September 8, 2012 by Paul Curtin
After three title changes, the game that simply wouldn’t play dead is finally here. First developed as an original IP, then announced as the third installment in the True Crime series to help sell more copies, True Crime: Hong Kong would eventually be cancelled by Activision after numerous issues with its development. Rescuing the game from being put down for good, Square Enix has returned the IP to it roots without the rights to the “True Crime” name and renamed the game once more. So is Sleeping Dogs the new top dog in the open-world genre, or was Activision right and is this one game that the developers should have just let lie and ceased any further production on?
There have been a lot of open-world games spawned since Grand Theft Auto III revolutionized the industry back in 2001, but the first to challenge GTA for power was True Crime: Streets of LA, a game that tried to take the genre to the next level by merging slow-motion elements with an open-world environment where players got to play as a cop on the other side of the law. Although now back to being its own IP under a different title, Sleeping Dogs still feels exactly like what you would come to expect from an updated current-gen True Crime game. While Sleeping Dogs isn’t necessarily better than Grand Theft Auto IV, just as the first True Crime wasn’t better than GTA III, developer United Front has proven once again that there are still some tricks that Rockstar could learn to make their own open-world games better.
Like previous games in the now defunct True Crime series, in Sleeping Dogs players assume the role of Wei Shen, a Chinese-American police officer who goes undercover in Hong Kong to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad organization. Both the Hong Kong city map and Triad organizations might not be an exact match to how they are in real life, but they’re close enough to give that authentic Hong Kong feel, and the superb storytelling and voice acting bring the characters alive despite the game’s slightly dated visuals and occasional wonky animations.
But it’s not just the leading cast that has character. The city itself feels just as alive with the choice of music on car radio stations, bright neon lights on buildings that illuminate the streets filled with pedestrians, street vendors who are always yelling in an effort to try and sell you something, and other shady characters who can sometimes even trick you into helping them, just to pickpocket you and try and run off with your money. It’s a nice change of scenery from the typical New York or Los Angeles-inspired locales of recent other open-world games, and while the open world of Sleeping Dogs isn’t an accurate version of Hong Kong or one of the biggest ever, it’s packed with plenty of options in terms of what to do. Many hours can be spent just enjoying all that the city has to offer in terms of side missions and exploration that ranges from real police work and hacking hidden briefcases scattered throughout the city to joining fighting clubs and betting on cock fights.
Keeping in True Crime fashion, Wei is tasked with completing missions where he tries to balance his reputation among both the police and the Sun On Yee. Said reputation balance is measured with Police XP and Triad XP meters that go towards Wei leveling up. Unfortunately his balance doesn’t affect the game’s storyline and ending like in previous True Crime games, but it does encourage players to go about missions less recklessly if they want to earn more Police XP. What’s best about the XP system is that it incorporates an RPG skill system with multiple trees of abilities that can be unlocked after each level — giving side missions even more value as more powerful abilities are unlocked towards the end of trees, and certain clothing items can’t be equipped until their level requirements have been met.
There are a lot of generic open-world missions that Wei is tasked with throughout the story, such as the basic tail-a-car-without-getting-too-close missions and various escort so-and-so-here missions. A lot of the driving is made enjoyable by having the characters constantly delivering lines of dialog while in cars to keep you distracted from the fact that the person you’re tailing doesn’t seem to catch on that the person behind them has been following ten feet behind them for a good five miles and has crashed into other cars and ran over multiple people on the sidewalks along the way.
Other missions such as drug busts also seem to lack any sort of challenge where the player simply just looks through a surveillance camera and selects the shady guy with a briefcase full of drugs to be swarmed by the cops. Drug bust missions are extremely too easy and a missed opportunity by United Front to force anxiety on the player by not knowing who the right person to pick is. While some parts of missions are too easy, others are just right, such as hacking devices and picking locks, which aren’t so much challenging as they are just nice little extras that help diversify the gameplay and add to the immersion of the story.
Abilities such as shooting in slow motion when vaulting over objects and hijacking vehicles by jumping from one to another make for chaotic chases and shootouts with enemies, but out of all the features that Sleeping Dogs offers, the game’s melee combat system is by far its most impressive. Although not as polished, fighting groups of enemies is very similar to the attack and counter-attack system used in the acclaimed Batman Arkham series. Wei has a whole list of easy-to-use combos that he can hit enemies with and can also deliver plenty of satisfying bone-crushing counters.
Best of all, as we had already discovered in our hands-on demo at E3 a few months ago, Wei can use environmental objects to make for brutal finishers like throwing enemies off buildings, into fan blades, onto hot stoves, and plenty more surprises that I won’t give away. The fighting animations can sometimes be a bit glitchy, but impaling enemies on piles of swordfish heads and slowly pushing their heads into table saws easily make up for it and a feature more games need to add and expand upon.
Like the main character Wei, once you get into the story, you’ll be pulled in deep and want to see it out to the very end. Sleeping Dogs is not without its minor technical problems and there are tons of low quality textures that keep it from being as beautiful as other AAA games, but throughout my entire 20+ hour playthrough, I never experienced one game-breaking issue – it makes you wonder why Activision slept on the game and eventually decided to pull the plug with so much already invested in it. United Front has already expressed interest in making a sequel, and hopefully after the success of Sleeping Dogs we’ll see an even better sequel now that they have a publisher backing them that can see their true potential. Sleeping Dogs gets 43.5 out of 5 stars (Very Good).
- Superb story with top-notch voice acting that’s entertaining from start to finish
- Great melee combo and environmental weapon fighting system
- City feels alive with plenty of side missions to complete
- Solid cover system and controls while shooting, fighting, and driving
- Extra activities like hacking add more depth to generic missions
- Lacks polish that other AAA open-world games have
- Character animations can be glitchy at times
- Extra activities can be too easy and get old quick