As the game loads, you hear the bustling streets of Hong Kong. Wei Shen steps out into the world; a small group of locals sit smoking on the corner. People call out for you to buy their wares, cars drive by, the city feels alive. Wei wanders over to a shop, buys a drink, eyeing up a bike hire hut across the road. A few dollars exchange and Wei is soon speeding through the city on a loud dirt bike. He checks his phone, using his police connections to triangulate the location of his objective, Johnny Ratface. After a few seconds, the location is locked in and he is heading towards the docks to drag Johnny back to his boss to face some Hong Kong street justice.
As Wei arrives everything seems quiet, he checks his GPS and walks towards the glowing blip on the screen. Suddenly, a group of three thugs approach him, obviously looking for trouble. The first one to get close throws a punch, which Wei dodges effortlessly and counters, putting his opponent out of action with one swift movement. The next approaches from the side. Wei grabs him by the jacket and hurls him over a guardrail into the harbour. The last man moves in foolishly, Wei gives him a taste of good old-fashioned martial arts and moves on. Bullets whizz in Wei’s direction as he enters a warehouse, he dives for cover, waits for a reload and then leaps over the boxes, pinning the shooter to the ground before disarming him and taking his weapon.
A door opens at the far end of the warehouse and another wave of thugs enters, this time armed to the teeth. Wei peers through the gunfire; Johnny Ratface is running for the safety of his vehicle. The martial arts time is over, now for some epic Hong Kong cinematic action. Taking advantage of a break in fire, Wei leaps from cover and time slows as he pulls the trigger. Six perfectly placed bullets later, Wei launches himself onto a nearby bike and guns the engine as his victims hit the ground around him. Johnny is still visible in the distance, his car rounds a corner. Time to play catch up.
As Wei guns through traffic, more bullets fly overhead. Backup is here. A small tap on the brakes puts their cars in front of him, while a few bullets to the tires sends one crashing into a nearby wall. The other vehicle flies through the air, barely missing Wei as it hurtles overhead. Johnny’s car is now directly in front, Wei stands on top on the bike and leaps onto the roof of the vehicle. One quick slide and he enters the window, taking the wheel and putting Johnny out of action.
…if you think this sounds like Hong Kong cinema you’d be right, and that ultimate super cop feel is exactly what United Front is aiming for. Sleeping Dogs perfectly takes the fun and vastness of a Grand Theft Auto-style game, slapping on a layer of big budget, flashy-action polish.
Honestly, at its core, the game is similar to many others on the market in terms of gunplay, open world setting, driving, etc. However, what sets Sleeping Dogs apart is its ability to turn any mission (no matter how small), into crazy over-the-top action. Things like jumping from vehicle to vehicle, kung fu-takedowns and slow motion John Woo-style gunplay are just a day in the life here in Hong Kong. The above section was just an average mission, fairly early on and the game seems to be ready to offer a whole lot more.
Sleeping Dogs gives players what we all really want in a sandbox game: Diversity. You can give a player a beautiful world, good mechanics and great physics, but without things to do, the whole experience gets old fast.
In Sleeping Dogs, there is plenty of customization. Players can buy food, clothes and vehicles, all of which effect protagonist Wei’s status. For example: If you need to get rough in a mission, choosing brawler clothing will help your stats, while buying the right drink can turn the tide of a troublesome fight.
Combat is also a huge focus, and there are remnants of the Batman-esque control system here. You can focus on a single enemy and pummel him into oblivion, or juggle between foes in a large group, countering incoming attacks. Grappling allows you to take advantage of the game’s contextual damage. Throw enemies off edges, into walls or get more macabre and use things like car doors or deep fryers. The possibilities for a fight to play out seem almost endless.
Driving is the only thing that feels a little iffy. Even though we have some of the team from Black Box (Need for Speed) behind the controls, the cars handle a bit unrealistically. Handbrake seems to almost pivot the car on the spot and it doesn’t have the smooth control of something like GTA 4. The focus seems to be more on the stunt side of driving – things like ramming, jumping and shooting from cars are more what United Front seem to be going for and this is hardly a deal breaker.
Sleeping Dogs is a truly impressive effort. Its graphics are slick, its gameplay is fun and the story is visceral and compelling. While developers these days produce sequel after sequel of the same titles, this game dares to rescue a new protagonist, location and style, and float an original IP (not without some dramas getting there). It’s shaping up to be one of the best games this year and with a few months left till its release, the only thing left to do is polish what’s already here.
Whether you’re a Hong Kong cinema fan or a hardcore gamers looking for something engaging, Sleeping Dogs should definitely be on your radar – if you can handle it.