The open world genre is a difficult beast to tackle. Not only do you have to build an entire city, but you need to have enough play mechanics to make exploring the city worthwhile. Driving, fighting, and an assortment of mini-games--these are the things we've come to expect the genre. United Front Games delivers with Sleeping Dogs, its first foray into the genre. And while it doesn't offer the polish of a Grand Theft Auto game, there are plenty of clever ideas that make a visit to this virtual Hong Kong worthwhile.
At its core, Sleeping Dogs is just another "GTA clone." You'll run around the city, accepting oddjobs from a variety of characters, hijacking vehicles whenever necessary--only this time, you drive on the left side of the road. Unlike Rockstar's seminal series, however, you're technically a good guy. As Wei Shen, you must go deep undercover, infiltrating Hong Kong's triads and destroy them from within. But while you're technically an officer of the law, you'll be able to dish out a whole lot of mayhem upon the virtual populace.
Considering millions of people have already played GTA and its ilk, it's rather fruitless to talk about how the game is structured. Instead, it's more fruitful to talk about what it tries to add to the formula. Nearly every aspect of the genre has been given a twist. Wei is a far more acrobatic character than Niko, being able to parkour through the environment relatively easily. The free running system is actually quite a lot of fun, and used to dramatic effect quite frequently.
Driving not only offers the standard GPS navigation in the lower corner of the screen, but adds augmented markers that guide you to your destination. Driving is solid, but where Sleeping Dogs shines is its car combat. Not only can you sideswipe cars, but you'll also be able to hijack cars while already in a vehicle. You can jump out of your car onto another moving vehicle a la Pursuit Force. Doing a drive-by shooting, and then jumping into a passing car in order to make your getaway--that's pretty darn cool.
Hand-to-hand combat also offers a surprising amount of depth, with a skill tree that unlocks dozens of potential combos. You'll be able to counter enemies a la the Arkham series, tapping Y as enemies flash before they strike. Making hand-to-hand combat an even more interesting affair is the ability to pick up weapons--cleavers, hand saws, knifes--and use them beat 'em up style. There are also dozens of (gruesome) environmental kills, involving aquariums, furnaces, table saws, and more.
When it all comes together, Sleeping Dogs is a remarkably satisfying gaming experience. However, it doesn't always come together. There are moments where I was genuinely surprised at what the game had me do. For example, after beating up a key character, I dragged him out into the street. I could then throw him into the trunk of my car, and drive him away for interrogation. In another moment, I was chasing a key figure through an exploding factory. However, these memorable moments are bogged down by combat that ultimately wears out its welcome. Apparently the triads employ thousands of grunts, as you must murder so many of them to progress through the story. Eventually, combat becomes monotonous, especially as new strategies are unnecessary.
Perhaps the biggest flaw is the game's shooting mechanics. There are some novel ideas here, too. For example, jumping out of cover will initiate John Woo-style slow-mo, adding to the game's hardboiled feel. But the actual cover and shooting mechanics are so clunky, that it never feels quite right pulling that off. Moving from cover to cover is surprisingly robotic, and assigning cover to LB is just awkward. Once in cover, the game gives you very little reason to move, as you fire at mostly-stationary targets. The latter parts of the game become simple shooting galleries.
The gun fights are easily the worst aspect of Sleeping Dogs. Some of the side missions involve wiping out an entire gang, and these are especially annoying. While there are finite number of enemies you must fight, the game will literally spawn new enemies behind you to murder you. No the Ai isn't outwitting me by flanking me. To test my theory, I ran backwards to actually see new enemies magically pop into the environment.
While I despise the shooting, I found myself really enjoying many of the game's other activities. As an undercover cop, you have quite a stable of gadgets at your disposal. The game's various hacking mini-games are surprisingly clever, albeit over-used. One of my favorite missions involves parkouring on a building to break into someone's apartment. After picking the lock, I had to place bugs in the apartment while avoiding detection by the couple that lives there. It's incredibly tense, and a testament to the gameplay variety on offer.
Perhaps the game's greatest asset is the environment. Hong Kong is spectacularly recreated here. While not "accurate" by any means (somehow there's no MTR ... or traffic), United Front Games has managed to capture the spirit of one of my most beloved cities. Driving up to Victoria Peak felt a bit nostalgic. Each of the game's neighborhoods really captures the feel of their real-world equivalent, making Sleeping Dogs a great virtual tour of one of Asia's great cities. It's a refreshing change of pace from the Americana that saturates the genre.
It may not be as polished as a Rockstar effort, but Sleeping Dogs does its part to make an impression. Yes, the story is absurdly heavy-handed. And yes, the gun combat is, simply put, not good. But it's the only game I know that lets me, go offshore and play mahjong, bet on a cockfight, and woo girls at the karaoke after hawking fake watches. It's not perfect, but it's a trip well worth taking.
This review of Sleeping Dogs is based on retail Xbox 360 and PC code provided by the publisher. The game was primarily played on Xbox 360, with additional testing on PC. The PC version offers significantly better visuals, and is highly recommended over the console versions. Sleeping Dogs is also available on PlayStation 3.
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