Review: Sleeping Dogs

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There is Grand Theft Auto and then there is everything else. Sure, Assassin’s Creed and inFAMOUS do traversal better and Saint’s Row has more varied missions, but no one excels at world building in the way Rockstar does. From the breakthrough hit of the open world action genre in 2001 to the innovations and insane detail of GTAIV, Rockstar has not only defined the genre but sculpted it for a decade while others just toyed around with it.

Sleeping Dogs comes at a time when every new open world franchise has been exhausted, and Rockstar is finally gearing up to renew its flagship series. The brilliance of Sleeping Dogs may come down to cherry-picking ideas from the best of the genre, but it’s the first time an open world game has directly reached for Rockstar’s crown.

Sleeping Dogs is badder, faster, and more enthralling than GTA has ever been, and for the first time, Rockstar is going to have to teach its old dog some new tricks if it wants to reclaim the throne next year.

Sleeping Dogs (PC [reviewed], PlayStation 3, Xbox 360)
Developer: United Front Games, Square Enix London Studios
Publisher: Square Enix
Release: August 14, 2012
MSRP: $59.99

Rig: Intel i5-2500k @3.30 GHz, 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI)

There was once a time when we were content to have any city at all to explore in a game. So we made do with Liberty City in 2001. As the years ticked by and hardware advanced, we demanded more. So Rockstar gave us Miami, Ubisoft gave us Rome, and THQ gave us whatever the hell Stillwater has become.

Now here we are in virtual Hong Kong, a city that combines the beach side of Vice City, the neon glow of Yakuza‘s streets, the metropolitan sprawl of GTAIV, and the rich histories of Assassin’s Creed‘s locales. It’s fitting then that Sleeping Dogs takes a bit of each of those titles in its play mechanics. Like the city in which it takes place, Sleeping Dogs isn’t afraid to blend traditions from the past together with the latest inventions from the West.

Sleeping Dogs‘ Hong Kong is a melting pot of Asian cultures and social classes that define each of the city’s four areas: the crowded, seedy streets of North Point; the quiet, industrial Kennedy Town; the luxurious beaches of Aberdeen; and the busy, beating heart that is Central. Each area is connected by highways, filled with cars and pedestrians with convincing AI, and peppered with side missions and collectibles. It may not compare to the seemingly infinite San Andreas, but there is still a lot to see and do in Sleeping Dogs.

Wei Shen is the appropriate character to explore the game’s open world in every sense. He can quickly run and climb across rooftops, hide behind cover in a gun fight, and take on large groups of thugs using his fists and whatever environmental hazards the city block bestows upon him. The excellent controls and physics make Shen and the cars he drives easy and fun to control in a way no other open world game has accomplished. Above all, though, Shen fits the narrative arc of an open world game perfectly.

Shen is a Hong Kong native who relocated to San Francisco as a child, and now he’s returned to the ganglands of Hong Kong’s North Point as an undercover cop. While this setup isn’t any better than a Fast and Furious film, it grants a perfect excuse for Shen to do terrible things while remaining a sympathetic, level-headed lead. As the game demands the player to inflict more damage on rival gangs, Shen becomes more rageful and restless. The cops he thought were his friends become distant strangers, and the gang he thought he was fooling becomes the family he never had as a teenager.

In order to deeply penetrate the triad and reach the current boss, Shen needs to play the part of a common thug and rise within the ranks. Being a cop and a decent person, Shen tries his best to remain ethical, and the game forces his mindset upon you through its ranking systems. Each of the forty missions ranks you both as a cop and as a triad member. As a cop, you must avoid harming citizens and damaging property. As a triad member, you want to deal damage to opposing gangs in the most creative way possible. At least one of these things comes naturally.

Combat in Sleeping Dogs takes influence from Rocksteady’s counter-focused Batman games, but it isn’t shy about tossing in combos, complex grapples, and weapons. Even from the start, the game throws some tough fights at you that require great timing and positioning. Like in Batman, enemies become highlighted when you are allowed to counter and follow up with a series of punches and throws.

Unlike Batman, Shen can’t magically latch onto a foe across the room. Instead, the player needs to be resourceful by using the environment to quickly take out enemies. You can pick up enemies and throw them on meat hooks, impale them on a swordfish, push their head through an air conditioning fan, or even toss them off buildings. It seems gimmicky at first, but they become a more natural part of combat as you upgrade your move set to include stuns, roundhouse kicks, tackles, and many others.

One of the greatest innovations Sleeping Dogs brings to the genre is its leveling system, which gives the player a sense of progress in the world as well as within their skill set. You have four ways of improving your abilities that reflect your job as a cop, role as a triad member, popularity in HK, and kung fu prowess. The first two are upgraded by completing missions, popularity comes from doing optional side missions (“favors”), and new moves are awarded upon returning collectible statues to your childhood dojo. The poignant, heartbreaking exchanges between you and your old sensei are the cherry on top.

Making a large, convincing game world is only half the battle. The other half comes from filling it full of interesting things to do, thus giving a purpose for the space to exist. Just take a look at Mafia II to see what a trivial bore an open world can become when you leave out distractions and side missions. Though some activities become tiresome over time and the story isn’t as long as those in some open world games, there is a wealth of things to do in Hong Kong. I’m this close to breaking out an ugly bullet point list in this review because there are too much stuff to list when it comes to Sleeping Dogs.

When you aren’t completing story missions, you’ll be beating up thugs, hacking cameras, cracking safes, racing, performing odd jobs, singing at karaoke, pimping your houses, buying new clothes, and hijacking trucks. These tasks range from tiresome minigames to missions you’ll gladly replay via the game’s menu. Whenever you complete a mission, your end score is always compared to other players’ (friends and globally), giving you an extra incentive to stay in Hong Kong a couple extra weeks. Even miniscule things like your widest jump and longest wheelie are being tracked and compared. You can even ping your friends and challenge them to beat your record.

Open world games have a tendency to be a grab bag of ideas with a main focus on paying tribute to pop culture, but you won’t find any goofy talk radio stations or caricatures in Sleeping Dogs. This is the open world game at its most focused, where everything from the soundtrack to its leveling systems tie together to explore specific themes and evoke a somber tone. While the story can be operatic and brutal at times, it’s always fun to explore the city and meet the latest triad boss/scumbag you’ll be taking orders from.

There is a point when playing GTA and similar games where the world stops impressing me and just becomes my new home. The mix of city variety and graphics made Sleeping Dogs feel fresh during its entire 13-hour storyline and even a while after that as I collected hidden briefcases, completed side missions, and maxed out my abilities. Just as riding a motorcycle through Liberty City while blasting Smashing Pumpkins struck me in 2008, riding past the numerous neon signs of North Point while blasting Hudson Mohawke will stick with me for some time.

Even with the graphics set on the second highest setting and anti-aliasing turned down, Sleeping Dogs is gorgeous. You know that Watch Dogs demo everyone freaked out about and called “next gen” at E3? This looks as good or better in many ways. I just can’t get over how amazing the world looks when it’s raining and neon signs reflect light off the ground. The game ran smoothly, and I only ever ran into pop-in when exploring via boat, which is a rare occurrence in itself. The character models are the only areas where the game pales in comparison to Watch Dogs, but they still look impressive.

Though I only played the E3 demo on a 360, it looked butt ugly compared to PC. If you can play this on PC, you absolutely should. Make no mistake, this is some straight-up next gen shit right here! Just be sure to bring a controller because the keyboard/mouse controls are as terrible as you may expect. The only thing worse than pulling off combos with a keyboard is driving with one, so I don’t blame the developer.

Sleeping Dogs‘ script isn’t as funny or referential as GTAIV‘s, but at least I can take it seriously. Every character is well-rounded and compelling, there are smart, powerful female characters, and orientalism is kept to a minimum, rearing its ugly head only through the caricatures of food vendors and when you light a shrine candle (rewarding the player with increased health). The story may owe a great deal to Infernal Affairs, but you’ve never seen this world in a game before, so it feels authentic. Characters even switch from Cantonese to English in a way that sounds natural. By the end of the game, I felt like I knew things about Hong Kong, its history, and its culture that I never knew before.

I feel like if I talk about Sleeping Dogs‘ presentation and music, I’m going to explode. Best licensed soundtrack ever! There, I said it. It may not have the most popular songs, but every track here is so damn good and compliments the tone of the game perfectly, instead of oddly juxtaposing it as in other open world games. When Rustie comes on, you feel like an absolute badass. When you put on the Chinese easy listening station, you feel relaxed and take in the scenery. Not once did I miss being able to play my own soundtrack. If anything, I would just have added even more Rustie (because he’s amazing)! Props to United Front for being smart in contacting a couple notable record labels to showcase their A-list artists instead of getting crappy pop-punk bands off Myspace.

The first couple hours of Sleeping Dogs are some of the best gaming you’ll have all year, but things fall apart at the end. It’s as if the player has exhausted the game and it just wants to crawl to the finish line. Compared to the memorable final mission and climax of GTAIV, this feels lazy and disappointing. And of course, it leaves room for a sequel. Because videogames. Outside of a weak final act and a couple lame missions in the middle, it’s hard to find fault in Sleeping Dogs.

As long as this review is, there are so many brilliant ideas and scenes in Sleeping Dogs that I haven’t addressed. The subtle humor in one mission where you need to take a photo of a sunset, the genius gun tutorial, tracking a serial killer across the city, throwing a guy through an aquarium and then beating his friends to death with a fish — ahh, so much great stuff! But some of these things you just need to discover for yourself.

I can’t think of many genres that have been primarily defined by a series as much as the open world action game. In 2001, Rockstar introduced players to a new way to play action games. They were free to explore and cause havoc in one of the most realistic, detailed game worlds of its time. Even now, developers don’t try to capture the insane detail of GTAIV because they know whatever they build won’t compare. While Rockstar excels at world building, the mechanics and controls of GTA leave something to be desired. To put it bluntly, you suffer at times in order to get to the next good part.

Sleeping Dogs is what happens when every part is the good part. Four years after the release of GTAIV, a developer has finally removed Rockstar’s crown and placed it upon its own head. While I can’t deny Saint’s Row has better missions and GTA has a more detailed world and better driving, neither is as consistent and polished as Sleeping Dogs.

Between its fantastic combat, shooting, presentation, storytelling, and RPG elements, Sleeping Dogs has just raised the demands for what it’d take for GTAV to get the throne back. Good luck, Rockstar.

Rig: Intel i5-2500k @3.30 GHz, 8GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 580 GPU (SLI)

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.

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Allistair Pinsof
His name is Allistair. He lives in Austin. If he is ever in your city, please come visit him in his minivan. He has have many fresh diapers. No worries!