So I won’t lie, Sleeping Dogs has been at the top of my most anticipated game of the year list for quite a while. With all things pointing to the fact that Grand Theft Auto V won’t make it to retail this year, Sleeping Dogs is probably the closest they are going to get to that type of experience. This game has had quite a life already, starting out as Black Lotus, then becoming True Crime: Hong Kong, and then finally ending up as Sleeping Dogs. Activision actually cancelled the game in early 2011 saying “it wasn’t going to be good enough”, Square Enix thought different though and purchased the rights to the game later that same year. Watching the game develop since I have said on several occasions that I thought Activision would regret the decision to cancel the game, was I right?
Sleeping Dogs is the tale of Wei Shen, an undercover cop who is tasked with infiltrating one of Hong Kong’s most dangerous triads, the Sun On Yee. The Sun On Yee are in the midst of an internal power struggle for control of the organization and where there’s conflict, there will be blood. The storyline itself is solid and the majority of the main characters have a solid amount of depth behind them which is impressive.
As you are pulled deeper into the underworld of Hong Kong crime you will be forced to question your own loyalties and allegiances. As a character, Wei Shen is complex and with his history you never quite know when or if he will go too far.
The game is broken down into main missions and side missions. In terms of main missions, you have your standard Triad missions which tend to progress the main story and you have Police investigations that need to be completed. The police investigations are a nice change of pace as you have to gather evidence and build a case before handing off the info to a colleague to take down the criminals since you doing it while being undercover probably wouldn’t be a good idea.
The gameplay in Sleeping Dogs is absolutely awesome on almost every front. The game has so many great components it’s almost hard to know where to start, so I guess I’ll start with the one you will use first. In Sleeping Dogs you spend quite a bit of time chasing down or escaping on foot and the game’s free-run system gives you quite a bit of freedom while doing that. Using the system, Wei is able to chase down enemies through all kinds of environments with both style and relative ease. The system works so well in fact, I used to almost want enemies to run so I could give chase, because in Sleeping Dogs you just never know where those chases will take you.
Wei doesn’t just chase enemies on foot though, he also gets involved in his fair share of high-speed vehicle chases. The driving system in the game is excellent and with United Front Games doing development I would expect no less. The game features multiple vehicle types including cars, trucks, boats and motorcycles. The driving system has a lot of nuances to it, just about every vehicle handles differently and will handle differently depending on whether you have a passenger with you. When involved in a high-speed chase, you have multiple means of attacking. If the object is to take out the enemies, Wei can lean out of his car to shoot triggering a slow motion sequence that I usually used to take out the vehicles tires and send it flying through the air. If you want to get up close and personal though, when driving you can use a “Ram” mechanic to take out in often time’s spectacular fashion anyone that is getting in your way. Finally, sometimes you are tasked with commandeering an already moving vehicle at which point you can pull up behind and slightly onside of it to use the “Action Hijack” mechanic to leap from your vehicle to the target vehicle and then quickly take control of it. Too say that driving is only one mechanic of this game, the attention to detail in making each vehicle handle differently is again impressive.
Without a doubt, the core of Sleeping Dogs gameplay is the combat. The system has already gotten a lot of attention due to the fact that UFC Champ Georges St-Pierre came on to act as a consultant on it among other things. For the most part, the combat in Sleeping Dogs is excellent with Wei able to take on multiple assailants at the same time using the game’s counter system. In combat, enemies turn red when they are about to attack and if you time it right you can effectively counter any and every attack. The only major flaw in the combat system is that the counter system isn’t always as responsive as you would like and therefore you sometimes take unnecessary damage. What tends to happen is that you get into a combo against one enemy and can’t break out of it to counter the other enemy.
The highlight of combat though has got to be environmental kills. When you grab an enemy, any useable environmental areas will turn red to show they can be used. This allows Wei to deliver some absolutely devastating finishers, everything from throwing a guy in a phone booth and kicking the crap out of him to tossing a guy in an ice chipper. As I said, areas where environmental kills can be executed glow red, there are still other places in the environment that can be used punish your enemies.
As you get deeper into the game, properly leveraging environmental kills will be a key to survival, especially when facing multiple enemy types. Speaking of the multiple enemy types, to me it was important to prioritize them by levels of difficulty. There are your basic enemies that Wei can handle with ease, then there are Brawlers who are strong but still relatively easy, then there are enemies with weapons who can be really dangerous if they get a couple of shots on you and then finally Grapplers who can’t block but can grab you to allow other enemies to beat you up or deliver devastating kicks and slams which can take you out quickly. Every player may choose to handle them differently but I generally took out low-level enemies as quick as I could in order to focus on enemies with weapons and Grapplers.
I’ve spent all that time talking about combat, did you notice I haven’t even mentioned a gun yet. While Sleeping Dogs does in fact have them, there just won’t be a lot of times where you will need to use them. When you do though, the system works well. You can shoot from cover, blow up environmentals to take out or stun enemies, you can even grab an enemy to use as a human shield if you want. The only thing I wish was better about this system was aiming, it’s not auto lock and it’s a bit loose sometime.
I’m not going to lie, in a game of this size there isn’t a whole lot I could find not to like. Besides the few minor things I mentioned before, the game delivers on almost everything it sets out to do.
If I had to come up with at least one thing, I would say there are several parts of the game that just don’t fit, probably a by-product of the game changing hands so much. There are characters you come across and expect to have more story develop around that just never happens, the same thing happens with a few of the side missions. None of the stuff is critical to the overall story but it does take away from the overall experience slightly.
To answer the question that I asked at the beginning of this review, the answer is yes. After playing Sleeping Dogs I absolutely feel like Activision will regret cancelling this game. If it doesn’t turn into a blockbuster for Square Enix I’ll be shocked. THQ has had huge success with Saint’s Row: The Third and in my opinion Sleeping Dogs is easily better. That’s not knock to Saint’s Row either because I really enjoyed it but I have to be honest.
If you like Grand Theft Auto, I don’t know how you could not like this game as it shares so much similarity to it. Sleeping Dogs isn’t as good as Grand Theft Auto right now, but if Square Enix puts some muscle behind this franchise I think that going forward it could be a huge core franchise for them. Square Enix would be smart to take the same model with Sleeping Dogs that Rockstar took with GTA IV. Even with a main story and core game that more than deliver, Sleeping Dogs is begging for expansions. There are so many more stories to tell, perhaps more info about Wei’s sister and his time in San Francisco.
The bottom line is that Sleeping Dogs is a must play in my opinion and with no set date for GTA V, this is as close as you are going to get in 2012. Sleeping Dogs delivers a brutal yet beautiful vision of Hong Kong and takes players on a journey that will keep them at the edge of their seats.
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