Review: Sleeping Dogs (X360)

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Sleeping Dogs might never have come out if Square-Enix hadn’t snagged United Front Games’ latest project after Activision axed it. It was a bold move. The relatively young development house had only ModNation Racers to their name and they were working in territory urban sandbox specialists Rockstar and Volition called home. It wasn’t hard to see why Activision suddenly developed a case of cold feet over its prospects -  even when some of UFG’s members had cut their teeth within those same studios. But then again, no one thought that Rocksteady could pull off as legendary a take on the Dark Knight not once – but twice – with about as much on their resume, either.

UFG’s crime drama takes players to Hong Kong as Wei Chen, an undercover cop on loan from the States working to bring down the Sun On Yee triad. Having grown up along the city’s rough and tumble side streets before his family moved to America, his early education with the swagger and bark of its worst before graduating grade school make him a valuable weapon to his new HKPD boss. 

As Wei Chen dodges and weaves through his double life, the strain slowly builds as his true motivation for sticking it to the Sun On Yee make us wonder whether he will come back alive. Blood will soak his hands before he’s done, he’ll be asked to do some brutal things along the way, and his willingness to push the moral envelope of his role begin blurring the lines.

It’s not Donny Brasco, but Wei Chen and the rest of the cast around him voiced by veteran actors such as Will Yun Lee, Tzi Ma, James Hong, Tom Wilkinson, and Kelly Hu easily work the exotic colors of UFG’s well written crime drama. It’s hard not to appreciate Wei Chen’s dogged attitude in getting dirty to get things done or even find sympathy with his corrupt benefactors at unexpected moments. The line is constantly blurred between the facade of who he is and the reality of the murderous circle his new friends form around him all the way up to the final showdown.

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And instead of lumping the triads together as a faceless mob of thugs, UFG seem to have done their homework on the centuries-old organizations. Terms such as “red pole”, “incense master”, and “dragon head” really exist. The names for the different triads even play off of existing ones, the separation between them being only the change in a number or word order. It’s not intended to be a primer for all things triad, but having this subtle level of detail only adds more to Sleeping Dogs’ world.

Hong Kong isn’t a corner-to-corner carbon copy but retains the neon lit urban canyons and familiar landmarks of the Special Administrative Region where many live in a world perched on the edge of both the old and the new. It’s as close as most will probably ever get to Hong Kong without hopping across the Pacific.

The skyline of the city, Hong Kong Island, the side stalls hawking their wares and the food vendors serving up everything from duck to pork buns are there along with the Cantonese spoken on the street and by the main characters, oftentimes as slang with optional English subtitles translating everything. Part of me wished that it went all in with Cantonese as Sega’s Yakuza series now does with Japanese, but what is here works well enough to impart the feeling of being in a very different place. If driving on the left side of the road and getting in on the right side instead to get behind the wheel of a car aren’t different enough, the lack of any weapons should be a wake up call for most urban warriors.

As on mainland China, guns are restricted in Hong Kong. So the next best thing is to use whatever is on hand, such as your own feet and fists to deal with angry triad thugs who want to use Wei Chen as a practice dummy. Melee takes some getting used to – this isn’t quite as fluid as being Batman in Rocksteady’s Arkham series, but it does share a few similarities.

Counters are done by just hitting Y as soon as enemies flash red near Wei. Otherwise, players are free to mix up combos of punches and kicks. He doesn’t have as many to string together at the start, but as he discovers special jade statues throughout the game and returns them to his master, he can add more devastating moves to his set such as stuns and bone-breaking grapples.

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Things in the environment, such as speakers and air conditioning fans, can also be used as convenient places to cram the mug of a thug into. These flash red as soon as you grapple with a baddie making them easy to spot and even easier to use. Wei Chen doesn’t just toss these guys into these objects of opportunity – he drops engine blocks on their chests when they’re thrown into a car at a garage, electrified to death when he tries to plug them into a fuse box, or impaled on fish hooks because they just happen to be there. Having these around not only gives the player options, but sometimes, they might be all that can help survive some of the tougher fights ahead.

That’s because Wei isn’t the most durable guy. Part of the early frustration that some players may face is that he can’t take a lot of hits, but the game mitigates this with a number of valuable upgrades. Temporary power-ups in the form of food which allows you to regen your health outside of combat, drinks that add more hitting power, or tea that can toughen you up to take less damage, are found around Hong Kong in shops and street stalls.

Face, or respect, is also earned as a form of experience allowing him to access better clothes and cars from shops. Cop and Triad experience points are also awarded during key story missions allowing for upgrades along both of those paths such as giving your bullets better stopping power or making you tougher to hurt with melee weapons. There are even certain clothing combos that can help earn even more of these points, or make Wei tougher overall, if you can find and afford them.

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Driving is also smooth across the board whether it’s on a bike or in a car. It’s not realistic, nor does it try to be, but it is a lot of fun and the AI doesn’t rubber band into your backside if you’re far ahead.. Every car has slightly different handling to it, and Wei can even leap from his car to take over another one as if he were coming in from Just Cause.

Since you’re playing a cop, you don’t get to do things like buy businesses, maintain palatial mansions in the city, or run your own crew, things that make Sleeping Dogs feel lightweight compared to its peers in Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row. There’s still a lot of things to do, however, ranging from random events when people on the street call out for help in catching a purse snatcher to aiding your fellow triads on a few errands, or taking part in street races while betting on cock fights afterwards. A medal award system and global leaderboards let you compare scores across tracked activities with friends or the rest of the world, so there is quite a bit to do outside of the main game.

Hidden throughout the city are health shrines that are the only ways to upgrade Wei Chen’s health bar, lock boxes with cash and occasionally a surprise item, and cameras to hack into to bust shady deals through. Or prank civilians with by having them arrested instead. Doing all of this, along with the main story, can easily take more than twenty to twenty five hours. More if your aiming for a better score by replaying the story missions or races.

When you do finally get guns, anything more than a pistol is temporary. Wei Chen doesn’t have a personal weapons locker in his pocket. Pistols can be hidden, but weapons like shotguns, giant cleavers, and assault rifles can’t be. The bright side is that Wei Chen’s trigger finger is about as adept as his martial arts making it easy to draw a bead on enemies who often make themselves out to be easy targets most of the time. A cover system also provides some help making it easy to have Wei slip behind crates, walls, and anything else big enough to provide protection. Though I preferred martial arts beat downs, the gunplay had also worked out to be just as fun.

On the road, taking aim slows time down for that dramatic, tire-popping shot that can send a car flying into the air or a motorcycle throwing its rider off like a bad case of the fleas. Ramming cars is also a trick that Wei Chen can use in his back of triad tricks, slamming into vehicles from the side or from behind with the X button. Breaking down enemies chasing you from behind with a few well placed never really gets old in this game as long as you have the bullets to do it with.

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But it’s not all about green tea and silent moments of contemplation, either. A few issues mar the game, not the least of which is that if you restore to a checkpoint, any power ups you might have set Wei Chen up with just disappear. Even if you save a game after having our hero drink his fill of tea, Dragon Kick power pop, and chomp away on trays of pork buns, he won’t have any of their benefits when you come back, leaving you to run all over the place again. After so many hours, it just gets annoying to hit up all of the stores again just before heading out.

Other odd things, such as being able to swim but watching enemies instantly die when they hit the water, were just unusual to see. The cumbersome feel of the menus after accumulating so many clothes and cars, the quirkiness of the pathfinding feature of the map system were other rough spots. While not game breaking, little things like these can add up over the course of so many hours.

Sleeping Dogs also also doesn’t have much to do outside of what it brings to its own party as a solo experience. There’s no multiplayer, co-op or competitive, limiting its appeal outside of what it has as a solo experience. Players looking to tear up the streets as a pair of wannabe triads are probably going to have to wait for a sequel to address that, something which the ending leaves relatively open.

Much of what is seen in Sleeping Dogs has been seen elsewhere, but that isn’t so much of a flaw as it is an observation of UFG sticking to what works and then focusing all of that on making this a martial arts, face grating, car jumping, crime busting adventure. For players looking to add a little something exotic to their urban diet despite being a little light on the content, bruising knuckles against the pavement of faces staring back from the shadows of Hong Kong can make this a trip worth remembering.

Sleeping Dogs
Square-Enix / United Front Games
PS3 / Xbox 360 / Windows (reviewed on the Xbox 360)
Rated M for Mature