With Sleeping Dogs as the big-title release out on Playstation Plus this Thursday, we all get another chance to have a look at this curious beast. Production dramas aside, resurrecting the project out of the ashes of True Crime: Hong Kong was certainly worth it, if only to show the potential for infusing games with the vocabulary of Hong Kong action cinema. It’s not perfect, but it’s well worth playing, and some recent DLC certainly gives Bruce Lee fans something to get excited about.
To be honest you could probably call it GTA: Hong Kong and not be far wrong. It treads a very familiar open-world territory with an urban sandpit environment, heavily scripted main mission and side missions of variable quality, arcade-style driving and melee/gunplay action. There’s nothing in the core formula that we haven’t seen before, and some might call it derivative.
The storyline will certainly be familiar to aficionados of Hong Kong cinema. You play Wei Shen, a HK-raised cop who has just returned from undercover work in San Francisco, who is controversially assigned to undercover work in a triad, the Sun On Yee. He is accused of carrying a personal vendetta, and his unconventional methods bill him as the rogue undercover cop that he turns out to be. Predictably, he experiences the honour among thieves of the triad, and has deeply conflicted loyalties at various points.
Unfortunately, his psychological stress is overwrought and presented way too early, and the narrative design generally is a little ham-fisted. It’s a familiar story full of well-worn tropes about loyalty, honour and the law, but its still a story that could be done well in a game. It just needs to build in the interactivity effectively to work at the level of Heavy Rain, for example.
However, there is something quite new here as well: something quintessentially Hong Kong. It begins with the environment, which has been lovingly crafted. From the imposing skyscrapers in Central District to the houseboats and fishing vessels of the waterfront, this is a very authentic space. Unfortunately, however, it ends up feeling inert because it is vastly underpopulated. We might forgive the streets only having a handful of wandering drones, but a night market, club or festival with only a few insipid NPCs just seems a bit absurd. This city is missing its lifeblood: Its people.
The influence of Hong Kong goes well beyond the environment, though. It feeds into some of the core mechanics: Melee takes precedence over gunfighting, with dynamic martial arts mo-cap animations and brutal environmental finishing moves that are all too familiar from film. Overzealous police offices discourage the use of firearms when fists would do a better job. When the guns do come out, a bullet-time mode is engaged by vaulting over cover, which is overpowered but still fun. (Before you say that this has been done in Red Dead Redemption or Max Payne, remember that John Woo got there first.)
Motorbikes are distinctly emphasised over cars, and an ‘action hijack’ mechanic makes it possible to leap onto the roof of a nearby vehicle to take possession of it. All these elements make it feel much more like you are playing a role in a classic Hong King undercover cop thriller: a project that has been only partially achieved in games like Rise To Honour and Stranglehold.
Nonetheless, it could have all been so much better. The unlockable melee combos are lots of fun, but quickly become samey, and pale in comparison to the Assassins Creed or Batman franchises. The storyline, while full of dramatic potential, is badly mishandled in peaking Shen’s anguish too soon andfailing to properly build characters before a major incident. The cop chases are fairly uninspired, and most of the missions (even at the end) are just too easy, with bosses who seem to offer little more challenge than their mouth-breathing thugs.
There is too little climax in the intensity or action in the endgame, with cutscenes left to do too much heavy lifting. Boat missions are underdone, and side missions become passe. Bugs are too common (one especially is a game-breaker, forcing a restart if no suspects are to be found on CCTV during a drug bust.) The soundtrack is large and diverse, but with no opportunity to customise or even change your vehicle’s radio channel you might find yourself bleeding from the ears from insufferable Canto-rap. Looking back on it, it seems like a long list, and it’s really just in need of more thorough polish. Maybe my expectations are just too high.
Yet despite all this, Sleeping Dogs is a great deal of fun. There is nothing like taking down a dozen armed goons with your bare hands and feet, disarming a gangster and finding yourself in possession of a cleaver or machete, or dodging heavy traffic at high speed on a motorbike. The undercover cop/triad story is still fresh enough (just) to provide some narrative interest, but a studio like Rockstar or Quantic Dream should get on this kind of project. The tragedy is that it could have been so much more, yet with enough critical and commercial success gther may be just enough push for a sequel to really get these things right. We can only hope; it seems we still need to wait for a game to really do justice to the likes of John Woo.