Sleeping Dogs

August 29, 2012, Author: Trent Pyro

Action cinema is something we take for granted these days, but back in the day we had to settle for John Wayne cowboy movies and the occasional Steve McQueen thriller to satisfy our cravings for visual violence. Then along came a little-known Chinese director who changed everything: John Woo.

With just two films, The Killer and Hard Boiled, he revolutionised the way we viewed the gunfight, crafting almost poetic sequences with a flair and aplomb never before seen. He directed the actors like dancers and used the physicality of stars like Chow Yun Fat to create a whole new style of cinematography dubbed balletic gunplay. Pretty much every dual-wield dive through a plate glass window, modern gunman showdown and slo-mo bullet death owes a debt to Mr Woo. Without him there would be no Matrix, no Max Payne and now, no Sleeping Dogs.

Originally a fresh IP from little-known developer United Front Games called Black Lotus, it was quickly snapped up by Activision and rebranded as True Crime: Hong Kong in an effort to rejuvenate the old franchise for a new generation. Some time later the corporation declared that the game “…just wasn’t going to be good enough.” and dropped it in the lurch, leaving its future in question and United Front with an 80% finished game and no publisher.

Fast-forward a year and Square Enix London are among the companies being courted by the ailing developer. Claiming they’d found a diamond in the rough, the Japanese company picked it up and immediately began working with United Front to release the game under a new title: Sleeping Dogs. It’s finally here and the big question is, has it lived up to expectations? Squeenix said that Activision must have been crazy to drop the game, so let’s find out if they were right.

Infernal repairs
Taking its cue from Chinese undercover masterpiece Infernal Affairs, Sleeping Dogs tracks the story of Wei Shen, a Chinese-American bobby called back to his homeland of Hong Kong to infiltrate one of the most dangerous and feared crime syndicates in the world: the Triads. Focussing on the Sun On Yee, a family with connections to the area Wei grew up in, it weaves a thrilling course of intrigue, loyalty and treachery.

More so than its spiritual True Crime predecessors, Sleeping Dogs makes Wei Shen the central axis the entire plot pivots on. Everything is on him as he juggles his commitment to his job with his false loyalty to the Sun On Yee. Many of the family’s members are his childhood friends and soon the line between his duty and his honour begins to blur. As the plot nears its end it becomes a tangled web of lies and deceit, and the crushing conclusion is one of the best I’ve played in a long time.

The story and characters presented here are some of the best in the genre. Wei is a complex, conflicted character with a healthy dose of acquired arrogance and a penchant for indulging in brutal violence. On the one hand you dislike his willingness to cause gruesome pain and question his psychological state, but on the other you admire his commitment to a very difficult job and respect his attempts to limit collateral damage.

Far from the shallow thug he first appears to be, Wei blossoms into a guy you really want to help succeed but whose intentions afterwards you just can’t place. The supporting cast are often the usual Triad hoods and stiff cops, but play their parts well and make it easy to see things through Wei’s eyes.

This leads to many of the main players being likeable people. Helping them out and earning their trust becomes a task you throw yourself into regardless of your undercover position; you yourself begin to find it hard to sell them out to the cops and do your proper job. I find the key to a good story is making you feel like you’re totally there with the protagonist, and the writers at United Front have done a stellar job in this department.

Things don't start so well for Wei...

Aside from the main story missions there’s a plethora of other stuff to do in Hong Kong. Inspector Teng, a local detective with a heavy workload and a severe lack of help from the top, enlists Wei early on to help with a case and soon realises she can use his invaluable position to her advantage. Helping her out with cases boosts your rep as a cop (more on that later) and helps unravel some interesting sub-plots. However, I would’ve liked to see her involvement with Wei fleshed out a little more.

Fights clubs, street races and random citizen favours exist to tick certain boxes on the ‘open-world crime’ genre checklist. All are enjoyable, and in the case of the favours can be unique and interesting diversions.

Culture clash
Sleeping Dogs plays like a beautiful mongrel of the last five years in games. Combining martial-arts combat, visceral shooting, breathless driving and a huge, open map, it manages to make all of its elements work together and individually. The best way to look at it is as a sum of its parts, held together by the brilliant story.

Most of the blood spilt will be through brutal close combat rather than gunfights. Wei is an accomplished fighter and a merciless combatant, effortlessly mulching multiple opponents with skill and style. Taking its cue from Rocksteady’s world-class Batman games, combat uses a simple attack-counter-grab system peppered with some fresh ideas to make fighting a room full of bad guys a repeated joy.

Attacks land with a satisfying crunch while counters blend beautifully into the flow of combat. Grabbing a foe opens up a new tree of possibilities with special moves and throws added to Wei’s repertoire. The much-hyped environmental kills are savage and always fun to use. Slamming a thug’s head in a car door, ramming him through an air vent and dashing him on a crate of swordfish beaks are just a few of the gruesome ways you can dispatch foes in a single action.

While they’re cool, relying on the environment often gets you killed. It’s Wei himself who is always the greatest weapon in your arsenal. Even mêlée weapons, occasionally carried by some foes, only last a short time and are more of a temporary bonus than a mainstay. It’s obvious United Front have put a lot of onus on the hand-to-hand combat. It performs over and over again to make every fight a joy to play, and every new area a playground of possibilities.

As you progress through the game and up the Sun On Yee ladder, you’ll come across thugs with firearms. Crucially Wei doesn’t carry a gun as standard, forcing him to disarm a nearby opponent and neatly stitch the gap between fighting and shooting. Once he has a piece Wei is a vicious gunman John Woo would be proud of. While the standard cover-shooting works well, it’s the added flair that sets it apart from the competition.

Vault over cover and aim your gun and Wei busts into a moment of slo-mo. Killing an enemy extends your time, and combined with a snap-aim feature it gives you the chance to wipe out an entire room with a single, awesome move. Enemies are smart and accurate so the slo-mo vault move is not the be all and end all of every, gunfight and the few gun-focussed missions are some of the hardest in the game.

It’s tricky to really put a new spin on cover-shooting these days. Considering the amount of shitty games we’ve had as a result of developers trying to do just that, it’s encouraging to see that United Front have focused on creating a solid mechanic and simply enhanced it with some John Woo flair.

Completing the triad (tee hee) of features is the driving, and fuck me is it great. Peeling out from a wheel-spin and dodging through traffic has never felt so good in an open-world game. GTA4’s clunky handling and Saint’s Row’s arcadey feel are far away from the sweet driving experience on offer. Some of United Front’s team came from the Need For Speed crew and it shows constantly in the handling, precision and thrill of the driving sections.

All but the most family-style cars can be pushed to the max and bust round corners like a true action hero, while the motorbikes are smooth and responsive. Once again the team haven’t simply made a good driving mechanic, and have layered it with fresh and not-so-fresh ideas. Car-jacking from car-to-car has been seen in a few games before, notably the awful Wheelman, but is given new life here and fits perfectly.

Shooting while driving is made finer than ever before with the inclusion of slo-mo when you begin shooting, making it easy to keep control of the car and still cause havoc with a firearm. Chases become bloodbaths as you effortlessly shoot out tyres, sending cars pinwheeling through the air in glorious slow motion, then smoothly swing back to dodging the traffic in one, fluid movement. It makes you feel like a badass and keeps the driving sections a head above the rest.

All these elements combine to make one of the best open-world games ever. Every factor is brilliant, and being able to stylishly beat up a group of thugs before slipping naturally into gunning a few down is awesome. To then be able to climb in a car and essentially continue your gunfight, slamming enemies off the road and peppering them with lead, is really something special. Everything is streamlined so nothing is clunky or overcomplicated; United Front understand that there’s a lot to do and only so many buttons.

The parkour sprinting and climbing is fluid and exciting, yet achingly simple to perform. It stitches the aggregate parts together brilliantly, allowing simple transition at the touch of a button at any time. Gone are the days of free-roam games being let down by traversal or combat; Sleeping Dogs has cracked the formula.

The muggers had no idea who they were fucking with...

Upgrades can be earned throughout the game by gathering XP in one of three areas. Helping out Teng, taking part in drug busts and limiting collateral damage during missions nets you Cop XP; brutalising enemies and causing carnage nets you Triad XP; and competing favours for people accrues Face XP. The first two types level up as you’d expect and with each new level you get to pick a perk generally related to the XP that unlocks it. Cop perks are all about shooting and helping you do your job cleanly and safely, while Triad perks are designed to improve your ability to cause trouble and really put the hurt on your enemies.

As you level up your Face you automatically gain bonuses, usually related to the Face Bar that fills in combat. In the higher levels, filling the bar can make you an indestructible powerhouse and this really adds to the feeling that Wei is slowly getting better and better at what he does. While I thought having three types of XP was overkill at first, the more you play the more it makes sense.

There’s no guarantee you’ll end the game with every perk and once the credits roll there’s few chances to complete the set, so how you choose to play each mission will mould your version of Wei Shen. While it’s not as drastic as an RPG, it’s nice to see a developer understanding that a constant drip-feed of new moves and features goes a long way to keeping us interested.

The city of Hong Kong is a bustling metropolis full of life-like pedestrians, jobsworth coppers and street thugs that breathes with life for every second of the game. Hitting a pedestrian with a car will cause passers by to scream in terror. An ambulance shows up and the paramedic looks over the body before declaring it DOA and driving off. Witnesses still seem shocked by the event and some even begin to cry. It sounds so basic on paper but it’s details like this that make a world feel tangible. United Front’s Hong Kong feels just like the real thing; loud, crowded, energetic and dangerous.

I can’t be entirely gushing though. The difficulty curve is not so much a curve as a vertical wall, throwing you into solid fights right from the start and forcing you to learn from hard experience. Missing a few counters will get you beat and it can be very frustrating at first. I’ve already had friends drop the game entirely because they couldn’t push through the initial difficulty and weren’t willing to take the time to learn the rhythm of combat.

I’ve got a feeling this will put many others off the game but I implore you, dear reader, to persevere. As long as you keep your wits about you and keep trying you’ll soon become a master of the combat mechanics and the difficulty drops considerably once you do.

There are also some niggling bugs that can occasionally cause a pointless restart or make the game harder than it should be. I experienced a few mission failures when I was essentially doing exactly what I was told, and a tailing sequence failed because the guy I was following crashed too much. I also encountered an invincible thug, but generally bugs were rare, and while they were quite damaging their existence shouldn’t put you off. 99% of the time Sleeping Dogs is a fluid, clean experience.

Neon-drenched streets
Sleeping Dogs’ looks are both average and awesome. If we’re talking basic technicality, it’s impressive but nothing eye-watering. Everything is rendered well and characters are well-animated. Objects explode, cars splinter and smash, blah blah blah. It should be noted, however, that everything functions perfectly well, and while the facial animations are a little wooden the characters and pedestrians are just as lifelike as in any of Sleeping Dogs’ peers. It’s the production design and attention to detail that really sets it above the rest.

Hong Kong is a vibrant and original setting for a game and United Front have gotten the most from the legendary city. Their numerous research trips have paid off immensely, creating a believable and lived-in metropolis. Every street is bathed in neon light, littered with stalls and signs. Every alley is crowded with rubbish and boxes and people, every nook and cranny used for something.

It feels tight and claustrophobic when compared to the clear streets of Liberty City or Steelport and it makes you consider the world you’re in much more. Each of the four districts has its own identity and they’ve nailed the unique mixture of ancient and modern right on the head. I’ve been waiting for a chance to explore a Chinese-style cityscape for years now, and the Hong Kong presented in Sleeping Dogs is everything I ever hoped for and more.

A common postcard moment in Hong Kong.

Sound the gong
Hong Kong positively screams with sound as you bowl around doing mischief. It’s common to hear citizens talking on the phone, engaged in conversations with each other and commenting on your extroverted actions. The dialogue on the whole is of a high standard, with more than a few Hollywood names lending their recognisable voices to the game. Most notable though are the more unknown actors, who become the characters they play and create fresh, believable people that you grow to love or hate.

The action is permeated by the typical punchy impact sounds, with bullets landing like grenades and punches feeling juicy as they slam into foes. The audio design is just as bombastic as the rest of the game and it does wonders for the experience. Cars roar and scream as you tear about the roads causing carnage, and the sound of crunching metal accompanies every bump and crash. Taking out an enemy with one of the environmental kills is as satisfying to the ears as it is to the eyes. United Front have generally done a stellar job at keeping up with modern standards of audio production.

The one negative, in my opinion, is the radio. Despite having around ten stations to choose from, every one is full of shit. The Kerrang! station plays only bed-wetter indie pop, the Roadrunner station only ancient nu-metal. Friends of mine who listen to hip-hop were shocked at the awful quality of the couple of rap-based stations and the others cover techno, drum-n-bass, classical and pop badly.

The only listenable station is the traditional Chinese music frequency, and while it’s very relaxing it’s not exactly car-chase music. I can only imagine that United Front had trouble getting permission to use good songs and instead had to work with what they could get. Either that or the guy in charge of the music had shockingly bad taste.

Your honour is challenged!
Sleeping Dogs has no multiplayer to speak of and it’s better for it. The counter-based mêlée would’ve been hard to implement, the shooting isn’t varied enough to stand on its own and so the only logical conclusion would have been to crowbar in some sort of racing mode. This was tried in RAGE and… well, try finding a match on that these days. Taking time out to cobble together a multiplayer would’ve likely tarnished the single-player experience and I for one am glad they didn’t bother.

What they did implement however works pretty well, although could be tweaked a bit. As you arse around in Hong Kong you automatically accrue challenges and mini-tasks; how long you can go without hitting anything in a car, how many guys can you down before you get hit, how far can you jump a bike. As you clock scores for these challenges those scores are uploaded and added to a leaderboard.

You can view both global and friends-only boards, and it’s with the latter you can challenge your mates. Just pick a task in the Social Hub menu and with a few button presses you can lay down the gauntlet and see if anyone can beat you. The next time your mate plays the game he’ll get a message on his phone notifying him of the challenge, and the urge to answer with actions is hard to resist.

This leads to a funny game of one-upmanship, where you miss objective markers and turnings because you’re only 4 seconds away from beating your friend’s Clean Drive time, or restart a fight because you just know you can crack that top score for most broken limbs. While it doesn’t have the allure of actually beating up your mates it adds a fresh dimension to the gameplay. It will certainly keep competitive gamers playing long after the credits have rolled.

My only criticism would be that despite this being the only semblance of multiplayer on offer, it seems United Front have neglected to organise it properly. While you do get messages telling you about challenges, selecting them takes you to the crowded Social Hub. If you’ve been earning medals and setting records since you got the message, your challenge will likely be buried in a stream of crap.

The menu itself is baffling and awkward to use. You can view all the tasks, as well as the leaderboard for each on a simple menu, but when it comes to setting a challenge you have to use the initial score feed. This feed, while a great way to see what rewards you recently clocked, includes loads of other stuff that you can’t challenge your mates. This leads to ridiculous situations where you sift through the last 40 minutes of rewards just to find the one you want to put out there. Allowing you to challenge from the specific challenges menu would’ve fixed this.

This dog is wide awake
Coming out of nowhere, forgotten about and abandoned, Sleeping Dogs is a prime example of how an unknown team with talent, ideas and a healthy dose of peripheral vision can produce a world-class piece of entertainment. From the overall mood of the brilliant interpretation of Hong Kong, to the excellent use of existing conventions to inform a whole, to the rollicking plot that will please fans of Chinese action cinema and action films in general alike; Sleeping Dogs is a game that delivers on all fronts.

Sure it has it’s problems. Some of the favours are ridiculous, reversing in an alleyway can be difficult for the camera to understand and some characters just plain don’t fit. Yet as is usual with a great game, these minor tears are barely noticed when actually playing.

The pitch-perfect martial-arts combat that just gets better and better will be instantly pleasing to anyone who’s ever wanted to be Jet Li. The brutal gunfights are always satisfying, and leaping over cover in slow-motion while clearing an entire room of enemies never gets old. Speeding through the busy streets of Hong Kong, leaping from car to car and ramming pursuers off the road is about as good as it gets in the open-world genre and even shows GTA a thing or two in the driving department.

Most of all, Sleeping Dogs marries great gameplay with an excellent plot to make you really feel like you’re playing a classic Hong Kong action flick. Stylish and brutal, it ticks all my boxes and unless you’re adverse to extreme violence I’m guessing it’ll tick all of yours too.

Rather than being a middle-class release that will disappear as soon as Assassins Creed 3 hits the shelves, Sleeping Dogs is a AAA title from a young developer with massive potential and demands to be noticed. There’s a demo on Xbox LIVE as you read this and I implore you to play it. Take your time, learn to fight, learn to run and learn to drive all over again. Experience the rising feeling as you dust a gang of vicious thugs effortlessly or wipe out a room in a single vault or ram a car so hard it pinwheels into oncoming traffic. Then get off your arse and buy this game. You will NOT be disappointed.


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