Most open-world sandbox games shouldn't be open-world sandbox games. As I write this, MAFIA 2 and LA NOIRE spring to mind in red-filtered flashbacks like traitors upon which I yearn to enact my revenge. Games that made me drive distances best measured in astronomical units for no purpose other than padding gameplay length. If the sprawling cities had been cut out entirely and replaced by smaller, mission-appropriate scenery, would it have been an improvement? If the answer's yes, your game shouldn't be a sandbox. Your time and resources would be better spent ironing out everything else. Not that this would have helped LA NOIRE. Its core mechanics were inherently broken to begin with.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's GRAND THEFT AUTO 4. The amazing Liberty City seems to bear down on Niko's shoulders, making him feel small and isolated. In what is a stroke of genius, pedestrians will often answer their cellphones as they come close to Niko, excluding him even more. Gameplay-wise, GTA 4 knows how to make the most of its scale with good missions that couldn't exist without it.
RED DEAD REDEMPTION is similarly skilled at evoking an atmosphere. The death of the Old West is almost tangible as you cross a lonely prairie illuminated by the sunset. To the far east is Blackwater, the most advanced city in the gameworld, threatening to expand westward and swallow all in its path until it meets the ocean. The game also has a gameplay feature that every sandbox game should have: scripted events that happen randomly, such as an ongoing robbery or a person being chased by wolves, in which you can intervene. Events that make the world feel alive and the gameplay more varied.
And finally, SKYRIM. In which the world is the main character and its exploration the entire point. Everything else builds toward that. The game's most memorable moments consist of travelling toward a distant city as Jeremy Soule's gorgeous music plays.
SLEEPING DOGS presents a different problem. Its Hong Kong is gorgeous, interactive and full of opportunities. It doesn't feel tacked onto a game that could easily do without it. Unfortunately, the game lacks the creativity to make the most of it. To say that it makes the least of it is a generous assessment.
The problems start with the writing. Wei Shen is an astonishingly bland protagonist. Good at everything, fazed by nothing. Most of the time I forgot he's an undercover cop, because when he's told to do heinous things, he doesn't bat an eyelid. He doesn't call his superiors for guidance, he doesn't hesitate. The developers seem to think it's enough drama for him to show signs of stress every time he wakes up. It isn't. It's just another dissonant aspect of a personality that never forms a coherent whole. He has no real humanity. I could care less what happens to him. Which is in itself a gigantic flaw.
The other characters are stock characters. They feel like the first draft of characters in GTA games, before actual depth was added. And the missions they give you often have little to do with anything. The objectives feel random and actually boring. Several missions ask you to play sequences of hacking mini-games and -- of all fucking things -- karaoke.
Now I speak directly to you, United Front Games and Square Enix.
Wants to be forced to play a Guitar-Hero-for-dummies version.
In a game that has a competent melee combat system, acceptable gunplay and surprisingly responsive driving, why would you build missions around hacking a safe or pressing a button to fast-talk people?
(Yes. This happens. A guard shows up and asks what are you doing, a button prompt appears, you press it and Wei comes up with an excuse that convinces the guard to let him in peace. This is an actual gameplay feature.)
Why, in a crime game that has this:
Would you focus on this:
The more I played SLEEPING DOGS, the more it felt like a waste of time. The story is completely lacking in ambition, the missions are uninteresting and often rely on the game's least entertaining features and the overall gameplay design has a kitchen sink approach that hilariously breaks the game's previously established level of realism.
Consider, for example, the ability to make your car lurch forward or sideways to ram other cars. Even DRIVER SAN FRANCISCO, the game this feature was borrowed from, had the common sense to make this ability available only in the protagonist's dreams (which, no spoiler, last for most of the game). And the designers also remembered to prevent this lurch from adding actual speed to the cars, which would give players a game-breaking advantage during races. The developers of SLEEPING DOGS didn't notice this problem.
And then there's the pathetic health shrines that increase Wei's health after he performs a ritual. This is yet another aspect of what can charitably be called Wei's personality that never shows up anywhere else, and thus feels more like a stereotype of Chinese culture than anything.
And then... there's the sexism.
The female characters in SLEEPING DOGS bother me, because they seem to exist solely for Wei to conquer them. You meet them during a mission, they leave you their cellphone, you call them, you meet them, you do things for them and they have sex with you. They are all attracted to Wei's skills at driving, fighting, hacking, etc. instead of his personality (understandably, since he doesn't have one). It's that line of thinking that, to paraphrase a tweet by Hexjackal, equates women to machines in which you put coins until sex comes out.
Nearly all of the women in SLEEPING DOGS are like that. They show no further depth or narrative purpose. The only reason they're in the game is to be a mission for which the reward is sex. There's no option to advance the relationship, only to conquer the next woman. I had a hint of hope when Wei gets angry at a woman who's cheating on him, and she rightfully reminds him he's cheated on her first. Sadly, this goes nowhere. Wei and the narrative are entirely unnaffected by this. It's like the moment only exists to be a mildly amusing ending to a "tail the car" mission, and to encourage you to conquer new women. Plot-wise, it's pointless. Gameplay-wise, it's padding.
No woman impresses Wei, no woman challenges him or teaches him something in any meaningful way. Most of them are there to give you easy mission objectives and reward you with sex. The only reason this isn't that sexist is due to Wei being such a good-at-everything bore of a character that nobody ever impresses him or teaches him or challenges him. Plus none of the characters, men or women, have any actual depth. The game's sexism is more of a side effect of overall shitty, lazy writing. "We need more stuff for the player to do." "How about dating minigames?" "Bingo."
And your writing truly has to be shitty when actual sexism seems too sophisticated for it.
After a mission in which yet another female character left me her cellphone number after I won a street race for her (by a wide margin, thanks to the magic of the "ram" button), I went to another mission briefing in which I was told to do something I instantly recognized as a minigame. And I simply said "no," quit the game and uninstalled it. Without a second thought. Because it's a pointless, vapid, insubstantial timewaste of a game.
And this may be because of the open-world setting. Having populated it with so many minigames, the developers apparently decided that nearly every mission should consist of doing one or two of them with some story-flavored context added. It's like they built the world first and, seeing what it already offered, built the story around that without adding anything else. In my (admittedly incomplete) playtime, there was nothing even approaching the level of craft from the heist mission in GTA 4 or the ambush mission in RED DEAD REDEMPTION.
All in all, SLEEPING DOGS is a decent sandbox with a shitty story and uninspired gameplay tacked on. The Hong Kong created for the game could have been a great setting for so much more.