Sleeping Dogs Review – PS3
On one hand, someone has just been brutally disfigured, tortured and ultimately murdered, positioned to be discovered and serve as a warning that the people who did this are absolutely not to be messed with. On the other hand, we just got a trophy for hitting someone in the face while wearing nothing but underpants and a Panama hat, then partook in a mission where we had to ‘rescue’ a wedding cake.
Sleeping Dogs is, to us, the game that straddles the divide between its contemporaries: it’s far less po-faced and up itself than the as yet unbettered Grand Theft Auto IV, but it’s markedly less silly than Volition’s finest hour, Saints Row: The Third. And rather than falling short of either and feeling like a lesser experience as a result, Sleeping Dogs manages to hold its head high and, in such a wonderful gangland/dog metaphor, mark this particular territory as its own.
Players take control of one Wei Shen: Hong Kong-born, now US-based cop heading back to his homeland to infiltrate the local Sun On Yee triads on an undercover basis. It’s a setup rife for more double-crosses and conflicted loyalties than we’d ever expect in a videogame, and the story does its best to keep things spicy with all manner of… well, double-crosses and conflicted loyalties. If you have a level of intelligence on a par with the traditional house plant, you’ll have every single death, screwjob and swerve figured out hours before they happen.
That’s not to say it’s bad though – and not just because videogame stories are pretty much ass at the best of times. It’s very straightforward gangster stuff: turf wars, honour, in-fighting factions, a battle for the leadership. It’s also very straightforward and non-daring in how its characters act, speak and generally are. It’s hard to think of a single point in the entire game we were surprised – except for the mildly wonderful Winston’s mother. Great character, there.
The thing is – and you’ll see this as a recurring theme throughout this review – it just doesn’t matter that much. Yes, you’ve seen it all before. But it’s a solid gangster story, there’s a real conflict inside Wei and by the time you’ve powered through the 12-15 hours of story missions you get a satisfactory conclusion to affairs.
Then there’s the atmosphere on show – never before has a game made us feel as hungry as Sleeping Dogs did playing it. This is a city you can smell, with the street food vendors popping up all over the place offering all manner of treats to partake in. It’s muggy and crowded, condensed and overpopulated, then it’s airy and bright, free of people and open to nature: it’s not an exact replica of Hong Kong, but it’s a good scale model. A delicious one, too.
The general experience of playing, though, is standard sandbox fare with a few modern conveniences you would expect thrown in. Go where you want, steal all the cars you like, evade the police as long as possible and then throw in a bit of the now ever-popular free running. The latter aspect is handled nicely, with enough input required from the player to keep it an active participation – unlike something like Assassin’s Creed, for example, which operates more on a system of aiming your character and just going there, Sleeping Dogs requires timely button presses to keep up rhythm and speed. It’s not taxing, but it’s involving enough to make each of the countless foot chases feel a lot more exciting than they otherwise might. It’s a simple, clever touch.
Another of those simple, clever touches comes in the shape of tangible rewards. Sleeping Dogs consistently throws players new bits and bobs: new map markers to help locate sidequest items, new clothing items to help dress up Wei as stupidly as you can, new vehicles, new fighting moves and many other elements. It makes hunting down hidden items or completing the plentiful side missions something that actually benefits the player beyond adding to the percentage complete tally.
Then there are the stat boosts that come with things like the aforementioned street foods. Have a pork ball, your health will fully recharge for a period (rather than slow, partial recharge when you haven’t eaten). Have a green tea, your fortitude will be buffed for a while, meaning you can take more damage. Go for a massage, your level of ‘face’ will raise quicker for a time. You get the picture.
Face is the reputation element that a few things in Sleeping Dogs are based around. While initially meant to be a much deeper element back in the long long ago, it now functions more as a limiter for what clothing items you can wear and what cars you can drive. We all know only truly cool people drive Sleeping Dogs’ equivalent of a Ferrari while wearing suits, after all. It’s an interesting system and a nice visual indicator of the progress you make through the game – from scruffy jeans and a moped to tailored suit and Italian sports car, but it does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity.
Ecks Pee – forget black and white; ignore yin and yang
Each mission on Sleeping Dogs comes with three forms of XP for the player to earn: triad, police and face. Each brings with it its own leveling system and resultant benefits (more damaging attacks for triad XP, better disarming skills with police, ability to purchase better cars with face) and is earned in ways fitting the background. Run over civilians, lose police XP. Kill someone brutally, gain triad XP. It makes sense, though it can be annoying to see ‘property damage’ pop up when you only grazed that parking meter. Plus it avoids the trappings of being a black and white morality system, which is very welcome.
Interaction is also limited, it has to be said. This is the sort of game where you’ll be pressing triangle to extort and fast-talking your way out of potentially harmful situations by a timely tap of the very same button. Similarly there are quick-time events that pop up periodically – sometimes taking you unawares – for things as mundane as opening doors, or as necessary as evading arrest (and, brilliantly, flipping the situation so Wei cuffs the cop attempting the capture).
It’s not to a level we were lead to believe it would be a couple of years ago when we went to see the game – back then still True Crime – and it does make a lot of interactions feel pointless. When it’s near impossible to fail an enounter, what’s the point in having it at all? It doesn’t add to the character or storyline for our protagonist to lie to a security guard by saying a dog got loose or a delivery has arrived – it just feels empty.
And this goes a bit further into territory that harms the experience a little bit more: there’s a lack of real challenge throughout. While we did fail missions and die a handful of times (a quick check of the stats indicates a nice, neat five deaths as a result of fisticuffs), it never feels like Sleeping Dogs is pushing the player, especially not in melee combat. Even the few fight clubs that pop up around the map offer little in the way of real challenge, with the game unable to throw enemies with true skill at you, instead opting to try and overwhelm with numbers. Numbers, that is, that still politely queue up and will never attack in force, instead limiting themselves to a couple of attackers at once.
But – and here’s why it only harms the experience a bit – the fighting system is a lot of fun. Another game to take a leaf from Rocksteady’s Batman games, Sleeping Dogs simply runs with one attack button, a counter, a grapple and a sprint button. It’s simple, responsive and as the game progresses adds more complexity at a decent rate. We should point out that the quicker you unlock the wince-inducing limb-breakers, the happier you’ll be – few moves in recent games have been as satisfying as these.
The countering system is what makes combat both lack in challenge and high in fun stakes. Enemies glow red when about to strike, you hit the counter button. That’s it. You will counter them so long as you don’t do anything stupid, like pressing the wrong button. But from that simple tap comes a world of satisfying reversals, leg-snaps, knacker-punches and neck chops. Combat never gets beyond vaguely trying, but it rarely becomes anything other than fun.
Of course, there’s a lot of driving to take part in too. Steal – or buy – your cars and bikes before zipping around Hong Kong, inevitably crashing or ramming the police out of the way with the dedicated ram button (a bit strange, but a good idea). The handling of vehicles is decent, though takes a bit of getting used to, but we found vehicles would consistently brake far too slowly. Maybe we’re just bad drivers though, who knows? We do, and we’re not: it’s a loose braking system is all. Not a game-breaker by any means, though.
In fact, there’s nothing about Sleeping Dogs that really feels like a game-breaker. But at the same time there’s nothing that makes it feel like an essential purchase: it feels like a game that will see an inevitable price drop just a few weeks after its release. And you know what? Snap it up when it hits sub-£20. It’s rough around the edges, but there’s a lot going for it.
There’s a part of us that absolutely loves Sleeping Dogs – it’s exactly the kind of game we should see released every year. It’s a game you can lose yourself in for dozens of hours, one you can mess about in as much as you like, one that rarely frustrates and offers a fantastic distraction – an escape – from anything else that might be going on. It isn’t a brilliant game and there’s very little you won’t have seen before, but, given a chance, you can have a great deal of fun with Sleeping Dogs. You might learn some Cantonese swear words too, which is always handy.
It’s rough around the edges and sometimes insultingly simple, true. But Sleeping Dogs is also a game where you have to rescue a cake and can do so in your pants. An imperfect, but more often than not fun, sandbox romp. Yes, romp.