Sleeping Dogs is a game that flew under most people’s radar. Many people seemed to look at it as just another Grand Theft Auto clone, set in the dark and vibrant city of Hong Kong instead of the usual American fare. And, frankly, there is something to this accusation. Like in GTA, you can steal cars, take the police on a wild goose chase, and interact with the world however you please. Your character quickly gets involves with gangs and criminal organizations of all sorts. The game is a litany of gunfights, car chases, cutscenes, and minigames. On the gameplay level alone, it’s glaringly obvious that the game developers looked to the success of Grand Theft Auto for inspiration.
But to write the game off like this is misguided, akin to avoiding The Departed because it looks too much like Law and Order. It is sad to see that many gamers have chosen this path, given the lack of attention Sleeping Dogs received when it was released. For this is a game that has the potential of so much more than what its surface appearance might suggest. This is illustrated by the fact that, though I played through and finished this game over half a year ago, it has stuck with me. Even after all that time, I can remember the events of Sleeping Dogs, the fun I had racing through the winding streets of Hong Kong. Such is the power of its lasting appeal.
Though I made the comparison to Grand Theft Auto, it is worth noting that Sleeping Dogs offers a game that takes this sort of open-world genre to the next level. Most games like this are locked into the mentality of making every action sequence into a cover-based shooting affair. A typical fight might involve you stepping into a warehouse and ducking from box to box, popping your head out every so often to spray gunfire at your enemies. It is worth noting that there’s nothing inherently wrong with this system; many games pull this off competently and make gunfights feel dangerously real.
Sleeping Dogs instead decides to make the gameplay subservient to the setting. The average person might not know that Hong Kong is a city where private gun ownership is not permitted, making guns on the street fairly rare. Given that you are interacting with the criminal underworld, guns and shootouts do happen, but not as often as any other game in this genre. So the developers of the game decided instead to make the combat of the game up close and personal. Fistfights that use impromptu weapons like pipes and baseball bats are the order of the day. Taking inspiration from martial arts films of all kinds, it is a blast to play Wei Shen as he fluidly takes down his enemies in personal combat, artful kicks following multiple punch combinations straight out of a Jackie Chan movie.
This combat is reminiscent of the free-flowing fights of Arkham Asylum and Prince of Persia, where you are one man against dozens. As you begin a fight, you have to ask yourself: can I take down this goon in front of me before his buddies jump me from behind? How can I isolate one of the group from the rest? Can I find a weapon that will help me thin out the pack? Each battle becomes a dance as you duck and weave around the area, delivering a surgically deadly kick in one move while beautifully disarming a baddie with another. To add even more spice, there is always at least one special takedown in every fight where you can use the environment to your advantage to instantly take out one of your enemies. My favorite was, when fighting in a nightclub, I heartily picked up a bouncer and threw him through the glass of an aquarium on the wall. The water gushed all over the floor and, thinking quickly, I grabbed a stout fish from the ground with which to beat back the others.
Like most open-world games, fights like these usually take place within story missions or sidequests. As you acquire a reputation with your gang, you can also unintentionally provoke fights with other gangs as you travel through the streets of Hong Kong. This can make for some intense moments where you idly walk down an alley, intending to use it as a shortcut, and find nine sharply dressed men with bats and knives slowly surrounding you. Though the game has a bit of a steep learning curve at first, as you struggle to learn some of the combos and methods for dealing with big groups of enemies, the end result has you feeling like a martial arts god. There is nothing more cathartic than stepping into a fight with twenty enemies and emerging with not even a scratch. Consequently, the game has this amazing feeling of progress and fulfillment as you slowly master it and exult in your success.
But fist fighting is not the only name of the game here. Sleeping Dogs offers some of the most wonderfully chaotic car chases I’ve ever seen. These sequences are as delightful as they are arcadey. Shooting out a car’s tires will cause it to explode, flipping into the air in slow motion, turning every car chase into a scene from The Matrix Reloaded. What’s more, for some inexplicable and genius reason, the developers give you a button that, whenever you press it, has you defy physics by brutally shoving your car against someone near to you. Ramming other cars off of bridges or into oncoming traffic never gets old, and the ensuing slow-motion pileups are always a wonder to behold. Chases are not limited to your wheels, though, as you can also find yourself running after people (or being hunted down yourself) on foot. These sequences are strongly infused with a dose of le parkour; rebounding off of walls and dramatically sliding under low hanging ledges never gets old. So long as you hit the right button at the right time, your sprinting and jumping adventure can be fluid and brilliant. Or you might faceplant, trip, and crash hard into the cart with all the pork buns.
The final gameplay element that meshes all of this together is the experience and skills that you can gain on two different sides. For every mission, you can do certain things that raise your reputation points with the Triad, allowing you to get special skills once you get enough. For the Triad, usually this involves killing people or breaking the law in flashy and impressive ways. However, you also get reputation with the Hong Kong Police Department, which is achieved in an entirely different way. This typically entails avoiding as much property damage as possible, not committing illegal acts, and preserving the lives of civilians. This makes everything you do in a mission have meaning, as you decide which side is more important to you. This becomes a perfect example of blending the story into the gameplay, instead of segregating the two, as is so typical of lazy game-making these days. Speaking of story…
Story and Setting
On its surface, Sleeping Dogs tells a story that we have all heard before. A cop is asked to go undercover to infiltrate the fearsome Triads of Hong Kong, those same infamous Mafia-esque organizations of crime unique to eastern Asia. The goal is to destroy them entirely, turning crime in Hong Kong into simply a bad memory. But what makes Sleeping Dogs special is how it explores the character of the cop, Wei Shen. The character we control.
Though Wei spent his childhood in Hong Kong, he moved to the United States at an early age and grew to adulthood away from where he started. As a result, his return to Hong Kong is both nostalgic and off-putting. Many of the people he once knew are either dead or distant from him. This works wonders for his goal, since there are few people who can disrupt his cover. But this reveals itself to be a double-edged sword. Though it may help his job, Wei yearns for that human connection he once had, and the time where he once viewed this land as his home, a home that is now alien to him.
I can’t emphasize enough how much of a compelling character Wei Shen is, and this is a big aspect of what gives Sleeping Dogs its appeal and longevity. When I made a comparison to The Departed earlier in this post, it fits in more ways than one. Like the main character of that film, Wei Shen has to balance his undercover service with the need to prove himself to the ruthless criminal underworld. He is faced with demands from gang leaders that he prove his loyalty in ways that involve hurting others. He constantly has to dodge attempts to root out rats by redirecting suspicion to other people that he cares about in the gang. Much akin to Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in that Martin Scorsese masterpiece, Wei Shen is always on edge, always questioning whether the cops really have his back and whether his fellow gang members truly trust him.
But Sleeping Dogs takes a step beyond the story of The Departed by highlighting a different struggle. What is possibly the most difficult part of Wei Shen’s job involves the friends that Wei makes within the Triad. These are people who, without conceit, end up offering this man the home, family, and acceptance that he misses and wants so desperately. His job is to gain the trust of these people but, criminals though they might be, they are powerfully written characters who have hopes and dreams of their own. The lines become increasingly blurred as Wei rescues them from harm, shares memories with them, gives them advice on what to do with their lives, and even goes so far as to help his boss’s wife get her perfect wedding. This may sound trite, but it becomes a poignant example of how much these former strangers come to accept Wei without reservation and ask for his help, not because they want to use him, but because they genuinely enjoy being around him. For Wei Shen, these moments stand out to be as sweet as they are confusing. His only human connection is with the people he must eventually betray. When you know this, and live it alongside Wei, every moment like this becomes as special as it is bittersweet.
Thus we get a powerful sense of how painful this must be for Wei. This question of psychological stability is raised by the game itself when you are slowly granted access to police reports that give a sense of what the Hong Kong PD thinks of Wei (among other individuals in the other gangs). They describe Wei as a perfect infiltrator given his background in the United States and Hong Kong; the fact that he truly belongs to neither has given him the ability to adapt and change his identity as needed to suit his surroundings. However, this also has the police question whether Wei will stay loyal, and ask if the stress of managing this “other life” with the Triads will cause him to break. Will Wei manage to maintain the mask or he will risk becoming it? The Hong Kong police department doesn’t know and, even though you control Wei himself, neither do you.
The fusion of gameplay and story makes for an incredibly unique connection with the character of Wei Shen that I have seen few other games match. Like Wei, I often found myself becoming slowly reluctant over time to go to the next mission, for fear that it would finally be the one to end the life and the family that Wei had found in the Triad. I found myself empathizing with Wei’s violent tendencies towards the rival gangs for a similar reason: in a murky world where your closest friends are also your enemies, a straightforward fistfight can be a source of relief from unending tension. As the game progresses, the central question becomes increasingly uncertain. What is more important: Wei’s deep personal bond with the Triad or that he must throw it all away to finally end the gang wars of Hong Kong?
Altogether, Sleeping Dogs offers an amazing story that delivers one of the most gripping crime dramas I have ever seen on top of exciting gameplay that never gets old. The main campaign is incredible and it is offered further gravity by superb voice acting from talented actors like Will Yun Lee, Tom Wilkinson, Lucy Liu, and Emma Stone. My only criticism is that the DLC of Sleeping Dogs does not quite measure up to the brilliance of the game’s base, offering peculiar missions that bank more on cheesiness than solid writing (example being a zombie expansion, a fight club expansion, and a forgettable expansion about cultists). But, by itself, it is impossible to think of reasons not to recommend this game. Go out and try it. Sleeping Dogs will easily makes your list for top 5 games you have played in the past few years. It made mine.