Sleeping Dogs didn't have an easy birth. It started life as the next instalment in the True Crime series, but after stunted growth, Activision aborted the project. Square Enix adopted the title, renamed it, and took over development duties. A risky decision, especially in today's financial climate.
Luckily, the team at United Front Games has provided a game with real prospects. The sandbox genre tends to become a little deflated, especially in the run up to generation-defining titles such as GTA V. Alongside Saints Row: The Third, it's a genre that provides very little room for others to make an impression. Well, until Sleeping Dogs came along.
|Jovial tasks are compared to your friends on leaderboards. An example is how high you can leap on a bike
The game's location immediately sets itself apart from the rest. Hong Kong provides an intriguing backdrop, but with a sense of familiarity. For one, it's refreshing to stumble across the streets of somewhere other than America. Certain districts are full of life and neon lights, while others feel desolate, almost as if you shouldn't be there. Alleys litter each street, providing the perfect getaway route, or place to spot some dodgy deals.
Like GTA IV, this is a story of relocation. Wei Shen, the game's main character, has spent a long time away from Hong Kong. When he returns from a stint in America, he finds a city that doesn't know his name. Wei has cop credentials, and is quickly enrolled on a dangerous program to bring down the Hong Kong Triads from the inside. Working undercover, the line between criminal and cop begin to blur.
This is excellently represented throughout the game, where any of your actions will add to one of three meters. Arrest someone for selling drugs, and your police score will improve. Take out rival gang members, and you'll become a better member of the Triads. Perform helpful duties, such as recovering stolen handbags and driving loots to safety, and your Face score will go up (think of this as a public reputation). All three are finely balanced, and indicate how similar each actually is. You'll use force, speed, and plenty of cunning to improve on all sides.
The main narrative builds on this mechanic, casting Wei amongst a battle that becomes serious quickly. Fellow cops question his identity and gang members force him to complete inhumane tasks to prove his loyalty. It's an idea that doesn't take long to build momentum, as you're immediately thrown into a number of big jobs and revenge situations. With every action, the scenario becomes a little more interesting.
|Wei Shen will show signs of wear if the going gets tough
Learning to fight is important for success on both sides. Early on in the game, you'll visit a Martial Arts school, which will develop some basic skills. The combat is reminiscent of Batman: Arkham City and Assassin's Creed, where it's favourable to wait for an attack and launch a stinging counter. Each attack is brutal, as you beat enemies to a pulp in the street. Blood splatters, bones crack, and a slow-motion camera records the final hit with a sense of style.
One of Wei's biggest allies is the environment around him. Foes can be thrown into bins, over rails, and smashed into telephone boxes. Shop shutters can be brought down to crush their skull, while the rest of the clan watch on helpless. Memorable missions allow you to oven an opponent's head, while another gives you the opportunity to throw them through a giant fish tank. With the glass smashed, you can even pick up the fish to whack them with. Pull off a few impressive moves, and you'll earn any lost health back through intimidation. It's deadly, over-the-top, and so much fun. This combat provides a building block for some interesting missions. Without wanting to spoil much, there's some creative ideas here that will live long in the memory. If you've ever wanted to leap from your car to save a best friend's wedding cake, this is the place to do it. It's testimony that, until guns were introduced around four hours in, I didn't realise they were missing. I mentioned this title is refreshing, right?
Alongside the main objectives, there's plenty of other tasks to be getting on with. Security cameras need to be hacked so you can control them from your home, and stolen goods need to be located and returned. A karaoke club opens itself up early on, allowing you to complete a Guitar Hero-inspired mini-game in front of guests. Even minor details such as unlocking doors and planting bugs have a sense of intelligence about them. The fact they never need a full tutorial to be completely understood speaks volumes about the game's thoughtful design.
Sound has also been carefully selected, and matches the setting of Hong Kong well. Radio stations play a mix of oriental music, rock and hip-hop. Although there's a decent selection, driving around the city is never quite as entertaining as GTA. A stellar cast is quickly introduced, including the likes of Lucy Liu, Robin Shou, Yunjin Kim, James Hong and Tom Wilkinson. The entire cast provide quality performances that help amplify the intensity of the narrative.
|This represents one of the best missions in the game
If Sleeping Dogs is to be criticised, repetition will be top of the list. Certain areas, whether it's dialogue from the public or the insistence on force, could use a little more diversity. With things like karaoke included, it would have been great to see a few more activities or options to pass the time.
Platform Played: Xbox 360
SLEEPING DOGS VERDICT
It’s remarkable how well United Front Games have fostered this game. All the uncertainty and lack of future is eradicated for a consistently entertaining title. If Sleeping Dogs started life as an unloved orphan, it’s now an adult that can hold its head high. Now the title has realised its potential, the Activision family will be regretting their decision to give up one of the year’s surprise hits.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Combat is brutal and flows brilliantly.