PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360, PC
United Front Games/Square Enix
The open-world cops n’ criminals epic Sleeping Dogs has travelled a long and rocky road to completion, undergoing three name changes, two publisher changes and months of delays in the four years since its inception at Vancouver’s United Front Games.
But you know what they say about good things, right? (Hint: it involves those who wait.) While Sleeping Dogs might not redefine the genre established by the Grand Theft Auto games, it’s an ambitious and welcome addition to it.
Players take on the role of Wei Shen, a Chinese-American undercover cop assigned to infiltrate one of Hong Kong’s most notorious triads. As Wei rises higher within the organization’s ranks and bonds with the people he’s sworn to bring to justice, his loyalties are ultimately questioned by both sides.
The core of the game cleaves faithfully to the Grand Theft Auto formula, set in a detailed albeit shrunk-down version of Hong Kong. Players are free to tackle story-based missions to move the primary plot forward, or they can explore the city and experience everything from street races and drug busts to betting on cockfights and singing karaoke. (Watching the badass Wei Shen wail along to Pat Benatar’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot is priceless.) The game does a stellar job of bringing its colourful collection of cops and criminals to life, with sharp writing and a “hey, I know that voice!” cast that includes everyone from Korean actor Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen to supporting characters played by Emma Stone, Lucy Lui and Oscar-nominee Tom Wilkinson.
As you’d expect from a game inspired by Asian action flicks, melee combat is a key component of Sleeping Dogs. Moving through a swarm of 10 attackers with vicious grace – kicking, punching, slamming faces into whirling fans or impaling foes on swordfish heads – is brutally satisfying. It’s not quite as fluid as Batman’s baddie beatdowns in Arkham City, but the vibe is similar.
That’s Sleeping Dogs’ claim to fame: It’s borrowed inspiration from a lot of games that do something very well. In addition to some light RPG elements, you’ve got Arkham City’s fisticuffs, Max Payne’s slo-mo shootouts, Need For Speed’s street races, Mass Effect’s cinematic cutscenes and even a small dash of Assassin’s Creed’s free-running.
Granted, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t do any of these things as confidently as the games it might be drawing from, but all these disparate bits and pieces somehow fit together.
The game is a bit of a slow burn, something that may alienate impatient players who demand instant gratification. Hell, you don’t even pick up a gun until about five hours into the storyline, and even from then on firearms are available only sparingly. More often than not, the game wants you to use fists more than bullets.
But players who stick with it will find Sleeping Dogs drip-feeds new experiences at a steady pace. There’s a mission at roughly the midpoint of the game in which a chaotic shootout in a nightclub spills out onto the street, leads to an insane guns-a-blazing freeway chase, then a foot chase, and finally a one-on-one back-alley beatdown between Wei and his adversary. When all the game’s moving parts are meshing like this, it’s brilliant.
There are some rough edges, though. While it’s very detailed, the game’s virtual Hong Kong lacks a certain visual polish. And for all the dramatic potential the story offers, Sleeping Dogs often doesn’t care if you play Wei Shen as a good cop or a Vic Mackey-style nutjob. As long as you follow the story to completion, the ending is the same either way.
Still, with a dearth of new open-world action games out right now, Sleeping Dogs has the perfect opportunity to sink its teeth into an appreciative fan base. Sic ’em, boys.
Despite some rough spots, this is an ambitious open-world game that crams a huge variety of experiences into an homage to Hong Kong action movies. If you’re a fan of the genre, don’t let Sleeping Dogs lie.