Sleeping Dogs has had a long and troubled development history. Initially called Black Lotus, development on it started way back in 2008 at United Front Games. Activistion then decided to make it a new entry in the True Crime series, entitled True Crime: Hong Kong. Later on they decided to just call it True Crime and treat it as a reboot of the franchise. Delay after delay hit, the budget kept creeping up, and finally Activision ended up pulling the plug on the whole thing in February 2011.
Square Enix saw potential in the abandoned game and scored the publishing rights to it six months later, in August 2011. Another year passed and it was finally released as Sleeping Dogs. The whole development cycle of Sleeping Dogs makes me think of Duke Nukem Forever – after numerous delays and budget problems the project falls apart, another studio picks it up, polishes it up a bit, and gets it out the door. And just like Duke Nukem Forever, Sleeping Dogs feels very much like a last-gen game that has had corners cut to get it to release.
I had high hopes when I first started playing, expecting some sort of mishmash of Grand Theft Auto’s open world with Shenmue 2’s Hong Kong storyline and combat sequences. Unfortunately the game is nowhere in the same league as those two, but it’s a mostly entertaining diversion that will mostly hold your attention for the duration of the story.
Sleeping Dogs puts you in the shoes of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who has returned to his hometown of Hong Kong from San Francisco in order to take down one of the local triads, the Sun On Yee. Wei grew up with some of the gang members, and his sister died of a drug overdose. That’s all the backstory and character development you’re going to get. Throughout the entire game Wei stays static as a character – an angry yes man to the triads while consistently arguing with his cliched superiors in the police force. The story slowly escalates into an all-out gang war, however don’t expect any twists, turns or shocking revelations that weren’t telegraphed hours beforehand.
The more I played Sleeping Dogs, the more I got the sense that it was either coded to a harsh deadline or it had huge budget cuts midway through production. Throughout the game there’s bugs and signs that corners have been cut everywhere – magically sliding through the side of a bus to hijack it, taxis randomly moving in slow-mo while you’re a passenger, the lip syncing being completely off outside of cutscenes (especially grating when doing karaoke), characters hoverhanding each other, the GPS occasionally going haywire, plot points vanishing, being able to use your phone despite being kidnapped and stripped half naked, inaccessible voicemail notifications, the dating side missions completely disappearing for most of the game, and finally we have the logic of the main character being an undercover cop and murdering several thousand people through the course of the game without any consequence. Sure, Wei has nightmares, but none of them are about the 200 people he ran over the previous day.
The frame rate is awful during certain cutscenes (and whenever rain is involved), however it is a step up from GTA: environments and character models feel more detailed, however it seems to be at the expensive of draw-distance – the further away an object is, the blurrier it will be. On the whole, NPCs look fine and mostly act normal, but having said that I’m currently typing this while watching one repeatedly walk in a figure eight on a gutter.
Audio work is fine – Hong Kong feels mostly alive, characters speak in a mix of English and Cantonese, and the voice acting is above average. Licensed music is used throughout the game, mostly on car radios or in karaoke minigames – I found most of it a bit uninspiring but that’s a personal preference. Karaoke involves making Wei sing in key by pointing the left control stick up or down, and that’s all there really is to it. The more songs you complete, the more you can unlock to play, but I don’t know why’d you’d bother as it’s extremely tedious.
Like GTA, Sleeping Dogs has dating side-missions. There’s 5 girls that you’ll end up dating throughout the game, and every single relationship will fizzle out without any explanation whatsoever. It’s very odd to have big names like Emma Stone and Lucy Liu in the title credits, then have them only appear in one or two missions out of the entire game, then they never get mentioned again. It’s like UGF wanted to emulate GTA’s dating, gave up halfway, but left in what they had finished instead of removing it entirely. Go on a successful date with a girl and it will be followed by no mention of her ever again and the number vanishing from your phone – I’m not sure what kind of a reality that is; perhaps Wei has intimacy issues or something.
While I keep up this GTA comparison, I found that cars in Sleeping Dogs were much, much easier to handle, which makes weaving in and out of traffic fun instead of frustrating. I also enjoyed pressing the square button to ram random cars and motorbikes while travelling throughout Hong Kong. Cops will chase you down if they witness you damaging anything, but they are infinitely easier to get rid of than in GTA – most can be outrun, and ramming a police car until it crashes also ends pursuits quickly. Annoyingly, cars damaged during gameplay appear completely fine during subsequent cutscenes. Cars are also very hard to completely destroy – even the Smartcars in this game feel like they were built like tanks. Speaking of which, there are side missions where you get a call, get given a description of a car and are told to steal it. Half of the time I found that the cars I actually had to steal didn’t match the descriptions given, for example being told to track down a coupe and ending up with a Smartcar.
You’ll find statues in illogically random places throughout the game that were apparently “stolen” from Wei’s sensei – return them and he’ll teach you new moves to take down opponents. Levelling up your triad cred (mainly by getting into fights or completing triad missions) will also allow more combat moves, as will levelling up police cred (by either completing police missions, or finishing other missions without killing anyone or causing property damage anywhere).
Hand-to-hand combat is a bit tedious and unchallenging – mostly a case of waiting for enemies to flash red before hitting the counter button. Some enemies will carry knives or cleavers, which can be taken from them and used to stab or hack at people, making combat sequences end slightly faster. There’s “environmental moves” that can be done if you’re standing close enough to something – ram someone’s head into a phone box or a fan, throw them in a dumpster, cause electrocution, throw someone into a tablesaw or kill them with a meathook – it’s quite bloody and reminiscent of a toned-down of 2005’s The Punisher.
Weapons-based combat was more fun. It’s a cover-and-shoot system much like Uncharted, and there were moments during some gigantic shootouts that got my heart pumping. The bullet-time effect that occurs if you jump out from cover shooting was also very cool. Shootouts from vehicles were also fun – slow-motion moments and being able to leap from car-to-car (I feel this could have happened more in-game) gave things a great action-movie feel.
There’s also various street racing missions – none are particularly challenging and the racing mode feels like it could have had more attention paid to it – I’ve mentioned that the cars are very easy to handle: this has the unfortunate side effect of races being dead easy and feeling more like dodgem car runs.
You can change your outfit at various in-game shops, and also via DLC. Other DLC items are more fighting moves, extra missions, weapons, cash and powerups. Some of it seems a bit “cheaty” – as in “if you suck playing, go buy this DLC pack that has super powerful weapons and near-invincible armour!” The game doesn’t really progress in difficulty as it goes on, so you’ll have to be pretty uncoordinated to justify paying for these things. DLC nags also occur on the title screen as well as any time you’re trying to change clothes, which I found a bit obnoxious.
I frequently found myself sighing at how much of a buggy mess this game was, yet night after night I kept coming back to it. Despite my many, many complaints with Sleeping Dogs, the gameplay just kept me hooked enough to keep coming back for more. I wasn’t dropping everything to play it not hurriedly heading home to get in another session, I didn’t get sick of it after a day or two either. When Square Enix took over the publishing, they called the gameplay “sticky.” I believe this is what they were referring to.
If Sleeping Dogs had been released in 2008 or 2009 it would have made a huge impact, but in 2012 it just feels a bit outdated. Game-wide blindingly obvious bugs give it a rushed feel and the story is a cliched mess written by a 12-year old, however despite all the numerous flaws I have whined about, it’s still an alright way to kill a few hours (and a few pedestrians).