Back in 2008, Activision announced a follow-up to their True Crime series entitled True Crime: Hong Kong. But after years of development, Eric Hirshberg, the current CEO at Activision put the nail in the coffin by famously stating that the game simply "wasn’t good enough". Realising the game might not fare well against similar games in the marketplace and to stop it bleeding money, it was time to pull the plug.
Except that wasn't the end of True Crime: Hong Kong. Six months after it was cancelled, Square Enix exhumed its carcass and brought it back to the land of the living under its new title, Sleeping Dogs. It takes some serious cojones to take one publisher's scraps and attempt to turn it into a blockbuster; and after nearly five years, in various states, the pressure was on for new developers United Front Games to turn this aging relic into a glimmering golden buddha.
United Front Games, although an extremely talented studio, don’t exactly have the sort of resume that would lend itself to an ultra violent gritty crime drama. In fact they are best known for cutesy titles ModNation Racers and LittleBigPlanet Karting. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum, and the pressure to deliver in a completely new genre seems to have had an effect on the development.
While Sleeping Dogs is extremely strong in the art department, it ultimately comes across as a mad goulash of games and movies we've already seen. The game has clearly ‘borrowed’ ideas from the likes of Grand Theft Auto, Saints Row, Assassin's Creed, Midnight Club, Kane & Lynch 2, and Batman: Arkham City. There is also a humble ‘nod of the head’ toward Asian directors John Woo and Park Chan-wook and their movies such as Old Boy, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow.
But all of this familiarity isn’t a bad thing and what Sleeping Dogs does bring to the table is an unique setting within Hong Kong’s criminal underworld. United Front Games have done an admirable job in recreating a free-roaming ‘Pearl of the Orient’, complete with Cantonese banter in the streets, bustling street markets, Dragon dancers, hanging lanterns, and the harsh neon nightlife.
It was a revelation when it started to rain in the game and the city streets glistened with shimmering detail. Although Sleeping Dogs utilises a few Americanised perceptions of Eastern culture, it comes very close to fully immersing the player in a virtual Hong Kong. I’ve only been there once (ironically it was for an Activision event), but it all felt very authentic.
The game’s opening sequences set the pace and introduce us to the main character, Wei Shen; a Chinese-American undercover agent attempting to infiltrate the Sun On Yee Triad organisation. Surprisingly, the writers have decided to directly reference an actual real-life Triad gang known as Sun Yee On (maybe this game will recruit some more members?)
Wei Shen is a fairly typical lead for these sorts of games; one who exhibits a balance between ‘that nice quiet guy’ and ‘brutal killing machine’. Although it is equally warranted here as Shen is simultaneously working both sides of the law, delivering intelligence to the police but also climbing higher in the Triad ranks.
While the game is littered with subtitled Cantonese and Asian accents, unfortunately the developers decided that having the lead actor speak broken English would deter Western audiences. Instead Wei Shen has a distinctive New York accent, which only makes me wonder how he’s able to blend in with his gangster pals so easily. The voice talent in Sleeping Dogs is impressive all round though, with names like James Hong, Lucy Liu, Kelly Hu, Yunjin Kim, and - surprisingly - geek goddess Emma Stone bringing life to some of the characters in the game.
United Front Games deserve some kudos for their impressive model animations too, which are fluid and varied, from the main cast right through to the background characters. They even include subtle animations like Shen nodding his head in time with music in a nightclub, or dramatic knife wielding chefs preparing dinner in a kitchen.
Although Wei Shen never really has the same emotional pull as, say, GTA IV’s Niko Belic, he does suit the role of a calm and cool thug with a tough exterior. Shen is covered in traditional black ink tattoos and pulls off a leather jacket with more style than Belic would ever attempt. He’s also a lot more graceful in combat, chaining together martial art inspired combos and able to athletically free-run over rooftops and scale obstacles with ease.
In the movement department, the Assassin’s Creed’s single-button run and climb inspired controls work well, while the combat seems to pay homage to Batman: Arkham City’s rhythmic countering to lay the smack down on a large number of enemies in one sitting. Wei can also grapple enemies and use the environment in a sadistically rewarding manner: brutally slamming a guys face into a moving extractor fan, for example, or dumping someone into the boot of a car before driving it off a pier. The game never misses a beat in gory, cuss-filled violence – which definitely works in its favour.
However when you’re not exploring the congested, sprawling streets of Hong Kong and beating up randoms, most of Sleeping Dog’s gameplay falls into the ‘been here, done that’ category. You’ll be stealing cars, delivering things, partaking in street races, buying clothes, eating snacks from street vendors, escorting people, chasing people, and killing people.
In fact, it’s important to point out that the first few missions are so incredibly mundane that they’re almost laughable. Eager players will probably be slightly dumbfounded to be presented with tasks like beating up thugs over some lunch money. Or taking photos of a sunset for a custom t-shirt place. They are ridiculous, but they also double as tutorials, and the action quickly ramps up in substance. Some of the later highlights include a nail-biting motorbike pursuit through narrow markets, bugging apartments in surveillance missions, and a stylish, action-packed wedding shoot-out that screams John Woo. All it needed was some slow-motion doves.
There is a lot to like in Sleeping Dogs and now that a few years have passed since GTA IV, a lot of players will be ready for a similar game that delivers that same kind of action in a new setting. But even without knowing about the development issues, a casual player could probably see some of the blemishes. Simple things, such as menus and text overlays, are poorly presented and often you’ll need binoculars to read helpful tips and descriptions. The driving controls lack any realistic weight and although they do the job, hint towards a studio that have only made arcade racers. And while the staggering amount of environment detail is beautiful to witness on foot, in a vehicle the frame-rate tends to lag and a default close-up camera turns it all into a blur when you get up to a decent speed.
Sleeping Dogs isn’t the time vampire that GTA is either, but it does offer a solid, action-packed 13 hours or so in the main campaign arc. While the difficulty never really takes off, there are enough ‘close calls’ to need to restart at checkpoints upon occasion. The game also includes an impressive array of upgrades to unlock, which seem to affect everything from your fighting abilities and health meters, right through to your cell phone and how much respect (or Face, as it’s called in the game) you have.
The option to play conservatively, minimizing casualties and driving carefully increases your Police reputation. Or, if you decide to crush everything you see on the sidewalks and deliver a few fists to innocent bystanders, you’ll increase your Triad reputation. Thankfully, the game doesn’t seem to penalise you either way, but there are rewards depending on your course of action throughout.
On top of the main storyline, you’ll also be able to while away the time by doing street races, tracking down secret collectibles around the city and even partake in some classic karaoke down at the local bar. Sadly, there is no multiplayer component on offer here (having basic online stats and leaderboards doesn’t cut it for us).
Overall, it’s good that Sleeping Dogs finally got to see the light of day. While it’s definitely not going to win any awards in the gameplay department, it does dial up the level of detail that we can expect visually from an open-world game. It also delivers enjoyable, intensely violent action for anyone who wishes they could fill the boots of Chow Yun Fat or Jet Li. And who doesn’t wish that?