How do you reconcile your lead character with the masochistic whims of a player?
Wei Shen is an undercover cop, and to infiltrate the innermost ranks of the Sun On Yee, one of Hong Kong’s largest Triad’s, Shen must do as they do. Can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, or so the age old adage goes. Shen doesn’t simply dismantle one of the largest crime syndicates in Hong Kong without throwing a few people onto rotating buzz saws.
Understandably, Raymond, my handler, thinks I’m not a good fit for this case. He knows about my history with the Triad’s, and my psyche profile cues him in to my personality: intelligent, empathetic, but reckless and quick to anger. As Wei Shen, I’m something of a contradiction, and this weighs heavily on my conscience as I slip further and furthers into the seedy life of a gang member. At the centre of my dilemma lies one question: is it permissible to become one of the bad guys in the name of a higher purpose? Should I feel bad about throwing a low-level grunt off the roof of a three story building if it allows me access to the higher echelons of crime? One night sleeping at Shen’s apartment – a squalid clutch of grey rooms located downtown – I hear voices in my sleep, snippets of speech from the Triad members I’ve befriended, and my police superiors. Wei Shen is indeed a conflicted man, but Sleeping Dogs is likewise a conflicted game.
Like many open world sandbox games that attempt to tell a coherent story, Sleeping Dogs runs into difficulty when it tries to balance player freedom with a likeable lead character. Shen begins as a simple enforcer under the command of one of the Sun On Yee’s least powerful bosses, and here the story (kept concise and morally upright) is where Sleeping Dogs tells its strongest story. Early on, there’s a tantalising sense of the delicate power struggle within the Sun On Yee that never truly flourishes in the later acts. The missions clip along at an enjoyable pace, but somewhere along the way, around the point where guns and slow motion table-vaulting are introduced, the story explodes outwards.
If Grand Theft Auto IV is a sombre tale relatively rooted in reality, and Saints Row The Third an absurd caricature, then Sleeping Dogs is a routine action movie, where everyone is a martial arts master, and where shooting a car in its wheels causes it to flip over and explode. After the restraint of its opening scenes, I was disappointed to feel completely lost as Wei Shen found himself facing hundreds of opposing gang members, clandestine villains leaping up arbitrarily, and plot turns that I had thought far too obvious to really happen. Sleeping Dogs, despite its double-agent story hook, was never going to be the open world sandbox that told a coherent story. Sleeping Dogs is a karate movie, with a moral conflict that’s there to string Wei Shen from one fist fight or shootout to the next.
Happily, these instances of combat are where Sleeping Dogs shines. Hong Kong is more bereft of guns than the Liberty Cities or Steelports of the open world city universe, which means that a brighter light is thrown on Sleeping Dogs’ real strength – its melee combat. Taking a leaf (perhaps an entire branch) from the likes of Rocksteady’s Batman games and the Assassin Creed titles, Sleeping Dogs employs a familiar combat system comprised of counter and strike. Grappling with an enemy allows Wei to use an environmental takedown, of which there’s a pleasant and brutal variety. The moment-to-moment melee combat flows like a tidal wave, with Wei countering enemy blows, tackling goons to the ground, and rendering battle-ending blows in egoistic slow motion. Sleeping Dogs has plenty to be vain about. Bolstered with unlockable combos, plenty of contextual variety (once again, you can throw people on buzz saws or on racks of swordfish,) and with cinematic flair, melee in Sleeping Dogs is a visceral delight.
Gun-play is less accomplished than Shen’s melee skills, but the missions always kept me on my toes. Car chases (and slow-mo jumping from one vehicle to another), foot chases, shoot-outs and minigames based on lockpicking and hacking all appear with regularity throughout the main story missions. I found myself enjoying Sleeping Dogs as a linear set of instances, only dipping into the auxiliary activities out of a sense of obligation rather than any real compulsion to do so. Why bother betting on the cock-fighting? Money? To buy what? Clothes and cars? After I’d finished the main missions, with all its wonderful B-movie set pieces, there was little left for me after the explosions had faded.
Don’t misunderstand me though: Sleeping Dogs is as fun as being the star in a karate movie, though ultimately as vacuous and short-lived. As a series of missions toying with a wide variety of gameplay elements, Sleeping Dogs is difficult to match. More a refinement of the sandbox’s existing elements than anything else, the game still suffers from many of the genres tropes and failings.
I know that Wei Shen isn’t the type of man to dragon-kick a passing woman into the ocean on a whim, but apparently he occasionally does this regardless. Such is the incongruity between character and action that arises in these games. Narrative issues aside, Sleeping Dogs is, at its heart, confident, brutal fun, and while lacking the open-world compulsion of other sandboxes is top dog in terms of accomplished, satisfying play.
Review based on PC release.