It’s been a long time since I played with a huge, riveting, open-world crime-centric game on my PC. Sleeping Dogs will keep you awake at night, staying up playing into the early hours. The game is also available for the PS3 and Xbox 360, but I wanted to try it out on the PC because of the free high-resolution texture pack that really brings Hong Kong to life. It doesn’t disappoint. But I’ll go into that a bit more later.
For those of you who don’t know, Sleeping Dogs is the spiritual successor to the True Crime series, which was abandoned by Activision after the second game in the series flopped. Square Enix bought the rights, and had developer United Front re-boot things to create Sleeping Dogs. Gone is almost all of the clunky gameplay from the previous series, so it’s a good thing that they opted to go with a total name-change. You still play as an undercover cop, but the game tilts much more towards an open-world crime thriller than anything else. It’s kind of a cross between Grand Theft Auto and Yakuza in terms of gameplay and overall feel now, and that should suit more players than before.
You play Wei Shen, a kid who grew up on the mean streets of Hong Kong, moved to America, and then came back as an undercover cop to try and infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad. He is voiced by Will Yun Lee in what will probably go down as one of the best examples of voice acting ever in a video game. He’s always completely believable, whether he’s delivering a tough-guy line at a critical plot point, singing karaoke, or just buying ice cream.
You will soon learn that Wei Shen exists somewhat comfortably in two worlds, and can earn experience points in both. Earning levels in Police experience will grant you things like the ability to use a slim-jim to open cars without setting off their alarms, or to find weapons in the back of police vehicles. Earning Triad experience gives you more powerful kicks and punches, and generally enhances your melee skill or makes your tougher.
You can earn both at the same time on missions as they are not mutually exclusive. The interesting thing is that Police experience generally starts at 100 percent and deducts from you as you do bad things like hurt innocent people or destroy property, while Triad experience starts at zero and goes up as you defeat your enemies in the most violent and extreme ways possible. But triggering events don’t directly overlap, so you can earn credit with the Triad without losing it with the Police, though it’s not always easy. Thankfully, when you are not actually on a story mission, you’re free to accomplish your goals however you see fit with no restrictions.
Gameplay should be familiar to those who have played Grand Theft Auto type titles. You are presented with an open world, which in this case is the city of Hong Kong and the surrounding areas, including a fairly large waterfront. Main story missions are available as icons on your map and can advance your position with either the Triads or the Police. There are also lots of sub-missions which pop up, which consist of people needing help with various tasks, like beating up a rival or retrieving a stolen vehicle. Some missions just happen while you travel like women getting their purses stolen or a shopkeeper being roughed up by a drunk. It’s up to you if you want to respond to them or not, though they often earn you both experience and cash.
There is also quite a lot to do besides just the story missions. You can bet on cock fighting around the city, participate in martial arts competitions, hunt down locked boxes filled with cash and find health shrines to improve your hit points. You can also steal specific cars for money or rob armored transport vans. Wei Shen can even go on dates with pretty girls he meets in the game, though I kind of wish this was a touch more developed as the missions with the girls were a lot of fun.
As you buy new vehicles and advance in the main story, various racing missions for both cars and motorcycles will become available. A quick note about the racing missions: they are fast and furious. Apparently some of the team that made the Gran Turismo games helped with Sleeping Dogs, and it shows. I’m not that great with racing titles, but other than a few restarts (automatically given when you fail a race mission) I was able to complete them with skill, and a few well-placed rams to remove competition from a run.
The open world also offers you the chance to improve your character with temporary or permanent stat boots. Whenever you drink a soda your punches get stronger for a while. Drinking herbal tea will improve your defenses. Getting a massage (either a normal one or the good kind with a happy ending) will increase your focus, which helps intimidate your foes in a fight. And eating all kinds of food from ice cream to crunchy pork buns will regenerate your health. There is also a way to learn new martial arts moves, which are permanent additions to your arsenal, and probably the most helpful of the lot.
As you earn money in missions you can use it to purchase vehicles which are always available to you in a garage, even if you trash one on a mission or have to leave it behind. And you can buy different outfits. A complete set of some clothes will net you bonuses too, like extra melee damage or increased Police or Triad experience. You can also improve your homes in the game with new furniture or pets, though this is mostly a cosmetic upgrade.
The setting is Hong Kong, and the game has a real Asian theme when it comes to combat. That means that guns are rare. Most of the time you are going to be doing martial arts fighting against opponents. You are also almost always going to be outnumbered, so get your inner Bruce Lee ready.
The fighting system is intuitive, and offers depth without over complexity. I should know, because I stink at most fighting games. Here there are very few combos you have to string together. Just tap the left mouse button to throw a light punch or kick and hold it down for a stronger blow. Pushing E lets you grapple an opponent who is blocking. And tapping the right mouse button initiates a counter-move, which needs to be done when an opponent flashes red. You can combine those simple moves into some advanced combos, but they are all easy to learn and use in a hurry. The combat system is a bit like rock, paper, scissors, with each attack having another move which trumps it. After just a few fights, I really felt like an expert, and was not even nervous at the prospect of charging into a group of eight guys, knowing that many of them would soon be suffering from broken arms and legs, or would have their heads stuffed inside a nearby soda machine.
There are guns in the game, but they have limited ammunition. Mostly they are used on specific gunplay-heavy missions, or I used them as an emergency backup when things were going badly for whatever reason. As with most shooters, headshots do more damage if you are a crack shot. And you can slow down time like in a Max Payne title by performing special moves during combat, like leaping over an obstacle. I usually love guns in games, but didn’t really miss them in their diminished capacity here since the hand to hand combat element was so well done.
In terms of graphics, Sleeping Dogs is amazing. Hong Kong looks great, from its crowded and crazy markets to its bustling commercial district packed with neon lights, to the beautiful waterfront you can explore on foot or by boat. However, on the PC, you are in for an extra special treat. Square Enix wanted to make sure that PC gamers got a little something extra. So they gave developer United Front Games the time and resources to make a high resolution texture pack, which can be downloaded for free. Once applied, the game goes from having great graphics to displaying practically true-to-life textures. When it rains in Hong Kong, you will see the reflections of the neon lights in the water running down streets and think you’re watching a travel video for the city instead of playing a game. Just don’t forget that you’re driving and wreck your bike the first time you see the high-res textures in action. I crashed through a phone booth because I was busy looking around at everything. Oddly enough, the high-res textures didn’t seem to have much of an effect on system performance. Using a moderately powerful system with a good graphics card, the game ran smoothly with or without the high-res pack installed, though at least one gig of video memory is required for the upgrade.
I’ve already talked a bit about the sound quality and the impressive performance by the lead actor. He is joined by other heavy hitters like Lucy Liu and Emma Stone, but everyone puts on a great performance. Even the bystanders sound realistic, especially when shrieking in Chinese as you commit all types of crimes nearby. But there is also a full list of radio stations to listen to from your vehicles that play everything from classical to rap, house music to traditional Chinese tunes. There is even an American station that plays hits from groups like Deep Purple and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Your character can even sing dozens of karaoke songs as part of a mini-game too, with full voice support.
There isn’t too much bad to say about Sleeping Dogs. The gameplay can get a little repetitive after a while, but then again, that is after playing for hours on end. Also, a few of the non-story missions didn’t seem to make a lot of sense. In one, a woman who I thought was just a hostess at a club was apparently my girlfriend. She got upset because I went on a mission with another girl who I also didn’t think was my girlfriend. Then I was supposed to get upset because the first girl was dating someone else. Anyway, the mission was fun, but did leave me scratching my head just a little. A few of the cars also seem a touch loosey-goosey, going into wild spins with a tap of the handbrake, but thankfully this does not seem to be a problem with most of the race cars or the motorcycles, which have good traction.
In the end, Sleeping Dogs stands on its own as a brand new franchise that will enjoy popularity and success in its own right. Square was right to think that True Crime still had life in it, a true sleeping dog, and even more correct to reboot it as its own game. Think of it as Grand Theft Auto in China if you must, but Sleeping Dogs has earned its stripes the hard way, and I for one am very much looking forward to new games in the series, as well as the inevitable DLC mission add-ons. Sleeping Dogs is wide awake now, and will cause plenty of appreciative gamers to share that fate, playing late into the night.