Sleeping Dogs starts right in the middle of a drug deal. When things go south, protagonist Wei Shen finds himself running through a dock, a fish market, and finally spilling onto the street and right into police custody. Meeting up with a childhood friend named Jackie Ma while in lockup puts Wei in touch with the Red Poles of the Sun On Yee Triad – the local power players in Hong Kong. He’ll be in a position to get in tight with the Triad, work his way up, and eventually serve the Dragonhead himself! All of that would be great…if Wei Shen wasn’t a cop.
I saw Sleeping Dogs several years ago when it had the working title “True Crime: Hong Kong”. Keeping with my long tradition of betting on the things that Activision is foolish enough to cast away, I kept my eye on this game until United Front began to work with Square Enix, transforming this title into Sleeping Dogs. Taking a lot of elements from their True Crime roots, Sleeping Dogs is a Hong Kong-based action title in the vein of GTA or similar sandbox titles, featuring an open world, the ability choose your next missions freely, and the conflict between being a cop and proving you are a ruthless member of the most powerful criminal organization in this fictional representation of Hong Kong. We’ve seen this approach in other titles, but it’s the small details in Sleeping Dogs that makes it compelling.
As I said, Sleeping Dogs kicks off with Wei Shen letting himself get picked up by the local police in a drug bust sting. This puts him in position to meet up with some local foot soldiers of the Sun On Yee Triad. Using a bit of social engineering he is able to insert himself into the organization using friendships from his own checkered past. Throughout the course of the game, Wei finds himself in deep with these criminals and begins to question his own loyalties. These gangsters and thugs are people with families and blood loyalty. Can Wei bring down these people now that he can see things from their side, or will he fall into the very trap HKPD is so desperately trying to close?
The sandbox for Sleeping Dogs is divided up into four sections of the island – Central, North Point, Aberdeen, and Kennedy Town. Though you aren’t restricted from going anywhere you’d like, you’ll find that the vast majority of the story missions are clustered and organized into groups so you can focus on one area at a time. The story arcs are split into two threads – Wei’s involvement in the police, and his job working undercover in the Triad. As you complete these missions you’ll gain experience based on your performance. For instance, if you are particularly brutal, use environmental attacks, take precise shots, and are otherwise playing the Triad card properly, you’ll earn experience to use in their upgrade path. If you are careful to avoid civilian casualties or injuries and try not to cause damage in the city you’ll pick up points on the Cop upgrade track. There is a pair of meters to fill beyond these two, specifically “Face” and Health. Health upgrades are handled a little differently in Sleeping Dogs. There are 50 health shrines scattered throughout the world, and Wei Shen can pray at them to regain health. For every 5 he finds he’ll get a 10% bonus to his overall health permanently. The Face meter is a measure of how the community views you, and you raise it by doing side missions for Hong Kong citizens.
Specifics in all three upgrade paths include increased damage in your attacks, additional resistance to melee strikes, the ability to nab a tire iron from the trunk of a car, unblockable attacks when your Face meter is full, and much more. You can raise the bonus experience to unlock these things through your clothing options. Buying clothes isn’t just cosmetic – you can get set bonuses that add to melee damage, additional Triad or Cop experience, percentages off purchase prices for cars or clothes, and more. Some clothing sets have a “Face Level” that must be met before you may purchase or use them. For instance, you can pick up a necklace that grants additional Triad experience, but you’ll have to have the cash as well as a Level 5 Face to equip it. Face is also a factor in combat – when your face meter reaches max you begin to strike harder, intimidate your enemies, and also regain your health. “Happy Ending” jokes aside, you’ll be able to get massages to help your Face meter rise faster, drink Dragon Kick soda or eat a variety of foods to help with health regeneration, drink tea for damage resistance, and a few other various items to help you survive combat.
If you’ve followed our recent video posts, you’ll know already that Georges St. Pierre has put his stamp of authenticity behind Sleeping Dogs. Normally celebrity endorsements mean absolutely nothing to me, but in this case it may have brought us one of the best combat engines I’ve seen recently. Hong Kong has outlawed guns other than for the police and military, so they are much more rare than here in the United States. With that in mind, Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on hand-to-hand combat. We’ve seen quite a few titles try to get interrupt-driven martial arts right, and we’ve seen just as many come close but not quite pull it off. Fighting should be challenging, but not impossible, and controls are key. Sleeping Dogs manages to pull off exactly that – the combat requires good timing, paying attention all opponents, smart upgrade choices, and a good balance between offense and defense. Wei has a full arsenal of martial arts at his disposal, making him dangerous in combat. Unfortunately for Wei, so are his opponents. You’ll primarily use the X button, either tapped or held, to combine into complex aerial strikes and devastating kicks/punches. When enemies attack they will briefly flash red, allowing you to interrupt them with a counterstrike. If you are thinking this sounds like Batman: Arkham City, you’d be right. Strikes to the leg, groin, throat, and more are all legal when your life is on the line, so Wei wastes no time in causing as much damage to his enemies as quickly as he can. You can use the environment (memorably attempted by the title John Woo’s Stranglehold) to slide across and disable your opponents. As you face off against different enemy types, or brawlers with weapons, you’ll need every advantage you can get. The hand-to-hand combat is visceral and somehow very satisfying.
To expand the list of fighting moves in the game, you’ll need to meet up with your local martial arts instructor. Based, I’m quite certain, with a man I’ve trained with personally, Great Grandmaster Samuel Kwok of the Wing Chun Martial Art Association, your instructor Sifu Kwok needs you to recover several Jade Statues that he has lost to theft. These statues are spread throughout the world, and recovering them entitles you to learn one more move in your attack upgrade list. The confusing thing is that it seems like Wei already knows the attack upgrades (there are a few outside of standard attacks), these training sessions just seem to give you a focused lesson on how to use them. It is a nod of great respect from the folks at United Front, and one I appreciate very much.
The close combat engine is part of four pieces that make up the bulk of the game – driving, shooting, and free-running are the other three. Eventually you will find yourself with a weapon in hand, able to use cover and gun down opponents. During particularly momentous times in combat the game will, much like in Strangehold, engage in some artistic slow-down to emphasize the sheer awesomeness of the combat taking place. On the driving side of life, you’ll first have to get used to driving on the left side of the road, but after that you’ll find it isn’t all that different than any other open-world title.
The final cornerstone of the game is one that is the most fulfilling and sometimes the most frustrating – freerunning. Holding down A causes Wei to run at top speed, and when approaching an obstacle, letting go for a moment and then tapping A causes him to vault, slide, or otherwise tackle the obstacle. Frequently you’ll be chasing down an enemy, forced to scramble through the environment. Similar to the Assassin’s Creed series, you have absolutely NO chance of catching that person early – hence the frustration. When you arrive at the predetermined spot you’ll stop and square off against whatever trap has been sprung.
Shifting away from combat, there is another aspect that makes Sleeping Dogs hold your interest throughout the campaign – minigames. There are minigames around every corner, starting with the most basic minigame to hack cameras. In this minigame you select four unique numbers to try to guess the combination. You’ll get several attempts and the game will tell you whether the numbers are in the correct position, if they are the right number but in the wrong position, or if that digit is correct. Once you hack the camera, you head back to your apartment to observe the area, allowing you to have drug dealers arrested in the act. Unfortunately this particular minigame devolves into a game of “Where’s Waldo” as you arrest the same guy 9 times in each of the four areas. Hacking cameras isn’t the only minigame – you’ll also unscrew vents, calibrate listening devices, pick locks, crack safes, triangulate cell phones, plant bugs, cock fighting (it’s pick one or the other side and win or lose), a progressive fight club, smashing cars with tire irons, hijacking moving vehicles by leaping onto them, and more. There is so much variety in the minigames that they never feel repetitive – the sheer variety of minis and their careful placement by the developers makes them always feel like fresh experiences. In addition, I guarantee that this is the only action title you’ve ever played where you can sing karaoke. A little minigame asking you to match pitch with the thumbstick pops up allowing you to sing songs from The Clash, Flock of Seagulls, and Loverboy for starters.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t without a few shortcomings to go with all of this great content. The arrest mechanic only gives you one chance to resist the police armlock to prevent yourself from heading to jail, and on more than one occasion the quicktime event was masked by the mission success overlay. Additionally, and seemingly only while driving, the camera is more than a bit squirrely. It’ll overswing or whip a 360 around Wei, leaving you driving into clusters of civilians or lampposts. Additionally, when you take down opponents the Havok engine can go a little crazy, leaving twitchy opponents or foes twisted into unspeakable pretzel-like configurations.
For these few minor issues that Sleeping Dogs stumbles on, there is so very much that it gets right. Many of the character voice actors are clearly of Chinese descent and frequently sprinkle in Cantonese into their work. There are 50 shrines, 26 spy cameras, 100 lockboxes with money and clothing, and 11 Jade Statues in the game to keep you busy beyond the 15 or so hours of the somewhat-predictable, yet enjoyable main story. The four pillars of the game that I mentioned earlier represent a fantastic amalgamation of some of the best games we’ve played, giving us a serviceable shooting and driving game, a great free-running game, and a fantastic combat engine all in one package. Anywhere Sleeping Dogs might have lost points for originality, it makes up for in managing to combine all of these elements into one coherent game. As I finish up my review for Sleeping Dogs I have to say that my track record for betting on items that Activision has discarded has held up. I highly recommend this title.