The last game I finished in 2012 was the Square-Enix published, Sleeping Dogs. It had a long, troubled development cycle, as it started as an original title, then became a third installment in the True Crime series. Remember those? I never played them, but they always seemed interesting to me — a Grand Theft Auto-style game told from the perspective of an undercover cop. The game was cancelled by Activision-Blizzard and never came out. Square-Enix bought the publishing rights six months later, and it was retitled as Sleeping Dogs. Due to the development cycle this game went through, it was assumed that Sleeping Dogs wasn’t going to be a very good game. When games go through these sort of bumpy trails, it’s not at all uncommon for it to be a disjointed, broken mess. Duke Nukem Forever was almost old enough to vote by the time it was finally released, and who knows if The Last Guardian or Final Fantasy Versus XIII will ever be shipped to retail. With this in mind, Sleeping Dogs had no right to be good.
The truth is, this game is excellent.
I’ve never been a huge fan of open world games. I play them from time to time, and have had a lot of fond memories playing the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve never properly finished any of them. I always felt weighed down by the mission structure and the poor combat systems. They were always full of good ideas, but those ideas were lost among hours of useless filler. A Grand Theft Auto game can take around 40 hours to finish the story content, and even then you still have many hours of other content you can play through. Somewhere in there would lie a decent, 10-15 hour story, but the constant introduction of new mechanics or gameplay types just dragged progression to a crawl. I distinctly recall the awful pacing presented in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, where there’s a touching, cinematic funeral scene, and the vibe is immediately broken up by a tutorial mission teaching you how to ride a bicycle. Sleeping Dogs offered me exactly what I wanted: a consistent, 10-15 hour story, with maybe up to two dozen hours of ancillary content that I can do later.
Immediately you’re thrown into the world in the midst of a drug deal gone wrong. You’ve gotta run from the cops, but end up quickly cut off and arrested. In an interrogation room, it is revealed that the player character is an undercover cop named Wei Shen, who has been assigned to infiltrate a band of the Triads called the Sun On Yee. With his assignment in tow, Shen meets up with an old friend in the holding cell, and begins his journey. I wasn’t sure if the game could hold up as it progressed, but as it stood, I found this to be a very strong opening scene to set the stage. Unlike a GTA game, there’s no artificial hindrance forcing you to finish a specific block of the city’s story content before moving onto the next. The world is open to you from the start, and you’re free to roam about as you see fit.
One thing I always try and do when I play a game like this is to not be a horrible human being. I’m careful about killing pedestrians, I try not to actively steal cars, opting to use the vehicles provided to me along with using taxis where applicable. I just don’t want to cause an absolute ruckus, because as I’ve said before, I don’t have the mean streak to just start murdering everyone in sight. Sure, it’s fun to go on rampages from time to time, but as I’m progressing through the story, I try to keep the insanity in check. Playing the role of an undercover cop, I found this to be much easier than usual. I was able to keep count, and during my 12 hours of playtime from the start to the plot’s conclusion, I only killed three pedestrians, accidentally at that. I only stole four vehicles, and spent a lot of time alternating between the motorcycle provided to me or the classic sports car given to use in street races. Any other time, I’d use whatever the mission had to offer.
There’s no large disconnect between Wei Shen’s personality and the one applied by the player character. His loyalty to his job and his devotion to the Sun On Yee is tested and referred to frequently. Wei Shen has problems and has a history. Unlike a character like Niko Bellic who perpetually talks about getting out of the life he’s in, and then proceeds to kill hundreds of people, Wei Shen has demons to deal with, and it helps to present him as a more realistic, interesting character. His loyalty to the Sun On Yee is tested fairly early. It is assumed he is a cop, so he has to gun down some of the enemy triad to prove otherwise. Clearly Wei isn’t happy about this, but does what needs to be done to uphold his cover.
If you just play through the story, it was nearly five hours before you acquire a gun. Sleeping Dogs focuses heavily on unarmed combat, using a system similar to Rocksteady’s Batman titles. The system is well put together, and I was worried that focusing so much on unarmed combat would make the shooting segments suffer. Thankfully, when I finally had a gun, the shooting was more than competent, playing like a cover based, third-person shooter. I was relieved that I wasn’t going to have to push my way through more of Grand Theft Auto’s lackluster shooting mechanics. Even then, the shooting segments were limited, and were mostly reserved for large, setpiece moments. Firearms aren’t as easy to come by in Hong Kong, so having that as a story point helped the immersion.
Sleeping Dogs set out to provide a specific vibe, and absolutely nailed it. Between the lack of guns, driving on the left side of the road, and having multiple stations that were entirely in Cantonese, it was easy to get immersed. It’s a big reason why I feel like Grand Theft Auto: Vice City stands above the other games in that series. The overall 1980s vibe really helped seal the deal, something that the more modern entries never did for me. I often took the long way home while driving around Hong Kong, doing my best to uphold traffic laws, and cruising around town, listening to Cantonese club music. I fell into this world, and when it ended, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. It is a game that does what it sets out to do: it tells a concise story, and then gets out of the way, something I hope that Rockstar will learn with the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V.
This is a game that was overlooked by many, but it is completely worth your time to check it out, especially if it goes on sale for cheap. I can’t recommend it enough.