Twenty years ago, videogames would be judged solely on one thing: how fun they were to play. Yet “fun” has in recent times become a dubious compliment, a word that suggests archaic thrills in the place of refinement and sophistication. Other art-forms hold a similar aversion to the word and pure enjoyment seems to largely disqualify artistic merit. But Sleeping Dogs is a game that succeeds in its pursuit of unadulterated entertainment, and also presents a highly immersive visual world to gorge on. It’s a sandbox adventure set in Hong Kong, sitting comfortably in a niche between Grand Theft Auto 4 and the Saints Row series – not as well-written or full-bodied in story as GTA, nor as outlandish as Saints Row. At times it’s not as good as either franchise, but every now and then it’s better. Not bad for a game Activision dropped because they didn’t think it would sell.
Sleeping Dogs centres on the ascent of a man through the ranks of a notorious triad. As the blood on Wei Shen’s conscience mounts, his clothes get better, his cars faster, his apartments more numerous. It’s a tried and tested morality tale… with a twist: unbeknownst to your triad cronies, you’re an undercover policeman. Thus it’s also a tale of duality as you work for both the mob and the police, juggling your duties, saving face in the midst of shady work and meeting with your handler to relay information you’ve gleaned.
The story lacks the grand arc of Niko Bellic’s tale in GTA’s Liberty City, but then few games can match Rockstar in pacing and narrative. Sleeping Dogs is content to share its interesting narrative and set you on your way. Beyond the tutorial missions, the Hong Kong map is open to explore, never imposing artificial restrictions on where one can and cannot go. And it’s a world you’ll truly enjoy exploring. Early on, a night market introduces you to boisterous vendors hawking cut-price clothes. In a nod to the Hong Kong heat you can even buy an air conditioner for your modest apartment. These goods are all within your financial means, but as you explore you realize that there are more lavish districts to the universe. The game never explicitly tells you where to look for the sharpest suits, the fastest cars, but from exploring the city you’ll realize that Central Hong Kong is a far cry from your humble beginnings.
Not that you’ll have the luxury of waltzing into the best store and walking away with goods as you please, of course. The game cleverly restricts what you can buy, employing a “face” meter that essentially translates to your notoriety within the city. Achieve a face of six or higher and your wallet will be at the mercy of some of the fastest cars and best clothes the game has to offer, but achieving this respect requires faithful dog-work. Side missions need to be completed first, and these range from handing out favours to karaoke singing and even the odd illicit street race. You’ll likely spend much of the game’s opening hours finding ways to purchase a suit you fancy.
On the other hand, the main missions are always open to pursue. In time-honoured tradition they start slowly but gradually gain momentum. The first half of the game doesn’t involve a single firefight, but this gives Sleeping Dogs the chance to show off its streamlined combat system that sees Wei combating numerous foes at once. It’s clearly influenced by Rocksteady’s Batman franchise, but the difference here is that you can grapple foes and use the environment to kill them. Ventilation shafts and meat hooks, for instance, are not merely decoration and the ensuing carnage is immensely satisfying. When the guns do arrive they’re traditional third-person fare; solid, if unspectacular. Launching over cover while aiming down the sights of your gun snaps you into slow-motion, and the gunplay is such that it services the aims of the overall production without ever feeling misplaced. That guns are so scarce is explained during the story, but it’s never a glaring absence because the melee mechanics work so well.
The cars in Sleeping Dogs are varied. Based on real-life counterparts there’s a selection of Lamborghini, Ferrari and Audi inspired supercars (minus the official licensing, of course) while slower coupés and motorbikes make an appearance too. You’re forced to buy a car before you car store it in your garage; moreover, hijacking a car doesn’t tell you the name of the vehicle in question, which is odd. The cars themselves handle well. Sleeping Dogs takes an arcade approach to vehicular manoeuvrability, with many a tasty handbrake turn resulting.
For good and bad it’s clearly a game that has spent a great deal of time in development. On the plus side, the framerate is steady, load times are brief to non-existent and there’s an overall level of polish that sets it apart from its peers. On the flipside, the game suffers from low-resolution textures and oddly-shaped pedestrians, but then it’s not a game that you’ll want to zoom in on and nitpick. Why? Well it’s simply too gratifying to zip around Hong Kong in a stolen sports car, enjoying the view at large. As slashing rain frames the night sky you’ll marvel at the neon cityscape and the reflections of Hong Kong’s lights in the road’s slick surface. Dynamic weather and a day-night cycle are present here, but there are several smaller touches that are pleasing too: knock a pedestrian over with your car and a passerby will flick open her cellphone to record the incident. Enter a shop store and a buzzer pings, alerting the teller you’re there. There’s enough going on to sell the idea this is Hong Kong: albeit a Hong Kong with fewer congestion woes.
In fact, there’s so much to do you’ll find yourself putting off the main story to uncover more of Sleeping Dogs’ secrets. Once it has you in its vice-like grip it’s hard to resist the pull. In an age where domestic distractions abound, its essential playability is remarkable, and this is helped in no small part by the way it plays so seamlessly, never forcing extended cutscenes or load-times upon you. While cruising the city streets and browsing the various radio stations on offer is good fun, you’ll eventually dip into the story proper. It’s here the game falters, lacking the variety and invention to really stand out. Yes you can leap from your vehicle into the one you’re pursuing, a la Just Cause, but once you’ve done this five times the effect wears off. The story is good, but its playable events lack grandeur.
There are many other sidequests and collectibles that litter the game that I haven’t touched upon, and Wei has a variety of meters besides his “face” that can be gradually upgraded and improved. But these are oddities you should discover for yourself. It’s a surprisingly nuanced and polished production, lending itself to hours of extended play. The main story can be completed in a fraction of the time you’ll actually end up devoting to the world, and ironically, it’s one of the few sandbox games whose sidequests offer substantial rewards. Thus, don’t be put off by Sleeping Dogs’ troubled development for it’s a meaty package you’ll struggle to put down. And best of all, it’s darn good fun.