I’m sorry to say that when I first heard about Sleeping Dogs, I immediately wrote it off as just another mindless brawler like the Yakuza series. I expected it to favour brawn over brains, combat over story and sensationalism over realism with meaningless characters and ridiculous weapons. Happily, after actually playing the game I can now say that I could not have been more wrong if I’d tried.
Sleeping Dogs puts you in the shoes of Wei Shen, undercover cop for the HKPD, whose mission is to infiltrate and ultimately bring down the Sun On Yi Triad. Some missions see you working your way up the criminal food chain, while others exploit your criminal contacts to build cases against the Triad. It’s a fine line to walk, breaking the law to enforce it, and we’re never really sure which of Wei’s lives is the real one.
Unfortunately, apart from one very tense moment early on in the game, Wei’s cover is hardly ever threatened at all. I would have particularly liked to see Jackie—Wei’s best friend and initial criminal connection—find out the truth about him, forcing Wei to either arrest Jackie or trust him (perhaps even placing the decision in the player’s hands). But no such moment ever comes, and by the time his worlds truly collide, the game is already over.
Where the story of Sleeping Dogs really shines is in its characters. Wei feels torn by his conflicting loyalties, and suffers nightmares about all the horrible things he’s seen and done. Jackie is about as lovable as a low-rent thug can be, too unskilled or incompetent to do anything else and naïve enough to think this is a good thing. Winston—Jackie’s boss—is almost as complex as Wei: on the one hand he tortured and buried alive the last undercover cop he found in his crew, but on the other he’s a loyal family man who carries himself with honour—or at least more honour than his enemies. Wei’s handler Raymond is as by-the-book as they come, and while this means they often don’t see eye to eye, it also means he’s the only one Wei can really trust. These are only four of a wide cast of well-developed characters that bring meaning to the violence.
And what violence it is. Reading the manual, I thought the combat system was woefully simplistic, with only a light and heavy attack, grapple and counter buttons to speak of. But then I got into the game and realised that it isn’t simple; it’s fluid. You can make up combos as you go along, grappling a blocking enemy or dropping into a counter as needed. As you’re often fighting up to a dozen goons at once, being able to seamlessly change who you’re attacking even mid-combo is a godsend. Once you start unlocking new stun and disarm moves, including some wince-inducing bone breaks, it becomes almost sadistically good fun. The lock-on and sprint buttons also modify your the attacks, giving you enough of a toolset to really play the way you want.
Gunplay works well with simple stop-and-pop cover shooting and drive-by bullet storms. Ammo isn’t necessarily scarce, but you can only hold a few clips, meaning that accuracy is key. Headshots and popped tires can get you some much needed breathing room when you’re being hunted on all sides. Guns are pretty rare outside of missions, though, and will vanish without explanation when you start some activities. Even changing your clothes causes your gun to disappear, forcing you to hunt down another one if you want to take on a gang hangout with more than just your dick in your hands.
The free running with its sweet-spot button taps (a concept I’ve liked ever since Super Mario RPG) and vehicle shenanigans such as the action hijack tie the game’s various parts together seamlessly. One of my favourite ways to clear a gang hangout is to drive straight at them, bailing out in slow motion to shoot the few that aren’t going to be mown down by your vehicle, and then vaulting over the wreckage to finish off the reinforcements with some good old kung fu. Unfortunately, the missions are a bit more rigid in their approach, with it always being very clear when you’re supposed to chase and when you’re supposed to fight. For example, it’s impossible to actually catch your target in a foot chase until you’re scripted to do so, and guns appear in your hand when it’s time for shooting, and vanish again when it’s time for punching. This makes the missions feel a little too on-rails in a game that otherwise lets you do what you want.
Sandbox games are often lauded or criticised for how much they feel like a, “living, breathing world,” (and it is always that wording), and in this respect Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong certainly passes. On PC the city is gorgeous, particularly the way wet roads reflect light. The four main areas of town each look and feel distinct, giving us winding back alleys lined with massage girls, gridded CBD streets full of expensive cars, industrial dockyards, upscale condos and more. The radio paints a picture of Hong Kong culture, but breaks the immersion with its tendency to restart or skip to the next song when you leave and re-enter vehicles, causing you to frequently hear only the start of songs.
There’s a lot to do around this town as well. Collectible hunting is made easy with convenient unlockable additions to your map that reveal where certain items are as you get close, and even show which ones you’ve already got to help those who use internet guides to get them all (as I had to). The hacking, safe cracking and other intelligence gathering minigames are all fairly simple, but break up the action nicely. Most of the game’s minor characters are hanging out on the street with favors to ask, which can be anything from delivering food to driving a getaway car. Fight clubs let you test your mettle against progressively larger waves of goons, while street races force you to drive smart to win. You can overhear hilarious conversations around your safehouses, and gamble in offshore mah-jong dens and cock fights. Sometimes you’ll even stumble across a drunk causing trouble or a luckless fellow stuffed into the trunk of a car.
What else is there to say? Sleeping Dogs is an almost perfect game, so if you haven’t played it, do. A lot.
More than your average brawler.