Let me start by saying that I’m less of a fan of sandbox style, open world games. I’m a big fan of a well paced narrative in many cases, unless that open world is contained in a more traditionally styled RPG (Hence I’m more Skyrim, less Assassin’s Creed). That all being said, I am totally capable of enjoying the modern open world game, I loved Infamous and Infamous 2, Prototype was flawed yet enjoyable, and Brütal Legend clings tenaciously to my list of very-fondly-remembered games. The problem that stems from this particular narrative preference is a harsher judgment of the sandbox game, it really has to do everything right for me to commit the time necessary to get everything you feel like you could out of it. In this regard, so far, Sleeping Dogs has not disappointed.
For plenty of you, I’m sure, it’s enough to say that Sleeping Dogs used to be known as True Crime: Hong Kong, before various developmental issues stymied development and necessitated various changes. Essentially you play as the volatile Wei Shen, a SFPD officer originally from Hong Kong who goes undercover to bring down the Sun On Yee triad in Hong Kong. Along the way you do various jobs and Wei is essentially forced to toe a dangerous line between his loyalty to his badge and loyalty to his newfound “family.” I’m about half done with the game so far, and here’s what I think.
In a world where making the predominant portion of the virtual population a minority pretty much begs the internet to call you racist, the game has done a good job of not making me feel like the game could be misconstrued as offensive. Yeah, you beat the crap out of thousands of Chinese guys, but you’re in Hong Kong… what did you expect? The characters you meet are usually more interesting than paper cutouts with heavy accents, from the reckless and young Jackie Ma (who often exaggerates about his ties to organized crime) to the much less crucial, but somehow more compelling Roland Ho, an old debt collector, retired from strong-arming. The overarching story, I had hoped, would be more intriguing in terms of the nature of undercover work and the psychological effects it can have on those who participate in it, but there’s where the lack of narrative pacing and gameplay style fails the narrative. There aren’t enough long running ramifications for one’s actions. While GTA explains this sort of thing nicely, since you’re a coldblooded criminal and all, Wei should, in theory, be reluctant to cause such widespread harm. I know he needs to keep up an image, but if an undercover cop, for no reason in particular, stole a car and ran over several civilians I’m sure it wouldn’t just disappear in a puff of unsubstantiated smoke. Or maybe all the cops in Hong Kong are truly terrible.
In the end, though, I’m sure less people play these sorts of games for the stories and more for the up-f*cking of people’s faces and the driving around and whatnot, and in this regard Sleeping Dogs delivers. Borrowing some cues from the Arkham Batman games, hand-to-hand combat is a mix of predominantly strikes and counters, allowing Wei to stylishly engage multiple hostiles while improving on what might be the worst aspect of many sandbox games (or at least the most scrutinized) and not oversteering into Dynasty Warriors territory. There are multiple enemy types that sort of have to be engaged differently, and simply mashing the strike button will surely end in your death within a couple of hours. The shooting aspect of the game is decent, though not of shooter quality by far falling far short of, say, Infamous but beating out Grand Theft Auto by a several miles. There’s a decent cover system, simplistic- if a bit unresponsive – controls, and enough slow motion to keep things interesting and action-movie-esque. The driving is also totally decent, feeling responsive and allowing enough cool maneuvers (ramming other cars is simpler than just bumping and hoping for the best, its mapped to a button, and action hijacks involve leaping from a moving vehicle onto another a la Pursuit Force) to feel fledged, but for the most part, all the cars of any given style feel the same and it is fairly hard to tell the difference in speed and handling between them.
Where the game suffers the most, then, is mobility. In a large open world, especially one that lacks supernatural abilities (thus limiting verticality) one would need to emphasize forward momentum to keep things interesting. Considering that enough missions in game result in chasing others on foot, Wei’s parkour type abilities leave a lot to be desired, often stuttering after small falls and being held up on small ledges. It’s not a huge gripe, but enough of one to mention. Plus, unlike Grand Theft Auto, the city of Hong Kong, so often described in the marketing campaigns for the game as colorful and lively never really feels very alive. It has its moments, the Night Market with all its shouting vendors and bustling crowds, but the city is otherwise a drab series of tight roads and alleys that fail to offer a sense of anything organic.
The game does have enough variety to remain intriguing for longer sessions, though. From simple car chases (as both pursuer and pursuee) and shootouts to bug calibration and Mastermind style password hacks the little things Wei needs to do to get the job done are various enough to never be overdone, simple enough as to not be frustrating, but graded well enough as to feel rewarding when done well, all while not flooding the action and bogging it down.
The game has a lot of potential, but this is my greatest worry. Many of the most loved games possess some glaring flaws (what game doesn’t?) but makes up for those missteps in spades elsewhere. Often it becomes simple to overlook some bad textures when there’s a completely engrossing narrative and intriguing gameplay to be had. Sleeping Dogs doesn’t innovate, it borrows and tries to polish. It tries to deliver something new to the GTA type crowd without risking too much on experimental tactics. I feel like there isn’t going to be enough to make me overlook those flaws that I find. It delivers, thus far, a satisfying, if bland, gaming sandwich that could use a little horseradish maybe. Check the rad live-action trailer down there.