I love Hong Kong cinema. Movies like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, and Jackie Chan’s Police Story are the kind of films I grew up with. Hong Kong cinema is unmatched in delivering imaginative fight choreography and exhilarating action sequences. Last time I visited China’s immersive scenery in a video game was in John Woo’s Stranglehold. It was a fantastic third-person shooter, but it was short, linear and left me craving for more. Back in 2009, Activision announced a reboot of the True Crime franchise with True Crime: Hong Kong - originally developed as a new IP under the title Black Lotus. When the game was dropped due to budgeting issues and who knows what, I was devastated. Luckily, Square Enix saw potential in it and brought it back under the new name Sleeping Dogs. And I'm glad they did, because Sleeping Dogs is absolutely brilliant. It doesn’t particularly re-invent the sandbox genre, nor is it bug-free, but the gameplay is superb, the voice acting and story are fantastic and there’s a massive amount of content that’ll keep you busy for a very long time.
The talented Will Yun Lee, who’s been in movies like Elektra, Die Another Day, and the recent Total Recall, plays the protagonist Wei Shen.Byron Mann, the guy who played Ryu in the 1994 Street Fighter movie, plays your handling officer, Raymond Mak. And remember Liu Kang from the 95 and 97 Mortal Kombat movies? Well, Robin Shou plays one of the Sun On Yee Triad thugs - c’mon, this is great! To mix things up, we have the great Tom Wilkinson as Inspector Pendrew and even Emma Stone and Lucy Liu lend their talents to the game. The list goes on and all of the performances, minus some of the bystanders and side characters, are first-class.
"It doesn’t particularly re-invent the sandbox genre, nor is it bug-free, but the gameplay is superb, the voice acting and story are fantastic and there’s a massive amount of content that’ll keep you busy for a very long time."
The game begins in a Hong Kong harbor where undercover cop Wei Shen, a San Francisco police officer who was seconded to the Hong Kong police force, is in the middle of a drug deal. Of course, things go bad, guns go off, people die, and the next thing you know Wei is behind bars. While in jail, Wei meets his old buddy Jackie Mah, played by actor/musician Edison Chen, who’s now a member of the Sun On Yee Triad. And you guessed it, Jackie asks Wei to pay the gang a visit after he gets out. This is a perfect opportunity for Wei to go undercover and infiltrate the Triad.
Things are tough for Wei as he struggles between committing crimes to prove his worth to the Triad and completing missions as a police officer. Some of the Triad members are people he’s known since childhood; so personal attachment soon becomes an issue. He’s haunted by night terrors and feels torn between the two sides. The story is not necessarily original, but it’s superbly executed. There is a definite Martin Scorsese vibe, especially in the later half of the game. Will Yun Lee does a fantastic job as Wei Shen and you feel closely attached to his character throughout.
"The Batman games have extremely precise and responsive controls that react to your every twitch, but Sleeping Dogs is a bit looser, which actually feels more realistic."
The gameplay in Sleeping Dogs is exemplary. There’s a heavy focus on martial arts, which is the game’s bread and butter, and there are plenty of shooting sequences that spice up the mission structure. You’re presented with a combat system similar to the recent Batman games. Thugs glow when attacking and you have a split second to block or counter with the “Y” button. Tapping “X” performs combos and you can vary them by holding the button down during specific combinations. The combat is more about getting into the flow and catching rhythm, rather than just quick reflexes. The Batman games have extremely precise and responsive controls that react to your every twitch, but Sleeping Dogs is a bit looser, which actually feels more realistic. Interactive environments make the brawling even more fierce and enjoyable. When grappling enemies, certain objects glow red and let you perform special moves or instant kills. These can be as subtle as tossing a guy into the dumpster or as bloody as shredding his head on the propeller of an A/C unit.
You learn new moves by upgrading a skill tree that consists of Cop, Triad, Melee and Face upgrades. Points are earned by completing missions, but Melee upgrades are acquired by collecting jade statues for your martial arts master. Towards the end of the game, you'll chain Bruce Lee-like combos while surrounded by waves of thugs. It’s totally badass!
"Some of the talents behind the Need For Speed games have bestowed their skills to the driving physics, and it shows."
Driving in most sandbox games typically feels like an afterthought; it’s generally the weakest and most unrefined element. Not in this case. Some of the talents behind the Need For Speed games have bestowed their skills to the driving physics, and it shows. Sleeping Dogs has some of the most satisfying and precise driving controls in an open world game. Racing mini-games feel like something straight out of Burnout. You can smash other vehicles, shoot while driving at high speeds in slow motion, and even perform stunt car jacking, similar to Square Enix’s Just Cause 2.
And it doesn’t stop there. The shooting in the game feels effortless and tight. Shootouts occur sparingly, mainly during key missions and car chases, but when they do, they’re spectacular. Sliding out of cover temporarily slows down time (like in Max Payne or Stranglehold), allowing you to pick off nearby baddies - and you can even quick-disarm them if they’re close by. Sleeping Dogs raises the bar in the open-world gameplay department to new heights. It’s not as realistic as the Grand Theft Auto series, nor is it as cartoony as Saints Row, but it strikes a perfect balance. Everything you do in the game is fun, and ultimately, that’s all that matters. Rockstar better take notice.
The world of Sleeping Dogs is colossal. You’re not getting an exact replica of Hong Kong, but a more liberal interpretation that takes inspiration from the city’s iconic landmarks and combines them into a meticulously detailed, neon lit, playground. The streets feel alive, with a surprising amount of pedestrians and vehicles filling the screen. At nightfall, you’re treated to a spectrum of neon signs escalating to immeasurable heights, and it’s then when the visuals are at their best. Character models look spectacular, but the same can’t be said for the city’s inhabitants. They look noticeably less detailed, even outright flat - but it’s understandable since the streets are crowded throughout the entire city. It’s only in the repetitive street thugs that the design really falters. You’re fighting groups of enemies around every corner, ranging from heavy attackers, grapplers, and fast strikers, but you’re getting very few visual variations. Sometimes it feels like you’re fighting the same crowd over and over. Nevertheless, the game boasts some of the most impressive open world visuals and the minor hiccups don’t distract from the overall beauty of the game.
"Sleeping Dogs is one of the best action games of the year - and arguably one of the strongest sandbox titles out there."
There is a ton to do in Sleeping Dogs. If you’re just gunning for the ending, the game might take you 10-12 hours, but you’d be missing out on the best parts. There are pedestrians calling out for your help around every corner and there’s a meaty amount of street races scattered throughout the city. Hidden collectibles are actually worth pursuing as they unlock health upgrades, money, guns, and additional outfits. There are drug-bust mini games where you’re required to hack into cameras and spy on triad activity from your home.
On the other hand, unnecessary filler activities, like cockfighting and karaoke, are a letdown. They feel thrown together and aren’t fun at all. Some of the side missions could also use more variety and they’re over too quickly. But it’s really in the story levels where the game outshines the competition. Every mission is exciting and diverse. This not only helps the game’s pacing, but it makes the story more immersive. The narrative advances with every objective and it never feels like it’s dragging…ehm, Saints Row The Third…ehm. The game does a fantastic job of making you feel like an undercover cop. You sense Wei’s tension as he becomes more defensive of his Triad colleagues, especially with the police playing dirty in order to solve the case.
Sleeping Dogs is one of the best action games of the year - and arguably one of the strongest sandbox titles out there. With its combination of realistic and arcade-like gameplay, a strong narrative that’s supported by excellent voice acting, and a beautifully crafted interpretation of Hong Kong, it raises the standards for a genre that’s desperate for creativity. And if you’re like me and you’ve watched Jackie Chan’s Crime Story over 20 times, then this might be the best thing that’s happened to gaming in years.
Review by: Tin Salamunic | Reviewed on: Xbox 360