Game review: Sleeping Dogs

Long story short: United Front Studios were making a game called True Crime, but then Activision cancelled it. Square Enix picked it up and it was reborn as Sleeping Dogs. This jerry-rigged True Crime had the makings of a disastrous flop and yet has ended up a brilliant entry in the crime sandbox genre.

“Hey Cihan, I don’t think using ‘jerry-rigged’ in that sentence quite works the way you want it t-” shut up! You shut your filthy face! It’s my review, just shut up and read it.

Woah. Anyway. Sorry about that. I’ve been under a lot of stress lately. I just watched a lady chop a man to pieces in front of me, I keep running pedestrians over and driving away, and my handler is an uptight idiot who keeps making bad calls putting my life on the line.

Sleeping Dogs charts the dark journey of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has returned to HK after a long stint living in San Francisco. With a troubled past behind him and vengeance ahead, we walk his shoes as a foot soldier of a major triad organisation and as with these types of tales, we rise up through the ranks.

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Similarities to the genre-defining Grand Theft Auto are inevitable, however Sleeping Dogs truly carves out its own identity, not least because of its location, the island of Hong Kong. Home to John Woo, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Johnnie To and other geniuses who have a subtle inspiration on this crime-thriller-action-martial-arts-drama-machete-wielding game.

Having said that, there is a surprising lack of homage in this game, for the first 9 hours of play I couldn’t spot any in fact. Then by opening a specific collectible lockbox I was rewarded with the infamous Bruce Lee yellow jumpsuit. The game is kind of refreshing in its restraint. One would have expected the first action scene to involve you sliding down a staircase firing two guns, but nope, the story avoids the obvious route of pastiche and should be commended for doing so. Though it does homage Hard Boiled later, the game never forces you to recreate any scene from any film, but rather continually makes you aware you’re living on this amazing island that has such a rich cinematic history.

A much-needed break from over-used American cities in gaming, Sleeping Dogs tries to faithfully recreate Hong Kong’s quirks and habits to a successful degree. Citizens mutter in their own language as you walk by, depending on which quarter of the island you happen to find yourself. You’ll find more English-speakers in the business district of Central for example and more of the ‘real streets’ in North Point. The NPC acting is laughable but in a charming way. There is better quality in the main characters Wei Shen collides with on his one-man mission to decimate a criminal enterprise.

The game features a very versatile group of actors, headed by Will Yun Lee as the main character Wei Shen, accompanied by the likes of Tom Wilkinson, James Hong, Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, and Edison Chen out of exile. (who was hounded out of the HK film industry for having a sex life his critics could only fantasise about)

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The acting and dialogue are decent, not as witty as the GTA franchise which is the best attempt at satire in gaming, but Sleeping Dogs plays it straight-laced with Infernal Affairs style intensity, and for what it is, it succeeds well. The story is concerned with the usual themes you find in the genre, losing oneself to a role and forgetting which side of the law an undercover cop is meant to walk on, etc. It sounds tired and cliched, yet in the HK context it feels compelling enough.

A particular highlight for me was hopping on my bike and having to chase a boat containing a kidnapped female destined for a horrible life. The stakes feel heavier in comparison to GTA where the major stake was generally your own life or finances. Sleeping Dogs has Wei Shen try to avoid unnecessary mayhem (because you’ll lose police upgrade points) while remain disguised as a thug by causing destruction. (you’ll gain triad upgrade points!)

Even though GTA4 has far superior writing, that game’s crime hijinks never got under my skin the way Sleeping Dogs did, with its depiction of the seedy underbelly of HK populated by immovable triad gangs entrenched deep within society, with their fingers in every pocket, controlling everything from small stores to major actors and singers at their whim, one false move for a controlled starlot and she’s banished to porn. It all rings very true to life, if you know anything about HK’s history with triads, and having to wade through it made me feel dirty.

Like GTA4 you can spend time away from the main story by doing odd jobs for dubious characters like finding cars or collecting debts. You also cross paths with women who you have brief relationships with. Hey, you have to do something to keep sane in this lifestyle. Sleeping Dogs has a charming depiction of modern dating, not entirely realistic, but within the realm of possibility, going so far as to even paint your character as a cheating hypocrite and ingloriously dumped in the rain in one instance, which made me chuckle.

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The graphics and character movement felt too arcade-ish in a Sega/Yakuza kind of way. GTA still feels more intuitive with its hilarious rag doll physics, such as when you accidentally get run over by a car or go flying through your own windshield. A pet peeve of mine with Sleeping Dogs is that your character automatically jogs everywhere and you use a controller shoulder button to have them walk instead. Wish I could have inverted that control scheme.

The fight scenes are awesome in this game, and the action is kinetic featuring parkour manoeuvres for leaping around objects and veering by any pedestrians in your way, and cinematic slo-mo when hijacking other drivers’ vehicles while speeding on a highway. For combat, it’s just a simple case of using the square button (PS3) for the most part, and using O button to make use of surrounding environments for seamless kill animations. For example grabbing a dude near a wall will result with Wei slamming his head into it. Replace wall with car door, fish tank, spiky railing, and you get the picture. The possibilities are gory and with no lag in animation, all playing out like a crazy anime in front of your eyes.

The camera in the game can be frustratingly wonky though, especially while driving. It’s the annoying kind of camera that does its own thing, and sometimes snaps back to a default position if you move it too far. Driving down Central district in a sports car with Ninja Tune radio blaring out was often hampered by the camera when I found myself crashing into something and reversing.

Which brings us to the soundtrack. Holy crap. United Front Studios have outdone themselves on this point. The GTA franchise tends to be hailed as the game with the best soundtrack comprising of various artists, but for me SD blows it away. It’s as if they rifled through my last.fm library and hand-picked every single track I love just for this game. Unbelievable.

There are 10 radio stations catering to a range of genres from the obligatory hip hop station to classical, and we get brilliant entries from the likes of Bonobo, Flying Lotus, Mount Washington, The Cinematic Orchestra, Bombay Bicycle Club, Ladyhawke, J Dilla, Battles and the hidden gem that is Bei Bei & Shawn Lee. Heck, there’s a radio station dedicated to just the Ninja Tune label, how awesome is that? The only thing they missed out on is the post-rock genre, but it’s an awesome soundtrack full of tunes I love, recognising nearly all of them made me a happy bunny.

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Let’s go through a list of flaws, as the game is not perfect:

  • The clothing system is a jumbled mess. There are a large variety of clothes you can equip on your character which is all well and good, except anytime you purchase or are rewarded with something new, it appears in one long list back in your home’s wardrobe. There’s no way to order or organise your clothes other than 5 custom sets, which leaves you with a hell of a lot of scrolling to do.
  • The aforementioned camera, especially when driving.
  • NPC dialogue can be ropey, too caricature-ish.
  • You can’t keep any weapons. Admittedly this also reinforces the fact that guns are hard to find in HK anyway, so I’ll give it a pass. Barely. Many a time I wanted a weapon, but had to resort to finding a poor cop and attacking him for it.

To end on a happier note, the pros:

  • Collectibles are highlighted on the mini-map (and main map) at certain points once you progress far enough into the story. Yes!
  • HK feels authentic, well as authentic as you’d expect for current-gen games. NPCs smoking, crouching in the street having cigs…

If I had to use one word to describe Sleeping Dogs, it would be: seamless. The game has you hijacking vehicles by diving from car to car in an addictive fashion, with seamless being the operative word here. It does things so comfortably for the most part it makes the game a joy to play. Parking garages are interspersed at a good distance, as are vending machines giving out drinks that boost your strength. You don’t have to spend an unnecessary amount of time finding anything. One moment you’re helping a random NPC with a request, then the next you’re continuing Wei Shen’s journey. The game culminates in a ridiculously epic sequence of action scenes culminating in a gory death that had me laughing “holy shit!” at the screen.

Whatever the flaws of the game, the entire endeavour was worth it when 28 hours into my playthrough, I stumbled onto the infamous escalators that featured prominently in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express. I tried to peek through a nearby apartment window to see if I could spot Faye Wong…

Chungking Express is one of my favourite films ever, set on a city island I’ve yearned to visit my whole life. Sleeping Dogs made me feel one step closer to that dream.

Thanks!

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