Originally True Crime: Hong Kong, this game was scrapped by Activision for not meeting their level of quality (see also: not Call of Duty enough). Eighteen months later, we get to see what Square Enix and United Front Games did with the game, and boy howdy, did they do an incredible job with Sleeping Dogs.
One Night in Bangkok:
Okay, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t take place in Thailand, but I needed a catchy title for the story section. You play as Hong Kong police department undercover detective Wei Shen, who is tasked with using his old neighborhood ties to work his way into the local Triads crew, the Son On Yee (which is a play of words on the real Triad, the Son Yee On). Starting up as a lowly messenger boy, you weasel your way deeper and deeper into the organization, working your way up the chain of command and taking on bigger and bigger responsibilities as you prove yourself around you. The delicate balance between trusted crime syndicate foot soldier/lieutenant and undercover police officer obviously is a tough one to walk, as you watch Wei Shen struggle to keep both sides happy.
Easily one of the best parts of the game, the story is thought provoking and well laid out, voiced by a tremendous cast of talented voice actors. The relationships that you start to build over the course of the game highlights the difficult nature of undercover work; there’s a specific story arc where you’re working for a low level Son On Yee lieutenant who is little more than a knuckle-dragging thug. However, by the time you’ve gone a few hours in, the game’s story emotionally attaches you to him in a way that when the lieutenant is called before the boss to be punished, you feel for the guy as he sits down and is almost visibly shaking in fear. Sleeping Dogs comes a little heavy handed when it comes to character talking to you about loyalty and “being family”, but it pays off later down the road when your “family” is attacked by rival Triad clan, the 18K (again, named after the real Triad crew, the 14K). It is the story that drives you to play through the game, as you’re waiting for the house of cards you’re building to all fall apart.
One of the main problems with the game’s story is the attempting to smash it into an open world game. Obviously, as an undercover officer, one of the big “tests” of loyalty for a Triad soldier to ensure they are not a police officer is killing another person. Despite the fact that you don’t actually get a gun until five hours into the game, by the time the game is over, you’re reaching near levels of genocide on the numbers of rival Triads you’ve murdered. Even the other characters in the story make mention of the fact that you’re obviously not a cop because of the number of folks you end up wasting. However, seeing as this is a video game, it makes sense they had to “game” it up a bit for the folks who get open world games like Grand Theft Auto to do nothing but stand in a crowded street with a rocket launcher and create mayhem.
Don’t I Know You?
There’s also few continuity issues with the storyline if you get too far along in sidequesting as opposed to running the primary objectives. One mission, I was tailing a guy I knew, and then I was supposed to be surprised when this other character got in the car. My character had never met him in the game, and I personally had no idea who he was. It turns out I wouldn’t meet this new character until much later in the main storyline, but Wei Shen was talking about the guy like they knew each other intimately. Not major hit, but just a little weird that they wouldn’t restrict that content until after you’ve completed certain missions.
Turn In Your Badge and Gun!
Gameplay is your typical standard issue open world fare: drive from point A to point B between missions, kill or disable X number of enemies when you get there, lather, rinse, repeat. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot out there in the way of unique side missions: you’ve got your primary objectives, you can hijack some cars for a black market car dealer, you can play cop and busy low level drug rings, there are some race missions as well, but generally speaking, it’s nothing you haven’t seen before (well, minus the betting on Cock fights and maybe the “Karaoke” missions). There are also a series of “cop” missions that correspond with the main story line that you can do as well as a B-story. If done in conjunction with the main missions, it helps flesh out the world and some of the folks you’re working with/against as well.
The game rewards your gameplay with three different experience bars: a “Triad” experience bar, where you gain levels for completing main missions and generally kicking ass, your “Cop” experience, where you gain experience for doing the cop side missions and generally not running over old ladies on the sidewalk during a mission, and finally, your “Face” experience, which is the local population’s recognition of your accomplishments. This literally is the “side quest” meter, as you really can only gain Face experience by doing random side jobs for the community, such as beating up an abusive boyfriend or playing taxi. All three of these meters, when leveled, give you different bonuses that you can choose from a very limited “talent tree” style structure. There is a fourth leveling system based around your melee combat, where finding certain collectables scattered throughout the city will allow you to learn a new melee technique, but none of the four types of level rewards are absolutely essential to completing the game.
And speaking of melee techniques, I hope you like Batman: Arkham Asylum’s melee combat, because you’re getting revamped version of that for Sleeping Dogs. Of course, that’s not a terrible thing, but it’s no Batman: Arkham Asylum. A crew of 6-12 bad guys will circle around you with fists, garden rakes, machetes and you get to dismantle them one at a time as they charge you. They will not let you get a sixteen hit combo on a guy; enemies will wait until you’re in the middle of a melee combo to take a swing at you, but it’s a pretty predictable system. The only thing that differentiates this melee combat from Batman’s is that Wei Shen regularly can use different pieces of the environment to..ahem…”disable” his opponents, usually permanently. Sure, you can throw a guy in a dumpster, but mostly there always seem to be table saws and air conditioning unit fans to put people’s faces into.
Generally, when I found myself jumping into cars for the main mission, the music attached to the driving sequence brought a lot of atmosphere to what was happening on screen. However, I got tired of having to manually adjust radio stations every time I jumped in a car because it was playing some random classical music. There’s a Roadrunner Records sponsored radio station, and that’s what I wanted to listen to, but there was no way to set it as default or lock out annoying stations. Minor annoyance, but it added up over the course of 30 hours of gameplay.
Ramming. By pushing X and a direction while driving, you can ram your car into things (yes, including in front of you), much like from the 2010 Vin Diesel game Wheelman. While physically impossible, boy, does it make driving sequences fun, especially during race missions where you’re not penalized for ramming other racers into bridge pylons or parked cars.
While I was playing Square Enix and United Front’s True Crime: Hong Kong….erm…I mean, Sleeping Dogs, I repeatedly had the same thought smashing into my head over and over again at random intervals: Why in God’s name did Activision drop this game? I understand they’re a little Call of Duty happy right now, throwing every asset they can into burning that series into the ground, but Sleeping Dogs ended up being such a pleasant surprise, I have to presume that the folks over at United Front Games are some serious miracle workers. The game is fairly amazing for what should have been a broken wreck of a game, especially coming off of the True Crime series.
Between games like Saints Row the Third and Sleeping Dogs really coming at the open world genre with a fresh take on things, how are open world masters Rockstar Games going to compete if they throw yet another Grand Theft Auto 4 crime story at us again when GTA 5 comes out next May? Rockstar had better watch themselves; if they don’t innovate with GTA 5, Square Enix (of all publishers) may be one to keep an eye out for when it comes to open world titles. Sleeping Dogs will easily be on the short list for sleeper hit for 2012.