Sleeping Dogs feels like that American-Born Chinese (ABC) kid who watched Infernal Affairs and decided to make a serious film on the lives of Triad gangsters that’s true-to-life because he’s Asian by heritage. Except that it’s kind of funny, in a “Hahahaha! Nice try” and “A for Effort” type of way. You want to give it a pat on the head for trying to stand apart from sandbox giants GTA or Saints Row.
I’m going to break up this review into several sections, focusing on the different aspects of gameplay and story. I haven’t finished the game yet, but I’ve played enough to know that I like this game. Not with a heated passion or crazed lust, but like how someone would slowly come to terms with their partner in an arranged marriage. I was not expecting fireworks and some things pissed me right off, but it did eventually grow on me.
Let’s start with:
Missions, Favours & Other Sides
Because you’re an undercover cop, you walk both the good-guy and bad-guy lines. The game leans toward the linear style of story progression, where you have to do Cop missions and Triad missions to advance. You can do either one first, but you need to do both to proceed further in the game. There aren’t any other factions or branches of story you can explore to deepen your experience in a way that GTA and SR do with their respective universes.
Instead, there are one-off side missions that feel like they’re only there for the sole purpose of gaining the necessary points and experience to move forward in your skill tree, which overall, is a bit of a waste of storytelling opportunity.
There’s a specific category of side missions called Favours, that help you gain Face upon completion, but if not for the benefit of getting additional cash and unlocking perks related to Face, I may not have even bothered attempting them at all. It’s usually a random person on the street asking you to bash someone’s car in with a tire iron or deliver things, basically turning you into an overpaid, violent errand boy.
Other side activities include your usual sandbox staples like racing, fighting groups of guys in martial arts clubs, entering high speed cop chases, initiating drug busts and singing karaoke at the local nightclub. Unfortunately, that’s all the frivolousness you’re going to get, but luckily, the game puts hyperviolence in the spotlight so you won’t even notice the lack of busty asian beauties strutting the streets of Hong Kong. If you’re super desperate for action, go on dates or you can visit a shady massage parlour in Aberdeen for a happy ending.
Not as explosively large and expansive as the worlds Rockstar and Volition build for their famous franchises, but there’s still enough for you to muck about and have fun with when you want a break from being all gangster serious in your day job.
Skill Trees & Upgrading
The skill trees aren’t exactly meant in the traditional sense of the term. You have:
Cop skills – Enhanced firearms abilities, disarming, extended slow-mo time, hijacking, stealing and other vehicle-related conveniences. Split into two paths,meeting at the end.
Triad skills – Hand-to-hand combat advantages and new moves. Split into two paths,meeting at the end.
Face skills – Purchasing conveniences, fighting advantages, lengthened stat boost effects. Single path.
Melee skills – Additional fighting combos. Split into two paths, meeting at the end.
The only skill with limitations you may be concerned with is Face. Because there’s a fixed amount of Face missions you can accomplish, the only way you can try to max it out is by donning certain accessories that help stretch your Face points. If you finish all Face-earning missions, that’s it. Too bad. You’re stuck forever at that level.
“Face” resonates with me so strongly on a cultural level. I swear to you, as a Singaporean young adult I could not give one damn about gaining or losing face in my daily life because it’s such an archaic concept. But it made me grin when I first learned about how it operated and now I’m just going to imagine everyone with a Face bar overlaid on their heads. In chinese culture, face is equivalent to reputation, and if the old rules still applied, often in real life you do things for the sake of maintaining face. Having this as a throwback makes the experience surprisingly pungent with nostalgia. Always a good thing.
On its own, the partial map of Hong Kong is a whole cityscape of roads and alleys, interlinked and cramped like the branching veins of the human circulatory system. Definitely a fifth of Liberty City. But you know what? It feels authentic. There are roads everywhere, and little of natural landscape or countryside within the island, authentic to what Hong Kong is, right down to the key landmarks and touristy locations.
Travel is only limited to foot, bikes, cars, and boats. I have yet to see a game include a subway travelling experience. The iconic trams of the city don’t make an appearance either. You can, however, grab a cab by approaching any of them on the street, but be careful with the controls so as not to steal the car instead (unless you actually intend to). There aren’t any other kooky aerial experiences, but looking at the game’s tone and overall feel, there’s no room for any half-naked skydiving or helipad landing hijinks.
What’s probably the coolest about getting around the city in a vehicle is that there are these huge colored arrows that appear before you need to make a turn. Many times in sandbox games, I find myself going nearly cross-eyed staring at the GPS for navigation while trying not to ram an innocent pedestrian or rear-end a police car. A simple indicator like this helps so much that sometimes I don’t even have to take my eyes off the road to see if I’m heading in the right direction.
Nearby rival gangsters loitering about alleyways and dank corners are marked on the map as a red person. They’re usually guarding something important like a lockbox or a CCTV circuit box, so look around after you give them a beatdown.
Being an undercover cop, you’re still sought after by law enforcement when you partake in misdemeanor, murder or unmitigated violence. For a change, Sleeping Dogs’ cops show up on the radar as a blue marker whether or not you’re being a criminal in public so you know just when to get into a gang fight at the road junction. I like that the cops drop their chase a second after you’re out of their radar. It balances out the incredible speed that the squad cars are capable of, and ensures that you don’t need to spend more time in hot pursuit than you need to. Come on, we’re chinese gangsters of underground Hong Kong! We’re the vicious cleaver, not the distracting flashbang.
Fighting & Shooting
I think about 20% of the game’s combat is gunfighting. Guns are hard to come by in Hong Kong, you know? There aren’t any weapon stores where you can pick up extra shells for your shotty. It’s only when you engage in the shootouts in the main story that you get to randomly fish for a gun somewhere. When you pick up a pretty pistol, you save it for special dates.
The shooting itself feels great, if it weren’t for the blithering bullet time activated by vaulting over tables or exploding enemy tires. Those can be really jarring or interrupt your killing momentum. I know it’s supposed to be MaxPayne-ish cool and slick, but it doesn’t make sense to have this stylistic mechanic in shooting especially when the slo-mo is too short for you to land proper headshots. I mean, that’s the purpose of shooting in slo-mo right? To whack as many people between the eyes as you can at once?
I am, however, glad that I’m not spoonfed with auto-aim. You can aim in cover or take blind sprays when facing a crowded warehouse. Enemy AI will seek you out and boldly move towards your location until you come face to face with their barrel. Unfortunately, there is no way to roll out of danger or crouch your way around situations, but they try to reduce the disadvantage of that by allowing you to run from cover to cover.
From time to time you’ll be engrossed in car chases (you are being chased, really) and you have to “Protect Your Driver”. Yeah right. During these pursuits you just have to kill a fixed amount of harrassing hooligans on wheels before they kill you. If done infrequently, getting rid of these bike-riding, reckless-driving fools is really satisfying. Don’t overdo it and it will remain a guilty pleasure, but too many times and you’ll roll your eyes whenever your mission forces a car chase on you. You can shoot the drivers and passengers in cars, but the easiest way to get rid of someone on your tail is to destroy their tires. Any one. As long as one punctures, the entire vehicle will flip like a Michael Bay movie and you can get away scott free.
Driving and shooting is possible too, but the automobiles in this game are really speedy so balancing between both can be tricky. Just remember that it’s better to shoot less and keep up than to lose your target and restart. Repeatedly.
Enough about shooting. The fighting is awesome. This is what Asian cinema and culture pride themselves over, even if not everyone knows a spot of kungfu. Sometimes the fighting makes you feel like Bruce Lee to have seven guys try and take you down at the same time. I’m not as adept at fighting in game as I’d like to be, but it feels especially awesome when you land the final blow on the fat guy’s face. Most of the time it’s really about timing and reaction rather than the variety of moves available in your skillset. These gangsters are aggressive, so they’ll make the first move. Shaolin monks are the opposite. But no matter who you fight, every successful session will leave you happily bloodied and triumphant.
Enemies can carry weapons, but that’s of little concern to you because you can easily disarm them. I can say that battles are probably as fluid as Batman’s in Arkham City. Guys who are about to attack glow red, signalling you to hit the counterattack button. Many times wrong timing means you get hit, or worse, stabbed, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed by a group of five if you don’t plan your strikes properly. They’ll circle you like vultures; just don’t get surrounded or cornered and you’ll be safe.
You can have a combat-aiding boost by visiting a massage parlour, or purchasing Dragon Kick energy drinks or Herbal tea to increase attack damage/face/reduce health damage caused by opponents. The difference is only slight, so don’t expect too much from it.
The best bit is probably beating up someone enough to pull off a finisher, which usually involves the breaking of bones. It makes you feel like a badass when your arm twist is rewarded with a gratifying crack and your Combat Face meter is activated. When this happens, all enemies are more weary of you and tend to recede in fear, whether they’re holding a cleaver or not. It’s a bit like bullying because you’re relentlessly bashing a guy who is chickening out, but hey, they started it first. Hand their asses back to them.
Remember one thing though – don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. Literally. Some drug busts turned out to be my funeral that way because I thought a tire iron would do the trick.
This is the one thing that I can’t stand. You’d think that with somewhat snazzy cars, you’d own the roads, but the handling is terrible. The control on a motorbike is shockingly much easier and sometimes a good two-wheeled model is far quicker than any of the best cars available to you at any point in time. It’s that warped.
In any case, racing can be fun, if not for the fact that every other opponent’s bike is faster than yours, no matter what the make. It presents its own challenge: Winning through expert drifting and meandering through the oft-times crowded roads is more important than anything else. I’m not even going to talk about the cars because unless you’re a grand expert at Driver: SF or Gran Turismo, the later races can be ridiculously imbalanced. You could have what you think is a great lead but the moment you hit a straight road, somehow the competitor zips past you even if you’re flooring the accelerator. The only real part I cherish is in the beginning, when the cars launch from the starting line in an immediate attempt to ram opponents off the course even if it means running over the grid girl in the process. These people are so dirty, man.
There’s also an option to action hijack, that is, to drive close enough to your target car and make a timed leap for it so you can rip the driver from his seat and take over. It’s not exciting as it sounds. And feels just like another mechanic thrown in while driving to make it seem like you’re in a movie action sequence. I find it kind of lame. I don’t know about it.
Boating is equally tragic in handling – though my boat won’t capsize, I went nuts trying to control the rudder while maintaining a level of speed that isn’t embarrassing for a chase and I can’t get used to the manoeuvring no matter how long I try. Water has never really been my thing. Fortunately for me, there aren’t any water races or perks associated with the command of a vessel, so I’m perfectly fine with giving it a complete miss.
Sadly, you’re no pimpin’ gangsta. While Wei has a certain charm to him that the ladies in Sleeping Dogs seem to dig, these relationships don’t give you any long term satisfaction. Once your “dates”, (or rather, missions) are completed, you can’t call your favourite chica to hang out again for that extra cup of coffee. All that happens is that the location of one type of collectible will be pinned to the map.
So really, dating isn’t actually dating, but just a reason to reveal collectible locations. Sucks! There’s no freedom in it at all. Yes, we get to know a little more about the girls we’re taking out for a nice time, but come on. What if I wanted to, y’know, be serious with Amanda? Take her out for a night time spin in my fake Maserati? Order in some Chinese takeout? You can’t do any of that here. Which is a waste, because if dating was going to be this skeletal, we could’ve just done without it altogether. ): Way to lead me on, game.
Buying Useless Crap
Not all of it is useless crap, not exactly. You can buy three categories of things in the game: clothes; food; vehicles. Wearing certain sets of clothes gives you specific advantages like discounts on cars, experience boosts. If you don’t have a high enough Face level, you don’t qualify for the purchase of some things, and frankly, I’d rather have the free and easy sort of buying power with just cash rather than have the whole experience dependent on leveling. Like Spore, you’re forced to don something and ignore the other cosmetic components because they have little or no value with regards to building your character’s stats.
Vehicles, on the other hand, are assigned alphabetical classes (A/B/C). The class of car you drive allows you to participate in streets races catered to your class. Don’t expect uber flashy rides either. My gripes about driving have already been established so I won’t go into that further. Just that I’d like to highlight that the fast cars aren’t necessarily the best, and you’re better off sticking with a practical mid-range car to get you places.
Throw in food, and that’s pretty much all the things you can spend your moolah on.
Looking for stuff
This is the equivalent of looking for orbs in Infamous or shards and artifacts in Darksiders, where finding a specific kind of item upgrades your skillset/stats/gives you money. And everyone loves money!
Collectibles make up a great part of this game. It’s not a must to garner all of it, but honestly, if you don’t go looking for them, you can expect your character to be as limp as a noodle when it comes to the more advanced fist fighting later in the game. Or fights will take remarkably longer.
Jade statues unlock additional melee moves, praying at health shrines raise your max health, lockboxes give you money. The lockboxes are usually guarded by droves of gangsters, and are sometimes secured by a combination lock which you have to crack. After completing dates, the locations of collectibles will be marked directly on your HUD when you come within a certain range.
Story and characters in brief
Here you have Wei Shen, and undercover cop who’s been assigned to be lodged deep into the Sun On Yee Triad family so that Hong Kong Police Department can be rid of a heavy-hitting organized crime syndicate at once. Of course, things are never that easy as Wei struggles with his gangster past and knowing which side of the law he’s really on. Wei’s really a fussy little bitch.
Being Asian and all, the story gets to me a little more than the rest of the sandbox entries. They did a great job with trying to portray the Chinese culture and its vicious underworld. Definitely sensationalized at certain points (public shoot outs at hospital courtyards, anyone?), but did accurately underscore that Triad gangsters aren’t to be messed with. People think mafia are scary. They haven’t seen how Triad gangs work yet.
I could never really get used to the semi-Cantonese, semi-English salad of dialogue, and would’ve really just preferred to stick with just English or just Cantonese only. I understand why they did it, but I laugh every time Wei talks to someone in English and the auntie responses in full blown Cantonese. I’d go crazy if I were having a conversation and the other person refuses to tune to the same frequency.
The voice acting is pretty good. There are some big names in the cast and everyone is really serious and earnest in their roles. They bring life to the characters, but sometimes have just a cheeseball delivery that it’s hard not to grimace or giggle. It’s not the acting, it’s just the lines. On the other hand, the way certain scenes are written gives a sense of subtle mockery to stereotypical characters often seen in your usual Chinese gangster movies – the bumbling sidekick, the shady Westerner boss, the not-clinically-but-definitely psycho lady with a cleaver, and the skinny old man-boss of the group. You know that these are larger-than-life characters, but you also can’t help but feel like it’s just mega awesome to be an inside man of these bunch of lunatic loyalists. I grew to like them a lot.
What I liked about Sleeping Dogs, despite its obvious flaws in gameplay, is that it doesn’t take itself seriously. Where it gives the opportunity for you to have fun, you do. I can’t imagine anywhere else that I would change into traditional religious garb, sneak into a temple to steal a black orchid for a wedding, and fight my way out by kicking the many asses of fully trained Shaolin monks. You could easily avoid the fisticuffs, but seriously, give up martial arts battles with monks? No way!
It’s plenty of moments like these that make overlooking its flaws a much easier process. You could call it a “watered-down GTA”, but let’s face it, as much as it borrows from GTA or SR (or more than that), I think there’s enough in it to let it stand on its own as something good to experience while we wait for the arrival of another GTA title. Not perfect, but it’s a great effort. Enough to make me think it’s worth passing the time with anyway.