Whoever came up with the title “Sleeping Dogs” must’ve had the biggest grin on their face when the name was approved. The game was originally pitched as a completely new IP, then rebranded as a reboot of the True Crime series, then pulled back into the series as True Crime: Hong Kong, and then canceled, only to be picked up by a different publisher for another rebranding and an actual release – the sleeping dog that nobody would let lie. Given that its initial announcement was in 2009, not to mention its ties to a less-than-revered franchise (does the True Crime name really move units?), it’s easy to understand why Sleeping Dogs simply isn’t showing up on many radars – we’re practically at a micro-Duke-Nukem-Forever at this stage. However, Sleeping Dogs shouldn’t be ignored. In fact, taking its rocky road to release into account, it’s an awesome surprise.
Open-world crime games aping movies are nothing new, but Sleeping Dogs nails it better than practically any other. As undercover cop Wei Shen, players will dive deep into Hong Kong’s criminal underworld, assuming the role of a Sun On Yee soldier with the intent of climbing the gang’s hierarchy and crippling it from the inside. Wei Shen has a personal vendetta against the gang, but it’s not long until his hands are as dirty as the rest of them. His loyalties to both the police and the Sun On Yee will be tried and tried again over the course of the increasingly violent story.
Does it sound corny? It is, and it’s frankly the game’s most interesting aspect. Plenty of video games attempt to place a conflicted main character at their core, criminals with hearts of gold who are just doing what they have to, waxing poetic about life and death in a maudlin cutscene before the actual gameplay starts, in which the player is far more likely to see how long they can drive on the sidewalk before getting shot than they are to sit and ponder deep questions about killing, honor and redemption. Sleeping Dogs does all of that, but it’s dressed up in the wonderful melodramatic styling of a classic Hong Kong crime film. Wei Shen is angry and unhinged, the Sun On Yee are violent and feudalistic, and the police are cold-hearted and shifty. The game’s script embraces cheese and contradiction, lampshading the disconnect between story and gameplay far better than most crime games with a serious tone. Sleeping Dogs isn’t a comedy or a satire, but it knows that it’s pulpy.
The action movie influence seeps into the gameplay itself, too. Sleeping Dogs focuses mainly on hand-to-hand brawling, employing a combat system that feels like a less refined version of Arkham Asylum or The Warriors. There isn’t a prominent combo counter, but there are counter moves that can be triggered as soon as an enemy flashes red – a slightly jarring visual – and some truly brutal punch-kick strings activated by tapping or holding the attack button in certain orders. It’s slightly jerky and robotic feeling, mostly due to a lack of transition animations, but it can be very satisfying. More interesting are the throws and grabs that make use of environmental hazards, which usually involve Wei Shen shoving a goon’s head into something sharp or spinning (or both). All of these attacks are straight out of Hong Kong crime films, and they are all awesome. Heck, even when there aren’t any interesting objects around to push people into, Wei Shen can still sprint full-tilt towards the nearest wall and smash the person he’s holding into the hard surface head-first.
Then there’s the driving, which feels very tight and arcade-y. Cars and bikes go incredibly fast and are almost all very nimble, save for a few trucks and mopeds. The streets of Hong Kong are lots of fun to speed through when you can turn on a dime, and car chases are pretty thrilling because of it. There are a few control issues once action-hijacking and shooting are introduced, though – even though the pace slows down time a tad to help you keep track of everything, it’s often very easy to jump onto the wrong car, or pile straight into a wall while trying to shoot something behind you. However, the fact that these are all things you can do is undeniably cool, and actually jumping onto the right car, clambering across the roof, and kicking the driver out of their seat is immensely satisfying.
The third major section of the action is shooting, which mostly plays out like you’d expect. There are guns, there are chest-high-walls, dudes pop out and you shoot them. It’s definitely the least remarkable pillar of the game, although there are a couple of interesting mechanics that save it from being too dull – namely, the way the game encourages you to vault over cover at enemies, rather than sticking around in one spot shooting people as they peek over their hiding spot. Sleeping Dogs employs a heavy dose of slow-mo when you complete certain actions – leaping over cover, disarming a foe – which makes clearing large groups of enemies really easy. Thankfully, on-foot shooting missions are in the minority, although there are some straightforward run-and-gun sections towards the end of the game that can get pretty dull.
If only the PC version let you assign separate keys for some actions, rather than using the obviously console-oriented “press-then-release-then-press-again-really-fast” setup – I imagine a lot of the control issues would be nonexistent. With a mouse and keyboard, some of Sleeping Dogs can be a bit of a headache. Sprinting and jumping over objects requires timed presses of the same sprint key – likewise, getting ready to jump out of your car and actually jumping out of your car are two actions tied to the same key, which just feels odd with all of the options available on a keyboard. Moving Wei around can feel a little stiff, as well – thankfully, the game supports controllers without a hitch. I’d strongly recommend a gamepad.
The overall package of Sleeping Dogs is helped immensely by its presentation and atmosphere. While the character models and animation aren’t great, the Hong Kong they inhabit is gorgeous. There are moments where the game practically bleeds cool – rain-soaked streets, gaudy neon lights and the bright metropolitan skyline. The voice acting is appropriately over-the-top, and the character designs get more and more sleazy-looking as Wei makes his way up the Sun On Yee. There are some great missions, too, one-offs that feel like they belong in cult crime films. One sees you sneaking into a superstitious man’s house and messing with his furniture to screw up his feng shui. There are some truly horrifying revenge killings. You can also date Emma Stone.
I wonder how Sleeping Dogs would have been if it had been released in 2010 as True Crime, or 2011 as True Crime: Hong Kong. The game is a tad unpolished as it is in 2012, so clearly there were reasons to push it back. However, if the game was as charming and interesting as it is now, I have no idea why anyone would cancel the project. Sleeping Dogs is a great action game with a compellingly melodramatic story and an atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. Control issues aside, it’s a great PC port, too – on a beefy gaming PC, Sleeping Dogs looks far better than its console counterparts. For fans of Hong Kong cinema and/or open-world games, it’s a must.