There once was a time when the modern Grand Theft Auto archetype reigned supreme, where sandboxed-styled, crime-spree fueled romps in seedy underbellies of some city or another seemed to pop up every couple of months. The comparison to the legendary GTA was neigh impossible to avoid - as it is with the shining example of any other genre - and Sleeping Dogs can't escape the same reality. However, unlike its spiritual predecessors in the True Crime series, Sleeping Dogs does much more than merely imitate the best - it competes with it.
One of the strongest components of Sleeping Dogs is the surprisingly deep and solidly entertaining story. It's set in the bustling underground of a Triad controlled, fictional Hong Kong, where the player assumes the role of an undercover cop recently returning from a long stint in California. With an old childhood friend, Wei Shen will slowly infiltrate the ranks of the Triad known as the Sun On Yee while seeking revenge for his sister (who fell victim to heroin addiction and overdose). It's essentially Donnie Brasco with Triads instead of the Italian Mafia, with more insight into the effect of undercover work and how a man can be thrown into a life of crime and willingly become a criminal. The story excellently shows the inner workings of a crime-family, depicting the bonds and honor that occur rather than just senseless violence and erratic, drug inspired humor... though there's definitely plenty of that too. It goes deeper into the main character's ideals and emotions, showing the struggle and stress of his work as it affects his psyche and personality. Most of the story is told through beautifully rendered cutscenes, backed up by some seriously superb voice acting led by newcomer and soon-to-be Silver Samura in the upcoming Wolverine flick, Will Yun Lee, and the loveable, raspy voiced Emma Stone. Other characters sound authentic with thick accents and make up a great supporting cast that is filled with an array of eccentrics to help create some individuality. Though where the voice acting is spot on, facial emotions are pretty subpar. Almost all characters are poker-faced the entire time, whether a man gets hacked to pieces and served in stew or gets tortured with an automatic drill, no one shows any emotion, and it's exacerbated by the fact that their body movements and mannerisms are very animated.
Where Sleeping Dogs's brings the thunder, the gameplay calls down some majestic lightning. Sleeping Dogs is a sandbox affair, complete with a sprawling city that's 100% accessible right from the beginning, featuring safehouses, karaoke, gambling, cock fighting, fight clubs, and many other attractions. Wei is a master of Kung Fu and, by extension, free running, allowing him to fluidly sprint through the city, jumping over dumpsters and scaling lower walls at will. It's used rather extensively through the many foot chases and semi-platforming sections, but movement is smooth and the system is generally fun to use. While the game holds all the mainstays of criminal action, Sleeping Dogs' ace-in-the-hole comes in the form of fantastic hand-to-hand combat. Most fighting is done without guns, and the combat system is fluid, intense, and brutal. It's all Kung Fu based, complete with grabs that throw people into exhaust fans or ice choppers, arms and legs snapping like twigs, and relying heavily upon a counter ability to deal with dozens of opponents. Much like Arkham Asylum/City's "Freeflow" system, countering will be the barrier between life and death, and there are certainly no complaints here due to its polished performance. Fighting off other Triads is a viscous effort and brutally fun. It has the combos and control of a game devoted to combat, creating a whole new aspect to the crime-infused sandbox genre. I found myself running around Hong Kong just looking for other gangs to fight so I could see all the unique grabs that utilize the environment, as well as just to enjoy the fluid movement of Shen's attacks and counters. It's a blast to use.
That's not to say the rest of the game takes a backseat to punching and kicking. Gunplay is exceptionally tight, yet lacks the ability to aim down the sights of a gun (definitely a noticeable absence). Sleeping Dogs adds a bit of flare to the third-person-shooter; when Wei hops over cover or slides over the hood over a car, a mini-slowdown occurs, giving the player that extra couple of seconds to line up shots. It helps with creating that aura of baddasary that leading characters in the genre need to possess. Though the slowdown wins no points in originality, it's not an ability that can be actively used, and brings just the right amount of style and functionality to the intense gameplay.
Driving also holds a certain uniqueness as well. Controls are GTA standard, with cars, bikes, and boats very responsive and holding a great feeling of speed. Unfortunately, no air travel is available to Wei, but the absence of jets and helicopters is hardly noticed due to the amount of "sweet rides" one can find around the four major sections of Hong Kong. The in-game physics are pretty impressive as well; moving through Hong Kong is never stiff, and the ragdoll effect looks great when flying headlong into the pavement after being thrown through the windshield or tossed off a bike. Yet, what really makes the driving an incredible experience are the Action Highjacks Wei can perform from any moving vehicle. When riding close to another vehicle while driving or riding shotgun, Wei can jump to the other vehicle, expel the driver onto the moving pavement, and continue on his merry way. It makes theft, car chases, and police escapes much more entertaining, and when combined with the violent car and motorcycle flips when tires get blown at high speeds, Sleeping Dogs' chase segments are some of the best around.
Wei Shen will gain experience for completing missions, events, and other side quests. Every mission rewards Wei with both Cop and Triad experience, but each receive XP differently (Triad experience is rewarded for being a general badass when it comes to fighting rival gangs, performing Action Hijacks, and using the environment and skills for unique kills). With each level gained in either the Cop or Triad "class", Shen can choose a new skill from one of two branches, with a total of 10 skills and levels for each tree. Maxing out both trees is rather easy with the amount of content available, which is beneficial since the skills unlocked make for a better game. The Cop tree sees abilities like the Slim Jim, making it easier to steal cars (weird, right?) and allowing Wei to pull a shotgun out of the trunk of a cop car, while the Triad tree raises his strike damage and resistances, also giving him a brutal elbow drop. The level and skill system is a great addition to the sandbox gameplay, providing an experience that only gets better as the game progresses.
On top of the Triad and Cop experience, Wei also receives Face XP that allows him to wear certain clothes that offer bonuses and gives other advantages at every level. Clothes make the man in Hong Kong, and these clothes can give 15% bonus XP or strike damage, which is a great change of pace from the strictly aesthetic alterations, but can only be worn if enough Face levels have been attained. There is also a Face meter, which increases as Wei beats his opponents down using a variety of maneuvers. When the meter fills, the world slows down a bit, slowly regenerating Shen's health, and intimidating his foes so Wei can take the advantage. The slowdown has lost its unique feel, but it's nonetheless a welcome addition. New fighting techniques are granted in a different manner as well. Upon arriving in Hong Kong, Shen encounters his old Kung Fu master, discovering that his prized animal statues have been stolen. Finding and returning them will grant Wei new moves, ranging from more powerful heavy attacks, to extending combos, to grabs that enable him to snap enemies' limbs. It all enhances the already-pleasing Kung Fu action, and the variance in obtaining skills and other bonuses adds to the enjoyment factor greatly.
Besides the main missions, Wei can undergo case files through an inspector working the Triad circuit, other events scattered around Hong Kong, stealing a long list of cars, collecting on loans, race some cars, performing drug busts, and looking for some potential girlfriends, among other activities. The case files are a mini story in their own right, exposing drug cartels and human trafficking rings through Wei's influence with the Sun On Yee. Drug busts, as well as case files and some of the main missions, require Wei to hack cameras, pick locks, crack safes, and bug cars or apartments. Each is accompanied by a creative yet simple mini game usually needing correct timing or "hitting the sweet spot" using the control sticks. Hacking cameras are a bit different, where four digits need to be guessed in a limited number of times. The mini games are fast and fun, giving the game more depth in the process. Events and the plethora of other side missions provide for a lot of the comedy, particularly when Calvin, one of the foot soldiers, decides to shoot wildly into a storefront or blow up the police station, hop in Wei's car, and tell him to just drive. The extra content found around Hong Kong is vast and quite easy to become enraptured with, as the hours upon hours of criminal action to behold can easily distract from the main story.
Sleeping Dogs' fictional Hong Kong brims with it a certain beauty that only a grim, seedy representation could hold. The outlay of the city stays true to its real life counterpart, filled with overcrowded markets, karaoke bars, sky scrapers, sewage systems, beaches, islands, and a multitude of back alleys to free run and explore. Every part of the city has been given a good deal of creative attention, with the city being brought to life with a slick visual style that doesn't "copy and paste" sections a bunch of times. Character models also receive the same detailed treatment, save for their facial expressions that are weak at best. Driving around looking at all the pretty colors wouldn't be complete without a great list of radio stations that range a large variety of music. From classic rock to dub step, Sleeping Dogs keeps the tunes flowing with some awesome artists like Queen, Bonobo, The Budos Band, The Who and Eminem behind the well composed soundtrack. Check out Warped or Ninja Tune Radio - you won't be disappointed.
Sleeping Dogs truly is the definition of a "sleeper hit". Once known as True Crime: Hong Kong and sitting in development hell, Sleeping Dogs is nothing short of amazing. While it certainly copies Grand Theft Auto's overall gameplay, it throws in its own unique style to provide for a rich and robust experience. Whether it's the John Woo, Hard Boiled-styled action and intense undercover themed story, the large variety of side missions that can take a good dozen hours to complete, or the multiple outlets in the Social Hub for stats and other gameplay achievements, one could easily spend 30 or more hours in the seedy Hong Kong. While multiplayer wasn't included, it's not a necessary addition, and combined with the poker-faced cast, there are no other significant negatives. I believe the idiom states "Let sleeping dogs lie". Clearly, Square Enix thought themselves crafty with that title, yet I disagree with its meaning. Don't let this dog lay his ass down - it'd be a damn shame if you let this gem pass you by.