In 2003, True Crime: Streets of LA took the example set by Rockstar Games‘ Grand Theft Auto III and pushed it in a new direction. The well-received open-world title was one of the first of its kind, putting players into the role of an undercover police officer, rather than a mute criminal. True Crime‘s success spawned a sequel in 2005, but its less than positive critical reception snuffed out an in-production third title. After lingering in development hell for some time Square Enix purchased that third installment from Activision, and with United Front Games completed what is now known as Sleeping Dogs.
Read our review to find out if Sleeping Dogs is a slick, engaging, and well-put-together action ride.
As it was originally meant to be a remake of the first True Crime title, Sleeping Dogs is similar in a few ways. The main character, Wei Shen, is very similar to True Crime‘s Nick Kang: a boisterous, Chinese-American street cop with a long list of questionable on-duty behavior, and a knack for bringing bad guys down with a bang. Playing Shen, your mission is to bring down the Triad gang, the Sun On Yee. While the idea is simple, and not unlike your typical undercover cop story, things never go quite as planned. After the first few hours of gameplay, the story kicks into high gear, bringing crucial developments, plot twists, and great performances that include Emma Stone as well as Lucy Liu — who, interestingly enough, played a small part in the Clint Eastwood film, True Crime.
Right from the start, the player is thrust into central Hong Kong, free-running and fighting their way through basic missions. Following the standards set by the game’s predecessors, missions are completed for the police and the Triad gang, with respect earned for each. Police respect will be earned for not breaking rules, and Triad respect will be earned for beating up people in the most bad-ass way possible. In addition to this, favors can be done for shop owners and other NPCs in exchange for cash and experience.
While doing missions for one side won’t bring your respect down with the other, there are ground rules laid by the police department to ensure you don’t go completely off the rails — though you very well could anyway. During any mission, every infraction reduces the amount of police respect you will receive at the end. Actions such as crashing into cars and breaking city property will result in a particularly drastic reduction in police experience earned.
A large part of what makes Sleeping Dogs exciting, and sets it apart from other games in the genre, is its free running system. Crucial to the game in several ways, free running allows the player to move over or around nearly any obstruction. Many action-oriented missions make use of it to break up the gameplay and keep things fresh and exciting — much like L.A. Noire uses chase sequences to punctuate an otherwise typical case.
Completing missions isn’t the only thing Sleeping Dogs takes in a new direction. Other elements of hugely successful franchises make appearances in the game, but they rarely feel directly borrowed from any specific game, nor is anything shoe-horned in for the sake of it. Driving, for example, feels as fast and arcade-like as recent entries to the Need for Speed series — and for good reason. Several developers from the franchise signed on to work on the driving mechanics in Sleeping Dogs. It’s tight, aggressive, and takes a few cues from the likes of Just Cause 2 and its ability to jump from one vehicle to another, albeit a little more realistically.
Combat in Sleeping Dogs is also refreshing, and significantly more arcade-like than titles like Grand Theft Auto IV, to which many players have already compared the gameplay style. A unique, free-flowing combat mechanic exists in Sleeping Dogs, reminiscent of Ubisoft‘s Assassin’s Creed series, or Rocksteady Studios‘ Batman: Arkham City. Groups of enemies can be taken out with relative swiftness, using calculated combos and specialty moves that are learned throughout the course of the game. Also interesting to note is the ability to grapple individual enemies, and perform environmental attacks — skull versus ventilation fan being one of my personal favorites.
Enemies who are getting ready to attack will glow red, and during this time the appropriate counter attack can be made — even during combat with other baddies. While this feature is a tad sluggish, with some practice it can be used successfully, though players might themselves occasionally dying due to the sheer number of beefy, hostile gangsters that can surround Shen at a given time. Overall, the combat mechanics are both solid and challenging, forcing the player to think beyond button-mashing enemies into a pulp.
Widening the scope of Sleeping Dogs‘ gameplay from punching faces and driving blisteringly fast, the entire Hong Kong island the game takes place in is large and nice looking, with lots of things to do. Shops around the island can be used to heal you or provide boosts to stats and experience, betting on cockfights can earn you some serious cash, or, if you’re feeling lonely, a trip to the local “massage” parlour can help ease Shen’s supercop-level tension. There are also a number of side-missions to do throughout the game, including retrieving ancient Chinese statues to Shen’s former kung fu teacher in exchange for valuable combat upgrades and activating shrines throughout the city to boost your maximum health.
While all of these moving parts work very well together, there are certainly some minor issues that can hinder gameplay, as well as areas where Sleeping Dogs borrows mechanics from other franchises that don’t really fit. For example, while the driving aspect of the game is quite good, driving at top speed will result in a stylish, yet jittery motion blur effect on nearly everything except the player’s vehicle. While this effect isn’t as radical on the open road, point-A-to-point-B Need for Speed titles of late, it can severely impact the ability to drive smoothly — and is particularly frustrating when attempting to outrun police or other attackers. Another issue comes from awkward timing during combat, but the level of forgiveness for misfiring a counter move is dramatically low, leaving Shen helpless for several seconds while he just stands and shakes his target-less fists.
Overall, Sleeping Dogs is a nearly seamless, action-packed open world experience, whose pros vastly outweigh the cons. The story and its characters are thoroughly engaging, even more so than Grand Theft Auto‘s attempts thus far. While not a game-changer, Sleeping Dogs is certainly a step in the right direction, and a huge breath of fresh air in the action genre.
Sleeping Dogs is available now for the PC, PlayStation 3, and the Xbox 360. Game Rant played the PC version for this review.
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