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Sleeping Dogs Review
Sleeping Dogs has rather infamously slept around in the hands of numerous publishers and developers over the last few years. It began life under the guise of Black Lotus at Call of Duty: Black Ops developer Treyarch before undergoing a name and developer change when Activision decided to rebrand the game as a reboot of the True Crime series. They handed it over to United Front Games, who saw the game through to completion, but not under Activision. Midway through development, the world's largest gaming house decided that a rebooted True Crime just wasn't worth their time and cancelled the project. In an almost unprecedented move, Activision sold what remained of the game to Square-Enix, who chauffered the game to completion and, as of today, release.
Whew, that's quite the history lesson. But to savvy gamers, it's also a warning. It's incredibly rare for a game with such protracted and rocky development history to emerge from the other end of the tunnel at all, much less in a form that is competent enough to be enjoyed by the masses. Just ask Duke Nukem Forever and Prey if you have any reservations on that fact.
That makes Sleeping Dogs an exception to yet another rule, as the underdog of the open world genre has emerged through what must have been a positively hellish development cycle with a chip on its shoulder and its eyes set squarely on the greats of the genre. This is no Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, make no mistake, but it is the most enjoyable open world experience I've had the pleasure of partaking in since Saint's Row The Third blew our minds last year. It's pure, popcorn-munching fun, and even if many of its mechanics are derivative, they're executed with enough bombast and genuine enthusiasm for the genre that you can't help getting excited playing the game.
Sleeping Dogs forms the foundation of its gameplay on the three basic pillars that have supported the genre for years now. You'll be racing, shooting, and fist-fighting your way through the game's open world just like you surely have many others. The catch here is that the emphasis is on the hand-to-hand combat, and not the gunplay. As is practially mandatory of any melee-based game released this side of 2009, Sleeping Dogs takes its fair share of cues from Rocksteady's Arkham games when it comes to the fisticuffs. You can tap out simple three or four-hit combos with ease on the gamepad, but many fights will come down to who can counter better. A well-timed tap of the Y button will turn an enemy's attack into your advantage, allowing you to lash out with more aggressive moves.
Batman doesn't kill, but protagonist Wei Shen clearly doesn't attend the same school of thought. The aftermath of a battle in Sleeping Dogs is typically one littered with corpses and broken environmental hooks. While blocking and countering are integral to the fighting experience, it's the grapple moves that really take the cake. By hitting the B button, you can grab an enemy and have your way with him. You might throw him to the ground, where you can lash out with a series of brutal kicks to the ribcage, or you might keep him in your hands and wail on him. You can even sprint with an enemy in hand, only stopping to bash his skull into a nearby wall, locker, or table.
The most rewarding way to dispatch enemies by far, though, has to be the environmental executions. Whenever you grab an enemy, certain objects in the environment will glow red. This indicates that you can use said objects to dispatch your enemies with a flashy one-hit kill. What begins as a way to easily knock out your enemies using nearby boxes, telephone booths, or soda machines quickly turns deadly as you start shoving dude's faces into fans or straight-up impaling guys on protruding pipes. It's pretty gnarly stuff, and we frankly wouldn't have it any other way.
Similarly brutal are some of the armed attacks. Melee combat can be enhanced by picking up certain items from the environment, so expect to be doing a lot of knife and sword-play in the mid-to-late game. Pipes, crowbars, and even fish can all be used to dispatch your foes in a pinch, and while smacking guys around with a cod is pretty hilarious, the other melee options are decidedly less so. Pipes and crowbars bounce off of muscle and bone with a brutal, crunchy violence. In other words, it's really good stuff, and really satisfying to play.
The great thing about the melee combat is that you'll always be expanding it in one way or another. The game goes to great lengths to ensure that the standard three-button melee combo isn't always the best or the most fun approach to combat. Even late in the game, you will find yourself unlocking new melee techniques to further lay the beatdown on the bad guys. Whether it's a new disarm or a flashy new combo, there's always something else to unlock just around the corner.
Gun combat isn't exactly the flexible and empowering experience that melee is, though. That's not to say that it's a liability for the game; instead, it's merely average to the melee combat's great. When you get behind the barrel of one of the game's big guns, you'll find a fairly standard stop-and-pop shooting affair awaiting you. The game incentivizes big, flashy moves by granting you a moment of slow-mo every time you vault over cover. This will allow you to turn a cover-filled room into a playground of slow-mo death as you vault from one point to the next, extending your slow-mo time with each headshot you score. In moments like these, it can be easy to forget that the gunplay mechanics are frankly pretty shallow. There's no active reload mechanic or destructable cover to be found here; instead, it's just you, your cover, and your enemies. When the slow-mo mechanic works well, it feels refreshingly pure. But when you're just doing some standard shooting, it's hard not to notice that the whole thing is just a little derivative.
The shooting also bleeds over into the driving segments, during which you can slow time to emerge from the driver's side window and take a few shots. These speedy shootouts almost always result in huge, cathartic explosions and flipping, flying, mangled wrecks of cars littering the streets of Hong Kong. I've always had a soft spot for watching cars chunk up and explode, and Sleeping Dogs strokes that pleasure center nicely.
Car combat isn't just limited to guns, though. When you're behind the wheel of a heavy vehicle, you can use the car itself as a weapon. This will be put to great use in the early missions of the game, where you will most often be sans assault rifle. By hitting the X button and steering into enemies (or oncoming traffic, if that's what you're into) you can execute a completely unrealistic, completely fun ram that will often result in a positively grisly crash for your enemy. It's taken straight out of Wheelman's playbook, but the whole ramming mechanic thing was probably the best part about that sub-par actioner, and here it's trasplanted into a fully-featured and fun game.
The driving itself leans so heavily towards the arcade end of the spectrum it's likely to tip should it have to round any sharp corners. Your cars can turn, stop, and powerslide on a dime, and in true Tokyo Drift fashion it's often more fun to go sliding around corners like a maniac than to apply the brakes and turn like a normal, well-adjusted human being. Who cares if you catch a few trash cans or... um... humans under your treads as long as you look cool doing it?
Well, Wei probably should care a lot more than he does, and not just for the obvious psychological ramifications of having just run down an entire city block of innocents (there's actually an in-game counter that pops up when you start running people over, challenging you to get more before getting caught or careening off the sidewalk. Good stuff.) No, Wei is not the crazed, mass-murdering gang-banger that he often appears to be. Instead, he's working undercover for the Hong Kong police in the biggest triad bust they've ever attempted. The whole thing rests on his shoulders, and it won't take long before the stress starts to get to him. To make matters worse, Wei has a bit of a personal stake in the matter. To say too much about it would be to ruin a surprisingly strong story, one that is steeped in the themes and stylings of classic Asian cinema.
The voiceovers are similarly compelling, somewhat of a rarity in a game that takes place entirely in a foreign county. It can be hard for voice actors attempting a foreign accent to straddle the line of believability without going way too far with it, or not far enough, but most of the voices in Sleeping Dogs strike a nice, authentic-sounding balance. This is thanks in large part to the hugely talented voice cast, which features big names like Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, and Emma Stone. Yes, that Emma Stone. Thanks to the convincing voiceovers, the dark, psychological motifs of the plot and the brutal melee combat make for one of the best combinations this side of peanut butter and chocolate.
Until, that is, you regain control. Players in open world games are naturally agents of chaos; it's just what we do. Sleeping Dogs features a morality system that judges your actions to be either cop-like or triad-like, but I don't think I ever purposefully scored a point in the cop's direction. It's just not the fun way to play the game, driving around and obeying all traffic laws and putting people down humanely. It's much more natural to careen all over the road, cause property damage, run over a civilian or two, and even go on the occasional city-wide killing spree. In the fantastical reality of Sleeping Dogs, the triad path is just the better way to play. Luckily, you will automatically accumulate points in both categories as you play through the game's numerous story missions.
Earning morality points isn't just for show, either. Each set of points is associated with a different skill tree, and when you get enough of the currency you can upgrade Wei with new moves and abilities. You'll start with simple stuff, like the ability to slide a jimmy into a car's window instead of busting out the glass for sneakier and speedier carjackings, and move on to new combos entirely. The skill trees aren't exactly in-depth; they're really more like skill sticks than trees, given that there are only two directions to go in any given tree, but it's still really nice to have that level of control over where your character goes and how he develops over the course of the game.
By now, Sleeping Dogs probably sounds like gaming paradise for Asian cinephiles who don't mind walking some well-worn territory when it comes to the gameplay. And in many ways, it is. But being an open world game, there's a certain level of jankiness inherent in the gameplay. Most disturbingly, the game gets weirdly choppy-looking during high speed driving sequences. It's not that the game's framerate slows or anything like that; it's more of an aesthetic decision, probably designed to make it look like you're driving really fast. Instead, it just serves to annoy, with the camera bouncing up and down like you're speeding down a gravel road. It's a weird and largely ineffective way to convey speed.
You'll also run into the occasional scripting glitch as you explore the world. At times, I had enemies who I was supposed to be chasing freeze up and stand in place, forcing me to restart from the last checkpoint because I wasn't "supposed" to catch the now-frozen enemy yet. There were other cases where certain quick-time events didn't trigger when they were supposed to, resulting in an instant Game Over that was thankfully made less frustrating by some generous checkpointing.
Sleeping Dogs is not a game that survives on the strength of any one of its mechanics alone. Instead, the game chauffers you between running, gunning, driving, fighting, and its various open-world minigames with such speed that it's impossible to be bored by what are, in the end, pretty rudimentary challenges. This is a game that is always moving, always hectic, and it's much more fun for the fact. Coming at the close of summer, Sleeping Dogs finally brings gamers the popcorn-flick of a game they deserve in this blockbuster-heavy season.
We reviewed Sleeping Dogs on a PC using an Xbox 360 gamepad.