Thursday, September 27, 2012

Review: Sleeping Dogs brings the crazy back to the open world genre

When True Crime: Hong Kong was first revealed at the 2009 Spike TV VGAs (one of the few highlights of a painful awards show) I was completely excited for it. Though I had a decent amount of fun with the first True Crime game, what got me so pumped for this new one was the Hong Kong setting, as a move to the Far East was something I had always wanted Rockstar to undertake with their iconic GTA series.

Turns out I was one of the few. True Crime: Hong Kong was met with a collective "meh" among the gaming community, and Activision took notice, officially cancelling the game a little over a year later and leaving its future in doubt. Long story short, Square-Enix stepped in, and the result is Sleeping Dogs: a fun and compelling take on the open world genre, one which may not reinvent the wheel, but one that pulls off everything it attempts to do with both style and energy.

You are Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has a personal motive for dealing with the Triads, and fully enters into that world by getting directly involved in a vicious war between the various gangs. What makes the storyline so compelling is the risk that Wei has taken on, and his constant fear of being discovered, either by his friends or his enemies, keeps you on your toes. Wei's a likable enough guy, and it becomes easy to root for him, though the supporting cast is far less interesting. Between missions you have the ability to wander through a gorgeous version of Hong Kong, engaging in dating sim mini-games, doing favors for people who know of you, looking for shrines that will increase your HP the more you find (think Zelda) and taking on drug busts. What's so impressive about Sleeping Dogs is how fun this world is just to walk through; in GTA I always find myself eager to return to my car, but here the outdoor markets, the bustling sidewalks, and all the nooks and crannies to discover make walking around a treat.

Sleeping Dogs is dripping with atmosphere; a smaller city than you find in many current open world games means far more attention to detail, and Hong Kong looks great and feels truly alive. Much credit goes to the sound effects, which do a great job of complementing the visuals and drawing you into the world. Some pop up does occur when driving at particularly fast speeds, and facial expressions during the game's cutscenes aren't always the most convincing, but aside from these nitpicks, this is a great game visually and definitely feels like much effort was spent creating its lifelike world.

The missions themselves aren't afraid to focus on fun and go over the top, a refreshing change after the more grounded open world adventures Rockstar's been delivering this generation. This is the type of game where you leap from your car and onto the back of another one before sliding into its window and taking it over, and where you evade police pursuit by ramming their cars literally off the road. It's a game where you go from singing karaoke in a bar to smashing some thug's head into a full-wall fish tank. It's not a game afraid to push the boundaries of believability and go over the top and I think it's all the better for it.

A big focus in Sleeping Dogs was its combat system, and this becomes evident very quickly. Relying on a mixture of weapons, environmental kills, an expanding arsenal of moves and heavy counter-attacking, combat's one of the most exciting features this game has to offer, and it's a major factor that helps it stand out from the pack. Finding hidden statues throughout the city and returning them to a certain gym will get you new moves, while you learn other techniques with points acquired at the ends of missions. How many of these new moves you'll wind up making use of is another question, but the feeling of progression and character development kept me interested anyway.

When you do wind up making use of firearms, the game features a cover system similar to what you find in many action games these days, but with a cool bullet time mode that you enter into if you hop over cover. The shooting, like most everything else here, is quite satisfying, and the game's decision not to over-rely on guns means that these shooting sections don't get stale.

Every so often a mission will require you to make use of a police tool, like planting a wiretap, tracing a call, picking locks, or hacking a system. Though some of these would have benefitted from a bit more explanation, they further add variety to the gameplay and keep things fresh.

How do the cars control? For the most part incredibly well. This is the only open world game in recent memory where I'd do street races for fun, the cars really control *that* well and can reach very high speeds. Hong Kong's painless to navigate by car, with an easy-to-use freeway system linking its various districts together, and the streets feel just populated enough that you have to drive with skill, but not so much that you're crashing constantly.

Thanks mostly to main character Wei, the story proves to be just as compelling as the gameplay that propels it, and though in the end I wished the fairly straightforward plot had offered up a couple more tricks than it does, the main character's dilemma and his personal struggles and doubts throughout keep things interesting. Voice acting's good all around, the occasionally awkward line readings aside, and the licensed music, while definitely not up to par with Rockstar's offerings, gets the job done and features a good mix of both Western and Eastern tunes.

A couple things in the end stop Sleeping Dogs from standing with the best of its genre. Clocking in at around 14 hours for me (with some sidequesting undertaken) the campaign's definitely at the short end for this type of game, beating out even LA Noire for that crown. There's plenty to do outside the main story, of course, and you can continue doing these after the game's done, which is nice. But with most of these consisting of driving strangers around or looking for objects in the environments, it's not exactly the definition of compelling content. I also feel that the game holds your hand a little too much at times. Sleeping Dogs isn't a cakewalk, especially in the hand to hand combat area, but also feels like it's afraid to challenge you too much. Evading cops is a snap, and the optional drug busts, missions where you survey dealers with hacked cameras and try to identify the suppliers, are made far less interesting than they could have been because the game basically tells you who the supplier is. Also, as I alluded to before, the storyline isn't all that it could have been either, lacking the twists and turns that you'd usually expect in crime fiction.

Verdict: Some flaws aside, however, Sleeping Dogs is the perfect example of a good time. Though it definitely follows the template established by Rockstar Games, it has enough cool features, including a surprisingly strong combat system, to set it apart from other games in the genre. With a likeable main character, an incredible setting, plenty to do, and solid gameplay all around, Sleeping Dogs is a title I'd unquestionably recommend to fans of action games, especially to people who crave a little of the insanity done so well in games like GTA:Vice City back in the day. Definitely a nice surprise.

Presentation: Some standard load times, occasional glitches. A well-presented story whose main character goes a long way in bringing you along for the ride. Easy to use maps and menus, occasionally confusing explanations for things like call tracing.

Graphics: A smaller city means higher detailing, and Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is my favorite open world setting in a long time. Definitely a great-looking location and one you can zip through if you happen to be driving a fast car. Some screen tearing and pop-up makes appearances from time to time.

Gameplay: Everything that Sleeping Dogs attempts it pulls off well. May not totally change the face of open world gaming but it does a hell of a job at delivering a fun experience. Cars control incredibly well, combat never gets old, and the shooting works well too.

Sound: Good voice acting, good soundtrack of both licensed and composed music, and strong sound effects.

Replay Value: 14 hours is pretty short for the storyline in an open world game, a fact that's pretty much unavoidable. Still, Sleeping Dogs is great while it lasts and offers more beyond the main plot to keep you playing.

Overall: 8.5/10

(Note: This review is of the Xbox 360 version. My reviews go on a scale of .5)


  1. Yeah, same. Activision I guess realized that many people did too. Sleeping Dogs though doesn't really feel like the other True Crime games, it was designed as a new IP before Activision made them call it "True Crime" to sell more copies.

    Definitely though if I'm going to compare it to the other True Crime games, it's the best of the 3.