Woof justice.

If it weren’t for its interesting development history, some would argue that Sleeping Dogs wouldn’t have captured as much media attention as it did. A sandbox game set in Hong Kong dealing with the inner struggles of its largest criminal organisation isn’t exactly innovative by storytelling standards, and the game doesn’t offer anything new in terms of gameplay. But despite countless borrowed elements from other games, and somewhat modest production values (compared to other AAA titles), Sleeping Dogs is an entertaining romp that will have you Hong-Kong-hooked from start to finish.

Originally billed as the next instalment in the True Crime series, Activision canceled the game’s development in 2011. Square Enix quickly picked up the rights to the game and renamed it Sleeping Dogs, a bizzarre title admittedly but a necessity as Square Enix did not own the publishing rights to the True Crime name.

The somewhat awkward transition in the development cycle is noticeable in-game, with many elements seemingly under-developed or just plain boring. At times you can’t help but ponder what Sleeping Dogs could have been like if it would have backed with the monetary power that is Activision. Despite its flaws though, Sleeping Dogs is still a great sandbox game. It’s not as crazy as Saints Row, or as polished as GTA IV, but it can definitely hold its own amongst the free-roaming crowd.

Police Story

In Sleeping Dogs you assume the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who is tasked by his superiors to take down the Sun On Yee – Hong Kong’s largest triad organisation – from the inside. And so a story of conflicted emotions unfolds; Wei is a good cop whose reputation is on the line, but he soon grows attached to his triad connections. This is definitely one of the stronger points in Sleeping Dogs’ story as it argues that good and evil is not black and white. Instead, the concept is a grey area with corruption and sin on both sides. The police are not inherently good, nor are the triads wholly evil.

A dispute broke out as to who would settle the bill.

The story provides all the thrills and twists you’d expect from a large sandbox cast. It seems everyone who is anyone wants to screw you over at some point, and Wei’s loyalties are often called into question by not just his triad affiliates, but also his superior officers of the law. It also helps that most of the supporting cast have motives and goals of their own, and while most are not entirely three-dimensional, it’s nonetheless an interesting cast of characters.

Wei is an incredibly capable protagonist, and is extremely skilled at driving, shooting, fighting and free-running.

One of the standout characters is Jackie, Wei’s childhood friend and somewhat of a partner to him within the Sun On Yee; he sometimes acts how you’d expect an up-and-coming gangster to behave, but he also carries a child-like innocence that makes way for occasional nervousness or hesitance on his behalf. In this sense, he is a very realised character that compliments Wei’s headstrong approach.

Wei Shen bears more than a passing resemblance to Tequila from John Woo’s Hard Boiled, and many of the game’s mechanics are arguably inspired by acts of bravado found in Hong Kong action cinema. Wei is an incredibly capable protagonist, and is extremely skilled at driving, shooting, fighting and free-running. These four elements are what you’ll be doing most in Sleeping Dogs, and when they all come together they provide an experience greater than the sum of its parts.

Nippy Motors, Pew Pew Pistols

The driving plays out like a mix between Saints Row and Need For Speed; most cars (even vans and buses) are ridiculously fast, with a handbrake that can bend around 90-degree corners at top speeds with great ease. Cars can perform a ram manouevre to the left or right, and even forward – useful for disabling pursuing police cars or rival triad members.It’s crazy fun to drive around and lends itself well to racing. As such, there are many racing events dotted about the game’s map (driving an exotic sports car is where it’s at, though). Some vehicles are so ridiculously fast, it’s often hard to see what’s on the road ahead! However, the driving elements give you such a rush that’s not often found in sandbox games which usually employ a lot of driving mechanics.

Shooting, however, is rather bland by comparison. The game employs the same cover mechanics that we’ve seen in countless other games, but in fairness, Sleeping Dogs does have a few surprises of its own. You can vault out of cover to kill enemies in slow motion (and in style), or to disarm a clueless enemy.

Only try this wearing a helmet. (And if you’re completely insane.)

Some missions have you shooting at cars from the passenger seat. These missions are ridiculously good fun; you can shoot out a car’s tires and watch it flip out action-movie style, as well as shoot other passengers riding shotgun, or aim for the engine to cause a fiery explosion. The choice of weapons on offer in fairly standard, but this really isn’t a complaint given the game’s setting. You’ll use the cookie-cutter pistols, shotguns, SMGs and same grenade launchers you’ve used many times before. It’s a shame there’s no option to dual wield, either. The vaulting machanic could have been that much cooler with an extra gun in hand.

Ultimate Fighter

Thankfully, shooting takes a backseat to one of Wei’s more adept skills: the art of fighting. Taking cues from Rocksteady’s Arkham series, Wei will often find himself surrounded by large groups of enemies. When an enemy flashes red, Wei can counter their attack and follow up with a combo of his own.

Similar to Dynasty Warriors, holding down the attack button mid-combo will allow Wei to perform a stronger knockdown attack. Stringing together a varied set of moves will activate the Face Meter, which boosts your health regeneration rate to maximum. As your health will only replenish halfway without the face meter active, fighting is very risk-reward and often makes you feel like a cornered rat; you’ll have to think fast when you’re in danger of death, as playing it safe on low health will often get you killed just as much as acting dangerously would. It’s by far the most challenging aspect of Sleeping Dogs and one of the most fun. Fighting is rarely done this well in a free-roaming title, but Sleeping Dogs absolutely nails it.

Sleeping Dogs ensures that getting around on foot needn’t be a chore either, with the game’s awesome parkour system. Approaching a high wall or the edge of a rooftop (etc.) while sprinting will prompt a quick press of the action button to vault or jump the obstacle successfully. While it may not be quite as fluid as Assassin’s Creed’s autopilot approach to free-running, it does mean you have to pay attention when you come up to an obstacle, as in missions your score will take a small penalty for mistimed jumps.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

These four systems (some stronger than others) come together to make Sleeping Dogs an absolute blast to play through. They’re all tied to the game’s scoring system, which is surprisingly deep. You have two scores to keep track of: a cop score and a triad score. Your cop score starts off at maximum, but incurs penalties for property damage, harming or killing civilians, or being clumsy during free-running. On the flipside, your triad score is filled up as you kill rival triad members, disable their vehicles, or basically do anything that ruins your enemies’ day. At the end of a mission your score is tallied up and converted into experience, for which there are two bars (yep, cop and triad!).

Levelling up allows you to upgrade Wei to make him more useful during fights or shootouts, or even just getting around on foot or in a vehicle. Completing side missions increases your Face. As your Face level goes up, you’ll be rewarded perks such as a personal valet. Some of the more exotic cars and clothing are only accessible by levelling up your Face, so there’s an incentive to complete these missions. Luckily, the side missions are largely varied and normally don’t last any longer than five minutes, meaning they’re perfect for short play sessions.

An unconventional case of police brutality.

Unfortunately many of the missions force you into completing one of the game’s tedious minigames, including picking a lock or hacking security cameras by guessing a four-digit code. Most of these are more trouble than their worth, and the more interesting ones, such as tracing a phone call, are rarely used. You can also find hidden lockboxes that contain money and (sometimes) accesssories and clothing for Wei, as well as shrines that go towards increasing your maximum health. Sleeping Dogs has plenty for you to do, which makes up for the somewhat short campaign.

Plastic Fantastic

The presentation is a mixed bag in Sleeping Dogs. The city of Hong Kong looks absolutely stunning, and clearly, plenty of effort went into every street, alleyway, market and beach to make the island feel alive. When it rains, there’s a lovely reflection that forms on the roads and pavements, and characters and NPCs look suitably drenched as a result.

Character models can often look scarily doll-like, though. Most characters have this weird mirror-like sheen that makes them look like plastic figurines, and the facial animations and body language aren’t much better, appearing stiff or lifeless. Thankfully, the game’s sound design doesn’t disappoint. Characters are all voiced incredibly well, from the dramatic overtones found in the main story, to the pork bun salesman who wonders why I’m not eating his products, Hong Kong is an incredibly well versed place. Cars, guns and the like all sound the way you’d expect, but carry an added action move-esque thump that adds power to everything you do. All this is accompanied by a great selection of radio stations with lots of awesome songs on offer. There are even some Cantonese tracks, a rarity in video games.

All in all, Sleeping Dogs is a great sandbox game that will keep you busy for ages. Its unique setting, interesting story and exhiliarting gameplay make way for an experience that fans of games like Saints Row or the older True Crime games will absolutely love. If you have the slightest appreciation for free-roaming experiences then Sleeping Dogs should definitely be the next game in your collection.

Sleeping Dogs was reviewed on PlayStation 3.

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