in missions.
Triad experience can be gained in missions by taking down enemies, with more points usually being awarded for more spectacular takedowns, while in many missions the fewer civilians you hurt and generally more lawfully you act, the more Cop experience you’ll be awarded. Disappointingly, the Cop experience is kind of the snag in the system. As anyone who’s ever tried to play Grand Theft Auto while obeying all the traffic laws can tell you, in a game like this it’s just not reasonable or engaging to be expected to drive around without hitting the odd car, parking meter, or other environmental feature. That goes double when the handling in Sleeping Dogs doesn’t lend itself to careful, measured control, but erratic action movie-style driving. Beyond the unfortunate way it plugs into this EXP system however, the driving is plenty of fun, providing a decidedly arcadey flavour to the experience of cruising the streets of Hong Kong.
Outside of the Cop/Triad system you can also obtain upgrades by collecting the jade statues hidden around the world or by completing one of the many side-missions. The majority of the upgrades available contribute to the edge you have in the game’s hand-to-hand combat system, the template for which is lifted directly from the Batman: Arkham games, with your fundamental attacks being hitting opponents with the X button and countering with Y. Maybe the greatest new element Sleeping Dogs adds to this formula is the ability to grab enemies and incapacitate them using specific environmental objects. Many stronger enemies can’t be grabbed and you’ll only ever find so many of these world-based instakills in any one area, but seizing mobsters and shoving them into extractor fans or slamming shop shutters down on their torsos is a delightfully twisted way to end your opponents. The game’s “Face Meter” is also an empowering feature, activating when you do enough damage in a fight and affording you various advantages in combat as your enemies stand quaking in their boots.
It’s just a shame that none of this fist-to-face action has the same sense of timing, flow, and impact that the fights in the Batman games do, and instead often feels uncomfortably clunky. There are also a few odd design decisions that detract from the enjoyment of the brawls. Chiefly the fact that unlike in the Arkham titles, you cannot counter while locked into an attack. This means that confrontations can lapse into moments where everyone is awkwardly shuffling about doing nothing as you refrain from direct strikes, afraid you’ll get hit when you can’t fight back, and instead waiting for a window in which to counter. The game tries to build on the bare simplicity of this combat by letting you unlock a number of combos over time to unleash on enemies, but it never really pans out. There’s a mini-tutorial for each of the different combos, but it’s usually easier to just tackle brawls using your most basic moves and a little button mashing than it is to learn all the lengthy sequences of button presses involved in what seems like a needlessly convoluted system.
Fortunately, Sleeping Dogs’ ranged combat fares better than its melee, offering up some straightforward but none the less satisfying gunplay. In fact it’s straightforward to the point where there’s not much more to say about it than it’s third-person cover-based shooting with responsive controls aided by some smart level design, although they do throw in the rather loveable mechanic of being able to enter slow-motion when sliding across cover or when aiming at enemy drivers from moving vehicles. It feels wonderfully at home in the style of the game and it’s consistently exciting to watch enemies go flying backward as you headshot them at half-speed. Maybe even more exhilarating is the way that you can send enemy drivers up in a fiery ball of death simply by shooting out the tires on their vehicles, making many of the on-road chase sequences gloriously high octane. The game also places far more of an emphasis on on-foot chases than anything like GTA ever has, managing to add a further dash of variety to the way you take on targets and playing to one of the game’s perhaps less noticeable strengths.
It’s not all smooth sailing for these systems though. Sometimes you’ll just be dealt a raw deal by the game’s camera which has particular trouble with quickly and reliably turning in places. Rotating 180 degrees when firing from a vehicle is nowhere near as fast a process as it should be, and when reversing your car or motorbike the camera will fight you every step of the way, trying to stare head-on at the front of your vehicle and making it as difficult as possible to focus your view in any other direction. In cutscenes camera trouble presents itself by the viewing angle too often showing an obvious collectible in the surrounding environment, distracting you from the dialogue and often leaving you worried you won’t be able to claim your prize in the hurry of the surrounding mission. The game also has a habit of having you helplessly beaten up or otherwise foiled in cutscenes to keep the plot moving forward. It feels woefully inconsistent to be able to fight your way through hordes of gangsters but then see Wei thrashed in an instant whenever the game feels like it, and it comes across as entirely unfair to butt up against these recurring scenarios in which you’re not even given a chance to defend yourself or stop your adversaries.
In general the game’s storytelling is a bit rough around the edges. Sleeping Dogs is dripping with generic characters and plot points, and all the events build to a conclusion for the game that comes across as lazy and poorly thought out. On the plus side however, while you’ll hear the odd awkwardly delivered line here and there, most of the voice acting in the game is full of life and character as these citizens of Hong Kong argue, empathise, and intimidate in a convincingly interwoven mix of Cantonese and English. Character interactions are only made more interesting by a legitimate sense of tension and complication created by Wei’s status as an undercover officer, primed to betray the very people he’s most attached to. I also have to give some credit to the game for it’s “Girlfriend Missions”, opportunities to take a detour from all the bloodshed and spend some time with a few potential love interests for Wei. It’s a concept that GTA IV used, but here the characters feel a little fuller and more likeable. I only wish these missions didn’t feel like they’re over almost as quickly as they begin.
All in all Sleeping Dogs is a lot like watching a middling martial arts B-movie. The production values are not through the roof, action is often stilted, and the game feels like one big tapestry of ideas ripped from other places, but there’s enough finesse in what it pulls off right to keep you compelled.