RRP: $88 ($68 on PC)
Platform(s): Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
Inevitably, any free-roaming game today will be compared to the Grand Theft Auto series, and this is even more likely if the game includes driving, shooting and criminal activities. Critics will leap at the chance to compare new games to Rockstar's series of crime epics.
At first glance Sleeping Dogs might seem very close to Grand Theft Auto's mayhem-inducing antics, but if you give the game a chance and immerse yourself in Hong Kong's dangerous underworld, it's safe to say the game impresses with a mature storyline and addictive action.
Sleeping Dogs' storyline takes the cinematic turn of Hong Kong action cinema and translates it fantastically to the interactive medium. As undercover cop Wei Shen, you return to Hong Kong from the US to infiltrate the local triad, the Sun On Yee. Your allegiance will be tested as the line between good and bad is increasingly blurred and Wei Shen's resolve and honour are put to the test.
The story is actually one of the highlights of Sleeping Dogs as watching Shen's rise to power in the Sun On Yee takes some surprisingly dark turns. The player must also perform tasks that directly betray one group or another and the ensuing tension is as entertaining as any celluloid cop drama. The characters are also, for the most part, more than one-dimensional and this comes into play when you betray one side or another, and actually gives the missions some weight.
The bulk of the game play is concerned with the fighting, driving and shooting mechanics and Sleeping Dogs has an interesting approach to distinguish it from comparisons to other free-roaming games. While the shooting game play is a vital part of the story, the focus is rooted squarely on the hand-to-hand combat. In fact, you're not even given a gun until a few hours into the story and the scene in question changes your entire perspective on your role as an undercover cop.
The shooting mechanics leave a bit to be desired as they're not as solid as we're used to in modern gaming, but certain moments are punctuated by slo-mo flourishes that keep it from becoming monotonous. The hand-to-hand fighting, on the other hand, more than makes up for it. The combat is obviously heavily inspired by the Batman Arkham games and the same system of attack and counter works very well in the Sleeping Dogs world. As you progress, Wei Shen unlocks better moves to make him a more efficient enforcer and after a few hours you have enough arrows in your brawling quiver to tackle any situation with wince-inducing brutality.
Having an interesting area to explore is also an important aspect of any free-roaming game. While Sleeping Dogs' Hong Kong is by no means the largest playground we've seen, the city is filled to the brim with side missions and secrets to find. As with the real Hong Kong, the city is quite dense with a plethora of back alleys and interesting landmarks that deserve exploration. Even when cruising to the next mission or walking down the road, you'll hear street vendors call out to you (often with highly memorable comments) and non player characters discuss their private lives, have arguments or speak reverently to the increasingly infamous Wei Shen.
All this works together to make the city seem like a real place with consequences and not merely a series of roads to stick missions on. The radio stations are also surprisingly good quality, with a mix of traditional Chinese music, classic western tracks and surprisingly current songs (some very recent MF DOOM and Curren$y tracks are particular highlights) to keep you immersed while cruising around.
The important distinction to make with Sleeping Dogs is that the inspiration has been taken from classic Hong Kong action cinema. Moments of slow motion as you dive over cover, blasting away, bring to mind scenes from classic John Woo films such as Hard Boiled and that's obviously the point the developers are trying to make.
The storyline is serious but the action is heavily stylised and explosive, which combines to make Wei Shen feel like a video game badass while not descending into ridiculousness.
Sleeping Dogs will suffer under the oppressive preconceptions that Grand Theft Auto has placed on free-roaming games but it deserves to be examined objectively. Under the somewhat superficial similarities, it is a very solid game that looks at the genre in its own unique way.
When you combine the well-written story, entertaining combat and vibrant city to explore, Sleeping Dogs has plenty of experiences to offer players.
This is especially impressive when you consider the game's chequered history at Activision, before switching publisher to Square Enix, that almost cost it a release entirely. Be thankful that Sleeping Dogs has been launched, and at a time of the year that allows it to get its day in the sun, while saving our neglected consoles from the tail end of a barren release period.
Regardless, I'd be willing to bet we haven't seen the last of the Wei Shen - and that can only be a good thing.