I bought Sleeping Dogs 72 hours after moving to Hong Kong, thinking I’d explore the city digitally at the same time as encountering it with my own eyes.
It didn’t happen the way I planned. Real life crowded the game out and I shelved the idea. But with Sleeping Dogs: The Definitive Edition launching recently and the release schedule finally cooling off, I thought it was time to revisit and see how the game measured up to reality. So how accurate is the Hong Kong we get in Sleeping Dogs?
Extremely accurate, it turns out, and at the same time, not accurate at all.
Let me explain.
Sleeping Dogs provides a schizophrenic vision of Hong Kong. It’s recognizable at street level, but falls apart the moment the player calls up the map or looks out to sea. Its outdoor areas feel squeezed while its indoor environments expand to ludicrous dimensions. The city is strange, wrong, a fiction – but it’s still undeniably Hong Kong. In the end, that’s all that matters.
Sleeping Dogs feels most authentic when you’re walking down the street. The city looks and sounds like it should. Red taxis and green-roofed minibuses roar by. Neon and billboards blaze on the buildings overhead. Pedestrians converse in Cantonese and, in a particularly deft touch, the crosswalk lights make the correct ClickClickClickClickClick noise. Stroll into a night market and you’ll hear hawkers selling their goods. Shen’s first tiny apartment embodies the old-style Hong Kong public housing studios. There are enough landmark clones to inspire comparison videos and location hunting. Once the map opened up, I spent hours cruising the city, trying to find out if my favorite buildings made the cut. The Aberdeen Promenade is there, as is the gorgeous neon monstrosity of Jumbo Floating Restaurant. Skyline markers like Bank of China Tower and the HSBC building have close-enough cousins in the Central district. Travel uphill and you’ll find the nightclubs of Soho, Lan Kwai Fong, and the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator. A few colonial structures like the old Central Police Station and Legislative Council Building are roughly where they should be. There aren’t enough people there, but that’s forgivable – a game engine couldn’t handle Hong Kong crowds today, much less in 2012. And yes, the city really does have an obscene number of supercars.
But pulling up a map breaks the illusion. Hong Kong’s known for being the most densely-populated city on Earth, but Sleeping Dogs cranks it to eleven. The game only depicts Hong Kong Island, excluding Kowloon, the New Territories, and all but one island – meaning the playable area covers about 7% of actual Hong Kong. Carving off territory was probably a wise way to limit the scope, but to anyone who’s visited or lived in Hong Kong, the city feels incomplete. Driving around the city gives me geographical phantom limb tingles, especially since Kowloon is the traditional Triad stronghold. But even Hong Kong Island feels squeezed, since United Front boiled the city down to four districts – Central, North Point, Aberdeen and Kennedy Town – amalgamating them with districts they left out. The Frankenstein remodeling feels most apparent in North Point, which has to play understudy to Kowloon and Wanchai as well as being itself, though each district still hits the right tone and gives decent variety. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect United Front to model the entire city, but I admit a small amount of disappointment that everything appears smaller than it should.
This size constraint gets problematic when it comes to landmarks. United Front noticeably minimized many locations to fit in the game. Far Cry 4 pulled a similar terrain-shrinking trick for Kyrat, but Ubisoft managed to retain an illusion of scale. By contrast, Sleeping Dogs turns The Peak – an overlook that soars above the Central’s skyscrapers – into a glorified hill. A shrunken version of the longest covered escalator system in the world, which should be a half-mile long, fails to impress. United Front omitted the MTR (subway system) entirely, and while eagle-eyed players can find a Star Ferry, there’s no way to ride it across Victoria Harbor. Happy Valley’s famous racetrack? Nowhere to be seen.
This may seem nitpicky, but these are major Hong Kong symbols – the kind of things that make the glossy pages in Lonely Planet guides – and it’s disorienting to see the city without them. Imagine if you booted up a game about New York to find Manhattan adrift in the Atlantic Ocean without subways, the Statue of Liberty, or Yankee Stadium. You might still recognize it as New York, but you’d feel the loss.
Having said that, it’s pedantic to quibble over what United Front excluded considering the research they put into the rest of the game. Sleeping Dogs based its Triad plotline on real-world conflicts between crime families, namely the Sun Yee On’s clashes with the 14K and Wo Shing Wo (in the game the gangs are known as “Sun On Yee” and “18K”). Many characters are name-changed versions of Hong Kong underworld figures. An early mission where Shen takes over a minibus route comes straight from a well-known Triad racket. Likewise, the game’s turning point mirrors a real 2009 crime, where rival Triads murdered Sun Yee On boss Lee Tai-lung in front of the Kowloon Shangri-La Hotel. The crime was a “ram and chop” attack – the killers rammed Lee with a car then hacked him to death with machetes. The ensuing power struggle lasted two years, until an undercover police operation decimated one of the challengers. Sound familiar?
But while the game has some grounding in true crime, its aesthetic channels the cop dramas and kung fu flicks of Hong Kong’s film industry. It’s part Bruce Lee, part John Woo, and owes a debt to the Infernal Affairs series. The Nightmare in North Point DLC leaned heavily on the Chinese jiangshi, a monster popularized via Hong Kong’s Mr. Vampire films. The game works on action movie logic. Sleeping Dogs may depict the most crowded city in the world, but the streets stay clear to accommodate car chases. The comically expansive building interiors – one nightclub is five times larger than my grocery store – give the player space to reenact John Woo fights without the camera snagging on a wall. Likewise, the casual violence and high gun ratio owes more to film than reality – Hong Kong, a city of over seven million, had only 27 homicides in 2014. Compare that to New York City, which clocked 39 murders in the first month of 2015. In other words, while violent and splashy murders do happen in Hong Kong, the city isn’t a perpetual slow-motion shootout. It’s a forgivable distortion – Sleeping Dogs draws on movie myths, but at least they’re movie myths Hong Kong created about itself.
In the end I have to admire Sleeping Dogs. Its Hong Kong may not be satellite-image perfect or even close enough to offer virtual tourism, but the game punches above its weight. United Front deserves credit just for taking the action overseas, but they also created a vibrant city on a non-Rockstar budget. but their clear commitment to detail shows in every twisted alley. Because despite the omissions and blurred geography, I still keep thinking that’s Hong Kong when I hear the clack of Mahjong tiles or recognize a street. It makes me want a true, next-gen sequel – though the closest we may get is United Front’s new online game, Triad Wars.
Maybe I’ll get to see Kowloon after all.
Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in The Escapist, Slate, Shacknews and the Journal of Games Criticism. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.