It must be really demoralising to release a city-based, crime fuelled open world game nowadays. After years of careful planning and dedication, a switch in publisher and a well hyped lead up to release, Sleeping Dogs has finally arrived, and their reward? A fanfare of assumptions that it’s a GTA clone. Well if that’s what you were thinking, think again. While it’s obvious that there are influences from Rockstar’s long running series, making no mistake – this is a game in its own right, with its own ideas, its own storyline and its own fighting style. And the most important thing? It’s amazing fun.
In terms of storyline, main guy Wei Shen has a bit of a bad day and ends up chucked into prison where he meets and old friend. This chance encounter ends up with him joining the Triads in Hong Kong as an undercover cop with the idea of bringing them down from the inside. Cue lots of carjacking, fighting and a huge range of tasks and missions to reach your final destination, all with the intention of reaching the guys at the top and doing what it takes to stop them.
The story pans out pretty well, and has enough twists and surprises to keep you guessing throughout most of the game. You’ll switch between Police work and jobs for the Triads, and the mix between official business and the brutally violent gangland missions is emphasised by the unexpected bond that Wei ends up developing with the Triads. Not all police work is glamourous, and while there’s a fair share of hacking, lock-picking and car chasing there are a series of side-missions to hack into security cameras, which generally need you to clear out a gang of bad guys before you can access the control point. At times like this you get to have some fun with the fighting system, which is really rather good.
Aside from a bit of gun play here and there, most combat will be hand-to-hand. Many have tried and failed to get a good fighting system integrated into a game, but where others have fallen flat on their face United Front have triumphed. While the controls are extremely simple with buttons set aside for attacking, countering and grappling the number of things you can perform is impressively large. Similar in style to Assassin’s Creed, it lets you face a huge crowd of enemies while still remaining pretty much in control of things – that is, of course, if you time your counters properly. An ememy that suddenly glows red is about to unleash an attack on you, and missing the cue to take action can be highly costly, especially later in the game when the bad guys come armed with knives and iron bars that hurt quite a bit when you get caught by one.
Having that in the back of your head at the beginning of the game is quite daunting, but after you learn a few new moves over the course of the next few hours your violence repetoir becomes more varied. Being able to snap someone’s leg, or vault over them to attack them from behind is more than satisfying, but environment kills are where the fun is at. When you grab an enemy, any interactive areas nearby start to glow red – drag your opponent near the glowing area and you’ll be able to use it to finish off your opponent, and whether it’s just chucking someone in a skip or impaling them on a meathook it always feels better than a normal takedown. Probably a clever addition considering the combat can get a little simple once you get the hang of it, to the point that joining one of the fight clubs around town – a six-round contest where each round pits more and more enemies against you – generally ends in resounding success without all that much trouble. The challenge comes back with a bang though when you come face to face with a gang of gun-clad bad guys, and you’re armed with nothing but a fancy t-shirt…
Missions are numerous to say the least, and will have you spreading your time between solving crimes, hunting down gangland bosses and shed-loads of other bits and bobs. Street racing is available in various flavours to let you race a variety of cars and bikes, you can go and sing some karaoke in a bar or just drive around finding specific vehicles to hijack and make money from – something made all the more enjoyable by the impressive handling of the vehicles you’ll find. The number of extra side-quests is massive, and with most missions having online leaderboards to compare how you did against your friends there’s loads of replay value to try and perfect your score and hit the top of the tables.
Visually Sleeping Dogs is a mixed bag, with some great character models and the general look and feel of the city being lovely to look at, but take a closer peek and things get a little less brilliant. Shop fronts and other street frontages are copied en masse and make things a bit samey if you’re on foot (although at speed you’ll be hard pushed to notice) and can be a bit frustrating when you spot a handy shop from a distance only to find it’s a static front that can’t be used. The camera can play havoc sometimes too, and although this is pretty uncommon I had a couple of nasty moments when I was hidden from view during a fairly brutal and important fight against several knife-wielding nutters. It’s not a game breaker and doesn’t really detract from the enjoyment, but the issue is there.
But there’s no denying that Sleeping Dogs is brilliant fun. Even despite the small issues the characterisation is great, getting around the city is handled brilliantly and the fighting is fluid and makes you feel like a genuine badass. Innovation is lacking a bit admittedly, but there’s definitely plenty here to keep fans of open world games busy for a long long time, and even more so if a few friends have got the game as well. Sqaure Enix must be feeling especially smug right now – they’ve picked up a title that looked lost in development hell, and have suddenly got a top quality title on their hands. I’ve got to the point that I’m thinking about Sleeping Dogs when I’m not playing it, and that’s a sure fire way of knowing a game has got under your skin. Take a chance, look on this with fresh unbiased eyes and you’ll have an amazing time.
Reviewed on PS3