I try to lay my biases out on the table when it comes to reviewing games here so you can get a feel for when I may be judging a game too harshly or if I’m making myself deliberately oblivious to some of the more glaring faults. I believe this works well as you know things like survival horror and open world games are likely to get rated down whilst things like RTS, RPGs and FPSs are usually going to be rated slightly higher (although there are notable exceptions). Still though I try my best to rate a game based on its merits in relation to other titles within the same genre and thus Sleeping Dogs, the latest instalment in the True Crime series from Luxoflux and United Front Games, will be judged against other recent titles like Prototype 2.
Sleeping Dogs takes place in present day Hong Kong putting you in control of an undercover agent named Wei Shen. Your job is to infiltrate the infamous Sun On Yee triad in hopes to bring them down from the inside starting out by using one of your former connections to gain a first meeting with one of their Red Poles, Winston Chu. From there the game takes the usual route of open world escalation, starting you off in the doldrums beating up vendors for protection money as you work your way up the gang hierarchy. At the same time the police want to use your connections to help further their cause in other areas leading you to bust up drug rings, smuggling operations and prostitution syndicates.
Visually Sleeping Dogs is quite vibrant drawing inspiration from the real Hong Kong’s neon saturated environment. From what I can recall the graphics are pretty much on par with other open world titles like Grand Theft Auto IV meaning they’re pretty good but they make trade offs in order to keep the game running smoothly as you rush through busy streets crowded with people and cars. I had to actually turn the graphics down slightly from their ultra maximum settings due to the frame rate dropping so much (although that might be an issue rather than a compliment as I’ll expand on later).
Like all open world games Sleeping Dogs features a multitude of different core game mechanics, mini-games and open world events to while away your time with. The main core of the game is a cross between an Arkham Asylum/City style beat-em-up and Grand Theft Auto’s weapon focused game play. Sleeping Dogs also throws free running in there for good measure, allowing you to climb all over different parts of Hong Kong in the search for collectibles, upgrades and cold hard cash. I guess the feeling I’m trying to convey here is that there is certainly a lot to do in Sleeping Dogs, possible even more than I’ve come across in other recent open world titles.
The main plot of the story is progressed via 2 different styles of missions: ones with the triads and the other with the police. These take the usual typical open world style of giving you a way point on your map that you can travel to at your leisure and there’s no hard and fast requirement to do the triad and police missions in sync with each other. Indeed I chose to most of the triad missions first as I found them to be more fun (and more rewarding) which did leave me in the rather awkward position of having to travel the full length of the map constantly as I had progressed out of the area in which the police missions take place. I kind of feel like this could have been remedied by the developers by having multiple police locations for the missions which would’ve saved me quite a bit of time.
The experience system also works along the separate cop/triad lines with each of them giving you access to an unique set of upgrades. The triads are focused mostly on melee upgrades, giving you additional moves as well as improving your effectiveness in melee combat. The cop upgrades focus more on vehicles and weapons, giving you access to things like a slim jim to jack cars without setting off the alarms. In addition to the two main upgrade paths there’s also several ancillary upgrade paths that unlock more cars, additional melee moves as well as upgrades to your total health.
The main experience system works on the idea of stars, with 3 being the highest you can get. They work in different directions however with the police experience starting off at maximum and then you losing points for doing things wrong (like running people over) whilst the triad experience increases, ostensibly for being as brutal as you possibly can be. These two things are in direct competition with each other and it’s often a choice between maximising one or the other. What got me though is that the bars need to be completely filled in order for them to be considered achieved meaning that for the police experience you can’t do 1 thing wrong and for the triads you really need to go all out at all times in order to get it. The triads one I can understand, its something you work towards, but the cops one feels a bit anal as you can lose points by simply touching another car, depriving you of an entire block of experience even if that’s your only mistake.
The ancillary upgrade systems are useful but not necessary to completing the game. The Face system for instance which you level up by: doing favours for people, engaging in martial arts tournaments and completing street races, really only helps in getting you access to better clothes (most of which have bonuses attached), better cars (which you can steal anyway) and a couple perks which can be useful (like the valet who can bring you a car whenever you want, or at least that’s what they say). The Jade statues feel more like an organic progression system trussed up as another upgrade path as all of the 12 statues are hidden in plain sight during the triad missions so you never really miss out on one. The health shrines, which give you more health when you find a certain number of them, are really just another collectible as I never found myself in a situation where I needed more health than I started out with.
The mini-games are thankfully quite varied meaning that you don’t usually find yourself doing the same one twice in a row. Whilst they do get kind of samey towards the end I didn’t feel like I was trapped in mini-game hell each time one of them came up, something that happens quite often when there’s little variety on offer. They’re all necessarily simplistic in order to save you time and effort (many of them take place during timed events) so they’re not going to be a great challenge for anyone but at least they don’t feel like stone walls to progression.
Of all of the mini-games there were two that I avoided: the karaoke and the racing. You’ll have to do both in the course of the main story line but there’s also the opportunity to do them outside of that for Face experience and cash. The karaoke is so simplistic as to be quite boring and I couldn’t really bring myself to sit through3~4 minutes per song to get through them all. The racing also feels kind of pointless especially when you consider that the vehicle engine in the game isn’t the greatest which is one of my bigger complaints of Sleeping Dogs.
Whilst there’s much to praise about the vehicle system, like the traction changing when its raining and the progressive damage system that turns your shiny new car into a train wreck should you bounce all over the road, the nature of Sleeping Dog’s open worldness means that it does unfortunately skimp on some points. Using the handbrake for example seems to turn off friction in some instances (like if you go from a standing start) but in others turns it up phenomenally (like if you’re trying to drift through a corner). This coupled with the camera system which doesn’t allow you to look up past about 10 degrees and snaps wildly between front and back views means that driving somewhere can become quite the chore very quickly. Additionally depending on how you have your graphics set you could run into another problem: the dreaded input lag.
I mentioned earlier that I had to turn the Sleeping Dog’s graphics down at the start due to the frame rate dropping too low. Now that didn’t mean it was unplayable, indeed it was running quite smoothly, but I found that using vehicles was completely unwieldy and moving my character around felt…weird. I had encountered this problem before back when I was playing Red Faction: Guerilla when if your framerate dropped below the magic number (I believe it was 60 FPS) then the game engine didn’t know how to cope with it and you got massive amounts of input lag. Sleeping Dogs suffers from the same problem and whilst anything above 50FPS is usually quite playable anything below a certain rate (I didn’t bother to check it) will turn your game into an unplayable mess. This is undoubtedly due to its console origins as there are other aspects (like some of the controls on the mini-games for instance) which have also suffered because of this.
However I did feel that Sleeping Dogs redeemed itself in the story department. Whilst there’s far too much back story wrapped up in walls of text in the police reports and profiles that you get after each mission I did feel that the main story line gave you enough insight into the main characters for it to be acceptable. Now it’s not exactly Oscar material with many of the main plot points being extremely obvious but I really did find myself caring about many of the characters, especially the ones that are with you throughout the length of the game. The side romance stories seemed a little contrived though and I didn’t bother pursuing any of them past the first one.
For a game that’s been called everything from the poor cousin of Grand Theft Auto to the sleeper hit of 2012 Sleeping Dogs really does have a lot to offer. Whilst the completionist in me died a long time ago when I started giving myself deadlines for reviews the amount of time I spent in Sleeping Dogs could easily be doubled or tripled by someone seeking to get the coveted 100% completion mark. I might not agree that its the sleeper hit of this year I do feel like it makes very few mistakes save for the technical issues and wonky vehicle implementation. Still I’d recommend it especially if your a fan of open world games.
Sleeping Dogs is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $49.99, $88 and $88 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC with 13 hours of total play time and 42% of the achievements unlocked.