Sleeping Dogs is all about duality. Underneath the veneer of neon lights and fancy cars, rival gangs fight over the all-important profits of prostitution and drugs. The main character Wei Shin is an honorable police officer, but quickly commits extortion and murder to complete a personal vendetta. Sleeping Dogs is the rare open-world crime game in which the mechanics support the dual motivations of the protagonist.
Wei Shin was born in the projects of Hong Kong, but his family fled to the States to try to get his sister off drugs and Wei blames the gangsters who got her hooked. In San Francisco, he trains as a cop but gets recruited to return home and use his contacts to become Hong Kong’s star undercover agent.
A strong supporting cast of voice actors – including Tom Wilkinson as the English police chief and Lucy Liu as a love interest – keeps the story from becoming overly melodramatic, but the narrative still comes frightfully close to superficial. You quickly gain a bevy of girlfriends, and go on dates throughout Hong Kong. I appreciate the attempt to humanize Wei, but driving around a bride-to-be to pick flowers doesn’t jive with the brutality of gang executions and drug busts. The lighter stuff does have a strong emotional payoff that almost justifies the bride demanding her wedding be “perfect.”
The city of Hong Kong is masterfully rendered and there are many activities to keep you busy. The whole map is open for you to explore, peppered with citizens that need your help, races and car collection tasks that increase your “face” rating for helpful upgrades. But what sticks out is that as you infiltrate the Triads with the main story missions, you can help out the police along the way. You want to keep your cover intact, but you can use your new status to impact the criminal underworld in a positive way by undertaking open cases involving gang members. You can help Officer Teng arrest a murderous street-racer by challenging him or catch a vicious drug lord in the act of committing murder. The minigames connected with some of these activities are challenging but not punishing. Planting bugs requires some dexterity aligning the two thumbsticks, and hacking into surveillance cameras has you using logic to figure out a four digit code.
Advancing Wei’s skills mirrors his dual loyalties. You earn two different kinds of points, and can spend them on upgrades like increased damage or a tool to steal cars quicker. When you’re on a mission for the gangs, you gain Triad XP points for taking down your opponents in different ways. At the same time you lose Cop XP points for damaging property or killing innocent bystanders. If you want to succeed, you have to be conscious at all times that you’re still a cop. Even if you’re undercover, you’re supposed to be protecting people, not running them over with your car just to kill the evil gangster quicker. It’s a shrewd mechanic that deftly underlines the themes of the game’s story each time you see that negative 20 Points – Innocent Killed – flash on the screen.
Sleeping Dogs is more of a brawler than a shooter. Guns are rare in Hong Kong, so most conflicts are resolved with some good old fashioned kung fu. The combat system is tricky if you’re an aggressive player. Wei is almost always outnumbered, so it’s better to wait for the bad guys to come to you unless you like getting repeatedly kicked in the head. When you do get the timing down, the action feels smooth and cinematic. There are more than a few nods to John Woo when you use gongs, dumpsters and chandeliers to take a guy down. Returning jade statues to Wei Shin’s old martial arts master unlocks more moves that are just fun to pull off. Once I learned to break a guy’s knee so badly the guys around me shudder, I just couldn’t stop doing it.
In contrast, the gunplay sections feel bland. Cover mechanics and quick-aiming allows you to make quick work of any hapless goons and there’s a bullet time rigmarole you can enter when you vault over an obstacle but it feels tacked-on and unnecessary. Thankfully, the missions in which you use a gun are rare, and you don’t hold onto your piece after you’re done. That means you can’t quickly overpower challenges in the game’s open world, but you also don’t get bogged down in just another shooter.
I can’t say playing through Wei Shin’s story in Sleeping Dogs is a pleasant experience. It’s gritty, dirty, filled with curse words and exquisite torture, but also utterly enjoyable if you’re a fan of those kinds of stories and don’t mind a romantic interlude or two.
Bottom Line: A solid open world crime game with a fully-realized setting and mechanics that support the theme of an undercover cop unsure of his loyalties, Sleeping Dogs has a lot to offer.
Recommendation: Worth picking up to experience the criminal underworld of Hong Kong or if you like to beat up Asian gang members.[rating=4]
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.