Available on Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3, PC
We can’t help wondering whether the Activision execs who cancelled Sleeping Dogs when it was called True Crime: Hong Kong will be having any sleepless nights. Having showcased the game in 2009 and 2010, Activision dropped it in February 2011, with CEO Eric Hirschberg later stating that “even our most optimistic internal projections show that continued investment was not going to lead to a title at, or near, the top of the competitive open world genre.”
We’ll never know what state True Crime: Hong Kong was in when Activision dumped it, or what magic dust Square-Enix has been able to sprinkle over United Front Studios and the project, but Sleeping Dogs is far from being the second-rate, open world crime drama that it might have been. If it’s not quite of the calibre of GTA4, then it’s a huge step above Saints Row, The Godfather Part II, Scarface: The World if Yours or any other GTA clone that we could mention.
Rise of the Triads
The secret of the game’s success is in the way it’s taken inspiration from the Hong Kong thriller and translated it into some thoroughly effective gameplay. The central plot – undercover cop joins Triad gang, but who can he trust and how does he avoid crossing the line? – was old even before Infernal Affairs gave it a twist, but it helps deliver a protagonist you can root for, situations ripe for action and a tale that keeps your interest throughout.
Strong cinematics also work in the game’s favour, along with voice work from actors of the calibre of Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, Lucy Liu and Infernal Affairs’ own Edison Chen. Even if the animation leaves the beautifully modelled characters on the wrong side of the uncanny valley, Sleeping Dogs still works surprisingly well as a drama.
Gameplay-wise, it doesn’t deviate too far from the GTA template. There’s a large city to traverse, a range of shops to buy from and characters to talk to, and new missions pop up as you make progress, making up the meat of the game. Nor are the missions themselves all that fresh or innovative. You’ll find some where you’re expected to take snaps with a smartphone camera, bug a gang hideout or get caught up in – of all things – a minibus chase, but most of the time you’re running errands, beating-up rival gangsters on demand or stealing item(s) X and delivering them to point Y.
The difference lies in the way the missions are carried out. Driving isn’t actually Sleeping Dogs’ strongest suit. The handling isn’t all that convincing, and it hasn’t got the variety of a Saints Row or GTA. Fighting, however, is a different story. As the game is set in Hong Kong, it’s all about kung-fu, and while the game starts off simple with a clever attack and counter-attack system reminiscent of Batman: Arkham Asylum, it steadily grows more complex with a range of more aggressive special moves.
What’s more, Sleeping Dogs goes big on environmental moves, with every dumpster, every speaker, every shutter and every extractor fan a potential source of brutal takedowns. Even if we’re slightly ashamed to admit it, part of the fun of playing the game is in taking on a big gang of goons, and trying to spot which bits of scenery will make for the most spectacular hospitalisations.