To say Sleeping Dogs had a tough time coming out would be an understatement. Originally announced in 2009, by Activision as the latest entry into the True Crime series, Sleeping Dogs was eventually canned, and then picked up by Square Enix in 2011, and, after a long journey, has finally been released. Bouncing between publishers, changing franchises, dealing with delays, and everything else that developer United Front has been through trying to get this game to market can really take its toll, but Sleeping Dogs managed to survive. The end result is an enjoyable attempt at creating a Hong Kong crime drama for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC owners.
Wei Shen, a San Francisco Police Department undercover officer that is being handled by the Hong Kong P.D., is sent deep undercover to infiltrate the Sun On Yee, one of China's most feared Triad gangs. After being vouched for by a friend from his old neighborhood, Wei starts climbing the Sun On Yee ladder by proving himself as a worthy foot soldier. As the story progresses through a fictionalized open world Hong Kong, Wei walks a fine line between investigating the gangs and maintaining his cover. Fueled partially by revenge for the death of his family, as well as a desire to get the Triads off the streets, Shen does what he has to do impress the right people, on both sides of the law.
The gameplay in Sleeping Dogs should be familiar to anyone that's ever played a third-person perspective, open world, crime game (Grand Theft Auto III and above, Saints Row, The Godfather, really the list just goes on ...), but the gimmick this time around is that this game is set in Hong Kong. You'll run around getting in to fights, stealing cars, and chasing down criminals, but since Sleeping Dogs is inspired by countless Asian action films, it doesn't take too long to figure out that this game isn't like a lot of other games. Its closest contemporaries are Stranglehold and the Yakuza franchise, but Sleeping Dogs manages to balance the story with action much better than John Woo's first game, and Sega's long-running crime series.
For such an ambitious project, Sleeping Dogs does a ton of things right, and it's because the team at United Front was able to keep the scope of the game in perspective (and they had a lot of time to work on it). Making an open world game that's too open can cause players to deviate from the story, and get distracted by everything else that's going on around them. Sleeping Dogs does offer a lot of different ways to experience Hong Kong (karaoke bars, massage parlors, shopping, hijacking), but it never seems too overwhelming. With just a click of the L3 button, it's very easy to get right back to the next objective.
One of the key ways that Sleeping Dogs helps keep players on track is by having a solid story run as the lifeblood through the game. Instead of telling the story of a cop or a criminal, Sleeping Dogs plays both sides, and manages to keep everything straight without making things confusing. Conflict between characters and the environment is something that games mastered a long time ago, but internal conflict, the kind that Wei suffers through, isn't something you see too often in games, likely because it's rather challenging to execute, but Sleeping Dogs pulls it off.
The opening of the game begins with the police in pursuit of Wei after a drug deal he was working goes south, kicking things off with a bang, setting a high standard for everything that follows. The chases – both on foot and car – that are worked into the story are fantastic and they do a great job of simulating the drama and the intensity of trying to escape countless horrible situations. Sleeping Dogs also doesn’t fall victim to one of the many pitfalls of open world crime games – too many frustrating police chases. Unless it’s part of the story, you're not likely going to end up being pursued by the cops for reckless driving, or if you accidentally punch someone in the street. Whereas some games like this tend to accidentally initiate distracting police encounters, it just doesn't happen that often in Sleeping Dogs, and when it does, the cops are relatively easy to evade.
Hand-to-hand combat plays a huge role in Sleeping Dogs, so much that you're almost surprised when guns start showing up and becoming a mainstay – almost halfway through the story. The game's fighting mechanic (heavy reliance on dodging and counter attacks) is relatively good, but can get tedious later in the game – right about the time the action switches over to gunfights. As the guns become more prevalent, one of the biggest problems with the game is born out of one of its biggest triumphs – shooting while driving. Someone at United Front must have been asleep at the wheel while working on the mechanics for targeting and firing while driving. Not to belittle the difficulty of successfully targeting a gun while driving a car, as it's likely not easy to do, but having to use both bumper buttons, a trigger, and the analog sticks all at once is extremely cumbersome. There are brief flashes of bullet time when targeting certain points on your pursuer’s cars, but overall, a lot of players are going to end up accidentally braking or driving into something while they are aiming for a tire or gas tank. It's a shame since everything else seems to have fallen so well into place.
Sleeping Dogs may be this summer's sleeper hit. It pulls inspiration from countless games and movies, but still manages to create an identity unto itself through a compelling story and gameplay that steers clear of many of the genre's potholes. You don’t have to be up on the latest in Asian crime cinema to appreciate what Sleeping Dogs accomplishes – it drives home the story of a conflicted cop, who's really good at what he does, leaving the player to root for him no matter which side of the law he is on.