Sleeping Dogs: Exploring the open streets of Hong Kong

September 6, 2012

There was once a time when we had an abundance of new open-world action games released every few months. It seemed like we couldn’t escape them. Thankfully, the releases of have slowed significantly in the past year, leaving us with only a select handful every so often. The games we do see released are often unmemorable, with the exception of a few excellent action titles that excel beyond their basic premises. Sleeping Dogs is one of those games, taking the best of the best and adding a little bit of new, exciting flavor to the mix.

The story follows Wei Shen, an undercover cop brought to Hong Kong to infiltrate and effectively take down the Triads. He was chosen because of his history with these gangs and the many colorful characters that lead them. As the game progresses, Wei struggles with his growing connections to the Triad gangs and his duty as a police officer, leading to many sleepless nights of torment and confliction. Things unfold as you might expect, although Sleeping Dogs does have quite a few surprises up its sleeves. The game offers us a very convincing and likeable lead character, as well as giant cast of side characters, many of whom we quickly learn to love or hate.

When creating an open-world game, the biggest thing that sets it apart from other, similar titles is the setting. The good news is that Hong Kong is truly spectacular and stands out from the rest. Not only does it look amazing, but it also offers plenty of interesting areas to explore. It isn’t often when I find myself driving around a city just to see what other areas I haven’t seen yet, and yet Sleeping Dogs gives me plenty of reason to do so. This may all fall apart without proper driving mechanics, but that is handled well. The driving itself felt light and easy to get the hang of, especially when using motorcycles, so traveling around the city is easy to do.

In the beginning of the game, you are quickly introduced to two of the other central mechanics: the free running and the fighting system. Free running feels precise and makes sure you are always on your toes. As you climb through areas, you time your button presses with the actions on screen allowing for Wei to easily climb up or jump down parts of the environments you are running through. If you’re not quick enough, it will slow Wei down or, when jumping off of something, make him lose health instead of rolling and recovering quickly. It’s a system that is easy to pick up, but also requires a lot of attention.

The best part of Sleeping Dogs is the combat, which takes cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel. You have three main buttons: attack, counter and grab. Attacks can be light or heavy, with plenty of different combos for you to learn throughout the game. As you attack, enemies will glow red, and, if you time the counter just right, you’ll attack them before they attack you. The grab allows you to perform specific stun moves or, adding to the more brutal nature of the game’s combat, let you do special environmental kills. This ranges from shoving someone’s head into a fan to throwing them onto a meat hook. It can get gruesome, to say the least.

The combat feels more brutal than what you might get from Arkham Asylum, and despite these subtle differences, it is enough to set Sleeping Dogs’ mechanics apart from similar games. Wei’s movements and attacks feel a bit more realistic and violent, and you always feel the impact of each blow. Wei is a great martial artist, but it doesn’t take long before the enemies can get the upper hand and take him down. The combat is less about fighting large groups of enemies quickly as it is about being patient and anticipating enemy movements, because each hit Wei takes feels impactful and can really mess you up. It all seems like it’s taken right out of a Hong Kong action film, which helps the game feel more distinct.

It isn’t long before you are introduced to the shooting mechanics. The shooting itself feels solid and, thanks to the ability to slide over cover and trigger a slow motion effect, aiming is always precise enough to take down enemies quickly. The missions that rely heavily on shooting can be fun, but they are also some of the most derivative parts of the game. Some of the segments go on a little too long and the game sometimes relies too heavily on on-rails sections that have you in the passenger seat of a car mowing down enemies with no real challenge. The shooting itself is fine, but there was more that could have been done with the later missions that rely heavily on those specific mechanics.

Tying in with Wei’s internal conflict as an undercover cop is the experience you gain during missions. Based on your actions during story missions, you will earn police and Triad points. During most missions, you will earn Triad points for completing required objectives or using specific environmental kills. You will also gain police experience for completing missions, but if you steal cars, destroy property or kill civilians, your police experience for that mission will decrease. Each experience meter is linked to different unlockables, so you want to try to max out both as much as possible.

Outside of story missions, there is plenty to do in Hong Kong. You have multi-part police investigations, which have you solving murders or stopping drug dealers, street races, and favors, which are missions that involve some of the game’s many side characters, among many other things (including a fun karaoke mode). And like any open-world game, there are collectibles including health shrines, which increase your health after finding a certain number of them, and jade statues, which you return to a dojo in order to learn new combos. It’s the quintessential open-world experience, with everything you might expect and then some. Much of the side content is enjoyable enough to keep you busy, but none of it detracts from the main story.

Sleeping Dogs is a fantastic game that does nothing to move the genre forward, but does enough to stand out on its own thanks to its distinct setting, great cast of characters and excellent gameplay. There is enough here to keep you busy for a while, and even with its shortcomings, the main story missions are full of plenty of fun moments and surprises. Even if you are sick of open-world action games, this is one that would be hard to pass up.

Pros: Fantastic setting and story, fun and brutal combat system, plenty to keep you busy
Cons: A handful of derivative missions and gameplay sections

Score: 5/5

Questions? Check out our review guide.