Sleeping Dogs was a game I did not pay much attention to until a year or two after its release on Steam, though after I actually sat down and looked into it, the game piqued my interest due to reminding me of Shenmue and Yakuza. Being set in Hong Kong made it immediately intriguing as well, since the other Sega-titles took place in Japan and a new scenery would be a nice change of pace for me. When it was on sale on steam, I noticed that I already owned the game, so there was really no excuse to not give it a look.
However, the most interesting part about Sleeping Dogs is the backstory to this entry. You see, Sleeping Dogs was originally going to be the third game in the True Crime-series, but was canceled by Activision due to budget issues and delays. Barely half a year later, Square Enix bought the publishing rights and renamed it to make it a spiritual sequel so more liberties could be taken. I have no experience with the two True Crime games and only know them for being compared to GTA. If they ever get re-released on PC or consoles, I might give them a look as they seem like interesting games that tried to do something different to distinguish themselves from the Rockstar-games. However, I am ready to go back to Hong Kong and see if one of my favorite open world games has held up after all these years.
A cop-story you can take seriously
The story stars the undercover cop Wei Shen, a man coming back to Hong Kong after his stay in America took a turn for the worse. Failing a setup to catch a criminal, he is sent to jail and meets up with an old friend, Jackie Ma. He offers to introduce Wei to some of his friends and gang members of the Triad after they are both released. Wei accepts his offer and, after a discussion with his superintendent Pendrew, they decide to have Shen go undercover and infiltrate the “Sun On Yee” Triad gang.
Through this, Wei meets up with familiar faces and new ones, setting up clear connections he had with his hometown, while also being introduced to the new parts that are foreign to him. However, he will eventually get accustomed to the new elements and get close to the gang, to the point of being able to call them a family. This is done quickly and could have been expanded upon more, but through conversations and doing the gang some favors which showcases his abilities to both be cunning and a fierce fighter, he becomes a valued member.
There is a good showcase of companionship with his gang, which makes it harder for Wei to, at times, divide between his duty as a policeman and as a family member. Wei comes of as a decent man caught between two worlds, and it is nice to see him go through struggles and arguments on how to proceed with this unfortunate event. This story thread accelerates moderately and the changes happening both with the case and with Wei’s perspective is presented at a good pace, making it believable and relatable. The dialogue is also well written and characters are interesting, despite not being as diverse as our protagonist. You can also read about the people you meet on the phone, and the banter they have between missions are a nice way to establish and develop relationships.
The bad guys are also entertaining, though that is about it. They are not made into interesting antagonists and are just the traditional bad guys you can’t help but hate. It works well, but I wish they got just as much character development as the other criminals, as they are all in the same world. Those who end up betraying our hero will be easy to predict, but it is nice to see this being developed, rather than just having a random twist. Overall, Sleeping Dogs gives a good cop-story that is filled with action, well-written characters, and a plot that is developing at a great pace, making it easy to get invested in.
Story Score: 8/10
Yakuza: meet your match
Set as an open world game, Sleeping Dogs takes inspirations from its predecessor, but incorporates less focus on guns and vehicles than other GTA-inspired games, which makes it stand out more. Traveling around the city will often be done on foot, with holding X causing Wei to sprint. This is not an uncommon feature, but by pressing X again right before a hurdle such as edges of a building or furniture like tables, you can skip over them much quicker. This is a nice feature to make running around not dull, providing instead enough interactivity to make you observant and making chases & exploration fun.
Vehicles will be the best way of traveling longer distances of course, and you can select between different types of cars, motorcycles, and boats respectively. All are enjoyable to use, with each controlling differently, having the ability to drift, different stats, and unique abilities. Motorcycles, for example, are smaller and easier for driving around, cars can manually ram into others with a well-placed nudge, and the boat can only travel by water. It might sound self-explanatory, though by neglecting planes as a possible method for traveling, it makes each vehicle become more valuable for changing up how to get from one place to another.
However what also makes Sleeping Dogs more in tone with Sega’s open world games is the wonderful combat. You will have to deal with a huge number of enemies, which can range upwards to 15 fiends on the screen. Here, square will be used for attacking and by combining it with quick taps and holding, you can create combos, such as sweep kicks or a kick to the crotch. Circle will grab an opponent, which can lead into combos, throws, or make use of environmental objects such as a table saw or phonebooths for instant-kills, and finally, triangle is used for countering attacks, or dodging if you are holding a weapon. Yes, you can pick up items such as knives and crowbars for stronger attacks, though they will break after some use.
This is a fantastic way to make the combat balanced, but also to make it simple enough to remember what each button does, as all are assigned to one maneuver, with different ways of pressing the buttons causing different effects. Though thanks to enemies being varied, such as some not being able to be grabbed or others being harder to counter, it never makes the combat dull or easy. You can also lock onto enemies, but due to how many you will be facing, it was not a needed feature, except for one-on-one fights. Throughout each battle, you will also be encouraged to vary up your attacks to quickly fill up your face-meter by your health bar, which when full will heal you automatically and make your attacks stronger and more devastating until it runs over time.
Though hand to hand is the common way you will be taking care of the enemies, you will also, on occasion, have to resort to using guns, and can only carry one at the time. Guns are a rare thing in this game and by only carrying one, you will be forced to change up tactics or be well-versed with one type. Thankfully, you have a good selection of firearms to choose from, such as handguns, shotguns, grenade launchers and so on, making it easy to vary up your style or find a comfort zone. There is also a cover-mechanic, with blind fire and shooting from the hip being available, but one of the interesting parts is when you jump over hurdles and aim at the same time. You will then automatically go into slow-mo that provides better aim, and the more headshots and kills you make, the longer this power lasts. This is a nice addition as you put yourself in danger, but if you are skillful, you can survive in a pinch. I also love how action-packed this feels and since the enemies are aggressive and smart, it always feels rewarding when you do this. This is even utilized when you shoot from a vehicle, since when you aim at someone, it will go into slow-mo, though you will have less control of your transporting-device, providing a risk vs reward-system again.
Every mission makes good use of Wei’s capabilities and you never feel like you are underprepared for the challenges ahead. However, there are plenty of ways to improve your characters through upgrades. Fist of, you have both a Cop and a Triad-skill tree, which you can gain XP for and eventually a skillpoint whenever they level up. With each skillpoint, you can choose between two branches inside each skill-tree, such as gaining the ability to steal a car without sounding the alarm through the Cop-tree or dealing more damage with punches and kicks through the Triad-tree. Each mission where you are an undercover cop or do police-work, you must sustain a decent behavior and not destroy properties or hurt civilians to get the most Cop-XP, while gaining Triad-XP comes from ruthless behavior such as doing stunts and killing enemies in horrific and varied ways. This is a nice balance you will have to keep in mind for each mission and you will be ranked upwards to 3 in each, though with side missions, you will be able to gain enough for each skill tree to be maxed out. Missions can also be revisited if you wish for a better score as well, and the map showcases all the activities you can take on, which gives you many options on how to tackle the game.
Upgrades for the other skill trees can only be achieved through side missions, although they are nice additions and entertaining for exploration. Upgrading your melee-tree for gaining more combat-moves, is done by finding one of twelve statues around the world and give them to your old martial arts master. The second one, the health-tree, is probably the simplest as it upgrades your health automatically by finding small shrines to pray at around Hong Kong, though also makes you be keen and explore this vast city. Finally, we have your oddly named face-tree, not to be confused with the mentioned face-meter. This one adds to your status-abilities automatically, but more importantly, lets you wear better clothes. Yes, fashion is important when roaming around Hong Kong, as some can give you a slight boost to your stats or provide unique ways to play the game such as different moves for your face-meter. Anything from sets of clothes to wristwatches can be customized, so go wild and experiment.
Other items you can purchase will also be important. Besides clothes and how you cruise through the town, you can also purchase beverages and food for stat-boost or for healing, creating some immersion while also being important for making missions easier to tackle. While health does regenerate outside of combat, it only does up to the halfway point. Besides this, there are plenty of smaller activities you can tackle, such as opening locks, using a radar for locating criminals, opening safes by hearing the right click, placing bugs to eavesdrop on conversations, and more. These are entertaining QTEs with more interactivity, which adds to simplify and challenge the player. Even the karaoke is done with the analog-stick by moving it up and down for accurate high and low tones. The only one not demanding a QTE of these small activities, are some locks requiring you to play mastermind with numbers, though it is still an entertaining diversion.
This journey through Hong Kong is not afraid of going a bit silly and over the top, such as providing costumes that are taken from other games Square Enix has published, but it always tries to keep you down to earth. You can, for example, jump from one car and hijack another, which is challenging because the high speed might take you off guard, but so cool. Everything you can do is limited enough to make it so you remember that you are still vulnerable and mortal, but gives you enough abilities and arsenal to give an action-packed journey, which makes it easier to be immersed in both categories. The carnage you can cause outside of the missions is never the focus. It is about the exploration of this huge world, and the varied and entertaining missions to tackle. Of course, should you be in the mood to go wild and do something illegal in the presence of the police, they will chase you throughout the city and when you die, you will go to the hospital with less cash on hand.
There are a couple of weird design-choices that will be noticeable, but not hurting the overall, wonderful experience. First is Wei’s cellphone. It serves very little purpose except for starting and progression through missions, and for taking some pictures, though nothing else to make missions interesting. Yet, you will have to travel to many areas and can’t call for a cab, for example. Instead, you might have to steal someone else’s or hope you find a cab through sheer luck. You can call for your own vehicles, but a more efficient fast-travel would have been welcome. It is a minor issue, but one that always made fast-traveling rarer than it should have been. Lastly, hacking cameras to find drug dealers makes you simply wait for 40 seconds until the game blatantly tells you who it is. Though these are minor flaws compared to the vast and interesting world you will explore. There is a ton of variety and things to do, with all being entertaining and enjoyable, combat is exhilarating both at close and at long-range, the customization is excellent, going for Triad vs Cop XP is interesting, and driving around the town is always fun.
Gameplay Score: 9/10
The vast Hong Kong
The United Front’s staff visited the city of Hong Kong for doing research on the visuals and sounds they would experience from this urban city and it definitely shows. The neon streetlights and cramped industrial settings that range from old harbors to more modern buildings are impressively recreated. The 2D windows displaying the stores are unfortunate and repeated, but it is still aesthetically pleasing and the town with different shops, themes and economic value is immersive. The tons of people, vehicles, and items to find adds to the cramped feeling that Hong Kong can provide and each area is memorable and different, making it fun to explore every single location.
The immersion also continues with the weather effects such as rain and water-animations being impressive, and I love that the animations for the combat are smooth and believable, with enough over the top-style from an action movie to make the fights visually entertaining. The Havok-engine is a beautiful thing, making enemies fly far after huge explosions and every broken bone you inflict on others satisfying. Characters are well designed with great expressions, though outside of the story-driven scenes, the characters have flat mouth-animations and stiff movements, but still look good and have enough distinct look to be unique. I also love how Shen’s costumes are always shown at any time, even in cutscenes, making the experience more authentic.
The voice actors do a great job at mixing up the English and Chinese language, although I wish they stuck more to one language to make it more believable and not repeat words they just spoke in a different language. The actors range from serviceable background cast to impressive main-actors and nothing is at a mediocre level. You can easily tell they take their roles seriously by giving great emotions to their dialogue, but also that they enjoy their over-the-top acting, which is stereotypical, but doesn’t come of as offensive due to having a lighter and more humorous tone in these instances. Other sounds of background-noises, such as cars and shopkeepers shouting at you, are also great additions to the immersion. The same can be said for the music, ranging from traditional Chinese music using gongs to pop-songs that are more modern. Not to mention, the cheesy karaoke-songs are a nice touch, and there are plenty of radio stations to choose from for the long car rides. While Sleeping Dogs is no technical marvel, it is artistically and aesthetically wonderful.
Presentation Score: 8.5/10
“Why don’t you have a pork bun in your hand?”
There are a bunch of sidequests to tackle, such as police-work, saving citizens, different types of races, support your gang in missions, and, of course, a bunch of collectibles. You can even buy stuff for the apartments you acquire in the game to make them more visually pleasing. The missions are varied between each other and all are entertaining, but I wish for more interesting setups inside the type of quests themselves. For example, one quest involves destroying other cars for helping a man who claimed that he was almost killed in a street race, but his mission will repeat with the same story and objective: destroy cars and knock out the driver.
A few numbers are different from the previous one, but most quickly become samey inside its own mission type, though never repetitive thanks to how fun and engaging they are, with the difficulty being increased after each finished mission. Even the fetch quests are fun as you might go and take photos of different sceneries or explore hidden areas to take down gangs, which are entertaining. Gambling money with Mahjong is also available for those seeking some risks and you can also go on dates, should you wish for more story-segments. You can also compare scores with other players online and it is a nice touch for the “just one more try”-mentality.
The Definitive Edition also contains all of the DLC, including missions, costumes, and more to the end-game and the events throughout the game, providing so many things to do that you might forget the story-missions. Besides these, there are also two exclusive episodes which are not part of the main game, but rather stand-alone. The first is Nightmare in North Point and the second is The Year of the Snake.
The first one is a simple ghost story that doesn’t take itself seriously, which I am all okay with. It focuses on constant fighting and is rather a short story-mission than something resembling original main-story, though it is a nice Halloween distraction and it is fun to beat ghosts up. The second one is more of a “what if” scenario of what would have happened if Wei’s actions actually had consequences to your rank inside the police. With Wei being degraded to a street cop, he eventually starts investigating a cult’s evil plan for the new year. This one is more about doing police-work such as roughing up criminals and hacking/eavesdropping. Both episodes do contain their own version of Hong Kong with clothes and weapons to unlock, as well as some missions of their own so they can be viewed as short open-world games. You do have everything upgraded when entering these missions however, so it is recommended to have played the main-games story first.
Extra Score: 8.5 /10
It is easy to call any open world-games set in a city a GTA-clone, even if they do something unique or significantly better. Sleeping Dogs is definitely its own thing, while taking inspirations from other games and making it into something of its own. The story is a great cop-story which I can actually take seriously, the amount of content is massive and entertaining, Hong Kong is presented wonderfully, and I always felt a sense of satisfaction, be it simply running through the city and eating noodles, or taking down 13 bad guys with none landing a single hit on me. It is unlikely that we will ever see more from United Front as they sadly had to close their doors in 2016, but if they never get another shot at making games, I am at least happy that this title exists. No matter if you are into or despise open-world games, it is hard to not appreciate this entry.