Sleeping Dogs. Now that’s a name ripe for pun making. Had this free-roaming oriental adventure – which originally started out as a new True Crime game for Activision – turned out to be on the smelly side we could have rolled out such one-liners as “this dog should have been put to sleep” and “every dog has its day, but not this one”. Thankfully though it has turned out to be rather excellent. Who’s a good boy? United Front Games are. Yes they are.
For us it was how superb the game looks that drew us in rather than the plot. Everything, be it the grimy city streets of Hong Kong to the citizens themselves, are incredibly detailed. You can even make out the sticky marks on the floor in the seedy nightclub.
Those super sharp textures do sadly appear to have come at a cost. The game world is split into four areas, ranging from a rundown rural area to a somewhat more upmarket business distinct, but even so after just a couple of hours in the shoes of undercover cop Wei Shen the backdrops start to become a little over familiar. There’s not a great assortment of licensed music for the GTA-style radio station either, although the music that is there is pretty good.
The plot sees Wei infiltrating a gang, starting out on the bottom rung and eventually gaining the trust of the longest serving crime lords out there. Being a cop, Wei has to occasionally liaise with the police under strict secrecy and can also take on missions that’ll result in the capture of wanted criminals. The story didn’t really grip us until around halfway in as it’s around this point that comes apparent that Wei is starting to genuinely care for his fellow gang members.
One thing that Sleeping Dogs is top dog at is combat. When encountering a group of enemies the camera pans back to give you a wider view, which is handy as you certainly need to keep a watchful eye on the opposition. They attack from all angles – give them the chance to attack from behind and they’ll take it. Enemies with weapons are ballsier than the rest, often charging at Wei to get in with an attack first, while grapplers can only be defeated with heavy attacks or counters. The counter moves are brilliantly animated, not to mention brutal, and it’s also possible to make use of environmental hazards that are handily placed.
Oddly, the difficulty level for the combat is reverse to what you’d expect. Several fights at the start of the game gave us a bit of a headache, but later once Wei had learned some new moves and gained a longer health bar we were strong enough to take on large gangs single-handily. Food from market stalls can also give temporary improved abilities. Wearing certain outfits can improve stats as well.
The XP system is rather clever. There are two XP meters – police activity fills one meter while triad gang activity fills the other. You start off with full XP for police missions and for every incident, like accidentally killing an innocent, XP is knocked off. For triad gang activity it’s the opposite – criminal activity such as shooting out car tyres and pulling off a head shot bags extra XP. There’s no online play but there are leaderboards for each mission where you can compare scores against people on your friend’s list.
As the Wei becomes more proficient in his two roles new skills are available such as the ability to break into cars without the alarm going off. Incidentally, vehicles are a pleasure to drive. Each handles as well as the last and the handbrake can spin any vehicle around with ease. There are no planes or helicopters but there are motorbikes and boats. Only later missions take place on the seas but there are three different locations off shore that can be visited at any time, including a shady casino on an oil rig.
There is a slight silly streak throughout but it’s not as predominant as in Saint’s Row: The Third. One mission sees Wei trying karaoke – which involves playing a mini-game – while another entails breaking into a mansion and messing up the ‘feng shui’ of somebody’s furniture. There are thirty-odd smaller ‘favour’ missions to complete too, which mostly take just one or two minutes each. These aren’t anything too involving though – one simply entails throwing a drunk down an alley which took us quite literally all of five or six seconds.
At least plenty of other things have clearly had more thought put into them. The game world is logically designed – garages are placed next to every safe house allowing you to get back on the road in no time at all, and you’re never too far away from a vending machine or market stall if you need some of those aforementioned temporary abilities. Checkpoints for the optional races are signposted so well that it’s impossible to miss them even the hidden collectable items serve a purpose, either giving you a new item of clothing or a few extra Hong Kong dollars. The hacking mini-games require a bit of thought and the ability to hack into video cameras and then arrest people from the comfort of Wei’s own home is a nice touch.
Sleeping Dog does many things well, easily putting similar games to shame, but there are also a few other things it does a lot worse such as the sense of discovery and exploration. Shoot outs aren’t quite as exciting as we hoped either, despite the ability to activate a slow-mo ability. As a whole though it’s an impressive package – fun to play, pleasingly brutal and good looking. We bet Activision are deeply regretting not keeping hold of it.