Sleeping Dogs focuses on “better” instead of “more,” and the result is an engrossing crime drama
Sleeping Dogs begins like so many explorations of the criminal underworld. A man meets someone from his past, and they talk about the good times and their memories from the old neighborhood. The old friend has a way to make some money, and he has some people he’s like to introduce to this man, who has suddenly returned from… somewhere. It turns out he was in America, and he’s a cop. This is our entry point to the world of crime in Hong Kong.
Sleeping Dogs is an open-world game in the Grand Theft Auto tradition, complete with cars, motorcycles, collectibles, and side-missions, but the setting, combat mechanics, and well-told story elevate it well above other games in the genre.
The game revels in the tropes and clichés of crime novels and hard boiled cinema, but the well-written story and better than expected dialog and acting make the material pop. The characters speak in a combination of English and Cantonese, and there are neat little cultural touchstones that make this version of Hong Kong feel as real as the stylized versions of Miami and New York seen in the Grand Theft Auto series. The city is shot through with tight alleys, beautiful temples, and pushy vendors whose goods will give your character a temporary boost to his stats.
You play as detective Wei Shen, whose job is to infiltrate the Sun On Yee triad and take it down from within. This isn’t a random assignment, as Shen’s roots in Hong Kong go deep. We’re given a few details about his troubled past, and characters he meets know how to push his buttons by bringing up his sister. “Flash some dope around,” one man says, “and her panties would disappear.” Wei’s sister is dead now, and how or why that happened is dealt with in broad strokes. We know enough to infer that it wasn’t a good situation. This job may be breaking Shen, but the cracks existed long before the game began.
The game lets us peek into Shen’s rapidly dissolving mental health by showing him waking up in the morning, the nightmares of the previous night’s criminal exploits fresh in his mind. The exploration of the mental gymnastics required in infiltrating a tight-knit criminal family while also working to put them behind bars is a common theme in this kind of story, but Sleeping Dogs offers a surprisingly subtle take on why this lifestyle is so attractive to some, and so deadly for others. None of the bad guys are cardboard, and none of the good guys are walking with the angels.
The characters around Shen may talk about brotherhood and the lengths at which they’ll go through to help you, but many characters are not-so-subtly trying to screw over everyone else. There is a civil war brewing for control of the Sun On Yee, and the cold war of double-dealings and barely-restrained rivalries boils over into open warfare as the game moves on. Sleeping Dogs mirrors the reality of crime in Hong Kong by keeping guns well away from most of the action scenes for a little under half the game, and there is the sense that once they are introduced into the action a line has been crossed. Violence consists of knives and environmental advantages for much of the action.
Sleeping Dogs deals with the decay of trust and fraternity in both the police and the criminals, and there is a certain sadness to the violence and escalation of aggression as the game wears on. An elderly character notes that many of the strengths of the triads’ character are gone, replaced with a hunger for power and money. This isn’t just a criminal organization falling to petty infighting, it’s a cancer that has been growing for a long time, fed by bickering and a lack of respect. Shen’s undercover work almost seems like an afterthought; many of these people would have died or lost their power without his influence. Likewise the police who offer him guidance often seem to be as morally gray as those he’s trying to put away.
You meet good people on both sides of the line, and sometimes do good things, but it can often feel like putting a band-aid over a sucking chest wound. The rot comes from the top down.
In many ways it seems like Shen is simply there to witness the death of what once looked to be a proud, but unforgiving, tradition. If you pay close attention to the conversations that go on between missions, you’ll note that almost everyone is offered an escape route at some point. If they wanted to, they could have gotten out and cut their losses. No one takes the smart money on that bet, and they’re punished for it. Sometimes brutally. The game’s writing does an admirable job of placing the screws around interesting points with both the characters and story, and then begins to turn them with relentless precision.
I know what I am
Sleeping Dogs has had quite the adventure during development, briefly becoming a True Crime title before being dumped by Activision and then picked up by Square Enix. The game never changed in this time according to the developers, but it’s still a happy surprise that the game has finally seen release, and none the worse for wear. This isn’t a title that feels like it was stuck in development hell; it plays like a well-crafted and cleverly designed sandbox title that was created by a talented team.
The sandbox genre tends to strive for bullet points on the back of the box: It’s important to have the most square miles to explore, the most licensed songs, and of course the most vehicles. Sleeping Dogs pulls back and sets you loose in a version of Hong Kong that’s large enough to feel like a thriving city but not so big as to be overwhelming. The time saved on creating a larger environment was put to work on the game’s core systems, which stand above Grand Theft Auto and its clones.
Combat has been shifted from a focus on firearms to hand-to-hand fighting, and the rhythmic tapping of buttons and unlockable moves is reminiscent of Batman’s fighting system in the Arkham series, but it fits well with this setting. You can grapple your opponents and use your environment for powerful attacks and, while Shen may not be able to kill his enemies during the beginning hours of the game, as the story moves along and he’s put in increasingly desperate situations that code is put to the test.
The now-common undercover cop story gets much of its tension from the idea of what will happen if the character is ever found out, and Shen is often placed between two sets of characters he doesn’t feel like he can trust. That built up fury explodes once Shen is unleashed, and the quaint rules against killing are tossed aside. Sleeping Dogs builds that tension nicely, and each escalation of brutality feels earned. Once the blood starts to flow it feels real, and out of control.
That tension can be seen in the leveling system as well. If you obey the rules of the road and avoid harming civilians, you’ll gain levels in law enforcement which allow you to level up powers in firearms and using a slim jim to steal cars. Savaging your enemies by using the environment and weapons give you points to level up your Triad powers, which include melee weapons and hand-to-hand attacks. You level up your Face, or respect, rating by helping out people around the neighborhood and winning car and motorcycle races. You’ll also sometimes need to chase down people on foot, leading to some repetitive but still enjoyable free-running segments.
There is much to do around town, including a number of women you can date and drug busts to complete by hacking into surveillance cameras with an enjoyable, if simple, mini-game, but overall the game is much more focused than other sandbox titles. Everything is well-designed and fun, while the secondary missions don’t go out of their way to annoy you. No more man-dates with friends, or a constantly ringing cell phone. Sleeping Dogs may look like a Grand Theft Auto clone, but the game’s pace has been improved and all the internal systems have been either simplified or improved over Rockstar’s offerings. The main plot moves like a freight train, but the side missions and even dating challenges feel like a man taking a break from his stressful day to day life, not like a game forcing multiple paths on you.
You can also skip all the extra bullshit if you like, and beat the main story in around 12-15 hours. Doing everything could take you as many as 20 to 30 hours, and you can also continue playing once the story has wrapped up to collect everything you missed the first time through and enjoy your powered-up character. While the sandbox genre may be racing to be bigger, better, faster, MORE, Sleeping Dogs backs up and keeps what works and throws out what doesn’t. This is what Grand Theft Auto might feel like with a good editor, and the result is a world where it’s easy to wander while never getting lost, and side-missions and collecting challenges that feel organic and well integrated.
You’re one of them
United Front Games stopped the race for more and decided to go after “better” instead, and it was the right move. The game’s combat system is as fun on the 100th fight as it is the first, and the game presents the player with a well-told story filled with characters that seem real, if over the top. These people all grew up in the criminal world of Hong Kong, and that shared history is referenced in ways that feel natural. This is a lived-in world that didn’t pop into being when you hit start; it was there before the game began and will continue to carry on after the game’s conclusion.
Sleeping Dogs doesn’t set up a sequel as much as it makes you question what you’ve accomplished through the story, and it reminds you that the survivors, and the broken social contract that ripped their once-ordered organizations apart, will carry on.