Game Info:

Sleeping Dogs
Developed by: United Front Games, Square Enix London
Published by: Square Enix, Namco Bandai Games
Released: August 13, 2012
ESRB Rating: Mature for violence and language
Available On: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Genre: Open World
Number of Players: Single-player
Price: $49.99

There is a poetry to the violence of Hong Kong cinema. The dance of bullets made famous by John Woo and Chow-Yun Fat – two fists gripping pistols, ricocheting bullets flying off walls, a blur of doves launching into flight from hidden nests – are not an unfamiliar sight to savvy moviegoers. And in turn, the brutality of Hong Kong cinema has heavily influenced video games, whether by itself or through such diluted fare as The Matrix trilogy.

But truly, no game has been so inspired by the genre as Sleeping Dogs. Here, the blend of action, police procedural and undercover cop thriller a la Hard Boiled, The Killer and Infernal Affairs (as well as its progeny The Departed) seems to come naturally.

Sleeping Dogs takes place in Hong Kong, much like its stylistic and thematic forebears, a place where violence is etched into the very fabric of society. As the tattooed firebrand Wei Shen, you're placed deep undercover as the member of the Sun On Yee, a triad organization with dreams of ruling the city proper. The problem is, notwithstanding the rat within their ranks, the Sun On Yee is ripped apart by in-fighting; many of the early fights in the game are against members of the Sun On Yee, as rival factions within the triad vie for territory and power.

And really, that's what comprises much of the game. Unlike its predecessors in the genre, Sleeping Dogs doesn't even arm you with a gun until several hours in. It doesn't take the Grand Theft Auto 4 approach with that tactic (where the main character isn't armed until two or three hours, and only has a mostly useless hand-to-hand combat system as recourse), either, because you aren't defenseless, and the combat system is very solid.

Ripped from the design of the most recent Batman games, combat is a simple affair, with one button dedicated to counters, one for both hard and soft strikes, and one for grapples. Add in very brutal environmental attacks, blood flying everywhere (and covering Wei Shen), and hordes of enemies surrounding the character, and things can get very violent, very quickly.


Strong Points: Detailed, believable Hong Kong; amazing atmosphere and mood that is held throughout the game; pretty entertaining (and predictable) storytelling; mostly excellent voice acting; lengthy story (for an action game); excellent combat mechanics, coupled with some great ideas that aren't used enough; driving mechanics are perhaps the most solid aspect of the general gameplay
Weak Points: Some of the big-name voice actors seem largely superfluous; way too many crashes, glitches and bugs throughout
Moral Warnings: Very violent, bloody action, with multiple instances of graphic gore; repeated profanities, that include most words used in R-rated films (detailed below); double entendres are frequent; sex is implied repeatedly, though never shown

It's not uncommon to see enemies shoved headfirst into burning furnaces, thrown onto swordfish heads, or slammed into breaker boxes (and that's just the start). In a year with a growing number of very violent releases, Sleeping Dogs toes the line of taste (this is coming from a guy who lists dark, gritty films like Seven and Taxi Driver among his favorites, and who calls Max Payne 3 one of the best games of the last year). 

Story is what drew me to Sleeping Dogs, and it is, arguably, the least compelling part of the experience. There is nothing here that hasn't been done before a thousand times. In the telling of the story, I believe this to be a negative thing; narrative, like gameplay mechanics, depends on execution, and here the execution is sometimes hit and miss. The twists and turns of Wei Shen's tale are advertised a mile away, even if the particulars vary slightly. I felt like I'd watched sequences in numerous films before, without ever feeling so lost in the experience that I couldn't overlook the disconnect between viewer and player.

Here, the world is far more compelling. The Hong Kong of Sleeping Dogs is a living, breathing world, lit by neon and covered in rain. Resplendent graphical flourishes only add to the experience. I found myself in a fight club, rain pouring down from above; each punch I landed sprayed blood and water and sweat off the enemy. The world that developer United Front Games has developed here shows that open-world games don't need to be behind the pack visually, and the result is something truly stunning.

The important thing to note about Sleeping Dogs is that in everything it does, it has imitated from other games. Yes, there's innovation here that other games haven't attempted, but all of the innovation is built from other ideas that debuted elsewhere. The combat is from Arkham Asylum, but with environmental attacks. The driving is pure Need for Speed, or maybe Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Not so difficult as that. You've got gunplay modified from the Gears of War series, with some slick slow motion disarms very reminiscent of the old Dead to Rights series. All of this is done with confidence, executed with skill and no remorse. They haven't stolen this stuff from other games; they've repurposed it. And for the most part, it feels great.

Score Breakdown:
Higher is better
(10/10 is perfect)

Game Score - 88%
Gameplay - 19/20
Graphics - 8/10
Sound - 10/10
Stability - 2/5
Controls - 5/5

Morality Score - 56%
Violence - 2/10
Language - 2/10
Sexual Content - 7/10
Occult/Supernatural - 10/10
Cultural/Moral/Ethical - 7/10

As with any open-world game, Sleeping Dogs lives and dies by its extracurricular activities: sidemissions and races are scattered throughout Hong Kong, and United Front Games has made an effort to make the city feel alive with random events showing up frequently. These can range from helping someone out, to getting mugged on a street corner and chasing down the thief. Though there is limited variety, the truth is that the events never feel tired (which is more than I can say for the racing segments, though maybe I'm tired of racing in these types of games generally).

When it comes to the meat of the game, most of your time will be spent in and out of combat scenarios, with some of these providing memorable set pieces that don't fail to thrill. There's rarely a corridor-styled shooting segment, though a couple do appear and seem less than inspired. Even the stealth segments are a riff on an established premise and don't focus so much on sneaking as talking your way past alarmed guards.

All of the good is bolstered by a solid voice cast (some of whom seem to be pretty extraneous), and strong writing, which relies perhaps too much on easy, expected profanity which not surprisingly pads the game's dialogue sequences. Despite the game's predictable turns, there are plenty of inventive set pieces here, like a surprisingly innovative "training" sequence where the player recreates a shooting sequence to plant evidence. It's pretty brilliant, both in concept and execution.

There seems to be no shortage of good things to say about Sleeping Dogs. Marring the experience are a number of bugs, resulting in one of the most unstable games I've played in recent memory. Multiple instances of freezing, broken mission objectives and missing dialogue kill flow and mood. There were several occasions where I had to restart from a previous save or actually restart my Xbox in order to get things moving again. This includes things like the game freezing on the menu screen, or preventing me completing a mission because I failed it once. It was frustrating, and I came close to taking the game back several times because of it.

In total, Sleeping Dogs is significantly less brutal than its predecessors in the genre. That isn't to say that there isn't gore (there is gore, and it's pretty unflinching), but more that what's there isn't reveled in like it is in other games in the genre. That means that there aren't extended torture sequences, and the details – barring a couple of notable exceptions – aren't focused on. There remains a fondness for profanity and violence, and Sleeping Dogs is notably more inclined to use sharp, stabbing implements than for example a Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row. Sex is left implied to the extreme, with tedious and timid double entendres weakening the writing and serving little purpose other than to provide the barest of love interests for Wei Shen. These are minimal roles for otherwise well-known actresses to provide their voices, and they are ultimately pretty pointless.

Bugs and gore and violence aside, however, Sleeping Dogs is a remarkable, self-assured entry in the open-world space. It's not a game that necessarily takes chances, but it does improve upon existing genre conventions and makes them exciting again. A year ago, Sleeping Dogs was True Crime: Hong Kong, and then it was canceled and left to die. Now, United Front Games and Square Enix have brought the game to life, and shown that they have something pretty special in their hands.



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