As longtime readers of this site know, my pick for the greatest open world GTA-like of all time is Volition’s amazing Saints Row 2. Only a couple of games get anywhere close to SR2 in my book, and we’re taking a look at one of those games today: Sleeping Dogs by United Front Games and Square Enix, released initially in 2012 and re-released as Sleeping Dogs: Definitive Edition two years later.
To put it mildly, Sleeping Dogs had a troubled development. While it started off as an original IP called Black Lotus (apparently with a female protagonist, although I don’t think anyone ever actually confirmed this), most people first heard of the game when Activision unveiled it as True Crime: Hong Kong and showed a trailer featuring the new protagonist, undercover cop Wei Shen. True Crime was a series that had been on hiatus for a few years and was always a bit mediocre at best in the first place (although the first True Crime — Streets of LA — had you fight kung fu grannies, dragons, and Kim Jong Il, which made it at least worth a rental), so not many people cared about the announcement and I think I made a “True Grime” joke upon hearing it.
In 2011, Activision cancelled the project, stating that “the finished product was not going to be at the top of [the open world] genre.” The rights to the game were picked up by Square Enix soon afterwards, although the True Crime IP was not included in the sale. Which was just as well because True Crime was worthless as an IP anyway, and so the game was renamed to Sleeping Dogs.
Our protagonist Wei Shen (voiced by Will Yun Lee) was born in Hong Kong, but his family moved to the US when he was young. At some point, he joined the San Francisco police and gained a bit of a reputation for “extreme behavior”. Now, he’s transferred to the HKPD at the request of Superintendent Thomas Pendrew and goes undercover as a gangster in order to take down the Sun On Yee triad from within. Through his childhood friend Jackie Ma, Wei gets his foot in the door and becomes a low-ranking member of the Water Street Boys gang.
The boss of the Water Street Boys, Winston Chu, is another childhood acquaintance of Wei’s and a Red Pole (a lieutenant of sorts) in the Sun On Yee, and is currently fighting for control of North Point with Sam “Dogeyes” Lin. Dogeyes is another Red Pole, a greedy asshole and yet another figure from Wei’s past; it just so happens he was the one who introduced Wei’s sister Mimi to the drugs that eventually took her life. Through various events, Wei’s status in the triad grows and eventually he finds himself getting mixed up in the power struggle between various high ranking members of the Sun on Yee. While all this is happening, Wei has to maintain his cover and remember his original assignment as an undercover cop even as he brutalizes people in horrible ways.
Whenever he has time, Wei helps out the HKPD with various cases, using his connections in the triad as well as gadgets and disguises to get information and, eventually, evidence to put the perpetrators behind bars. These police jobs are a nice counterpart to the violent triad missions, and do a good job showing that Wei Shen is actually a pretty damn good cop when he’s not out there cracking skulls. Your main contact in the cop missions is Inspector Teng, one of the few decent people in the storyline. Teng doesn’t like Superintendent Pendrew or all the politics surrounding her job, but does what she can to make sure justice is served.
When Wei Shen has to fight triads or other ruffians, he does so with a combat system that closely resembles the Batman: Arkham games, albeit without the combo counter and some of the more advanced features like critical strikes. Wei makes up for that particular deficiency by being able to wield weapons dropped by enemies, and he can also pull off many different (and gratuitously violent) special moves and combinations. In addition, the combat areas are littered with environmental objects that can be used for all kinds of gleefully violent takedowns (this feature eventually made it to the Batman games in Arkham Knight in slightly less violent form, one of the few positive additions to that gigantic disappointment of a game). Wei Shen is not Batman so he does not have a code against killing, and things can get rather graphic at times.
As Wei beats up enemies, his Face meter gradually fills up, and once it’s full he can regenerate health and do more damage with his attacks in focus mode. By leveling up Wei’s Face by completing side missions, his abilities in focus mode become even better — at the highest levels he’s completely immune to hitstun, breaks right through blocks, easily disarms enemies and negates enemy class bonuses (letting him grab the wrestler type enemies and punch the brawler guys who block constantly). Further bonuses can be gained from eating food, drinking energy drinks or tea, and getting massages (either the professional kind or the… other kind, although both have the same effect). Remember, a man who never eats pork bun is never a whole man. Shamefully, I’ve never eaten a pork bun.
Firearms are relatively rare in Hong Kong, so most of the combat is done in melee. This is not a complaint, because the melee system is excellent. However, there are occasions especially later on in the game where even Wei Shen’s kung fu doesn’t cut it, and Sleeping Dogs becomes a third-person cover shooter. Well, kind of a cover shooter anyway, as the most effective way to kill enemies is to vault over everything and headshot guys in slow motion. Sleeping Dogs is not the greatest shooter out there by any means, but the mechanics work well enough. Actually, that kind of sums up the game as a whole — none of the central mechanics are revolutionary or anything, but it all just fits together perfectly.
Sometimes you get to shoot while driving a vehicle, automatically putting you in slomo when aiming. This is a little quality of life improvement that works extremely well and should be standard for open world games, as aiming from vehicles tends to be overly fiddly. Hilariously, shooting out a vehicle’s tire causes them to flip into the air and explode. Realism may not have been the number one priority with Sleeping Dogs.
While driving a car, you can use what is basically the ramming mechanic from the very underrated Driver: San Francisco; when you press X and a direction, your car does this physically impossible boost lunge towards another vehicle, taking them out after a few hits. Unlike Driver: SF where everything works according to dream logic since the protagonist is in a coma, Sleeping Dogs doesn’t even attempt to explain this mechanic, laws of physics simply don’t concern Wei Shen. Wei can also switch vehicles on the fly by doing an “action hijack” where he jumps out of his current car, lands on the roof of the one in front and throws the driver out. If you have Rico’s outfit from Just Cause 2 (unlocked in the original release if you have a JC2 save on your hard drive, purchasable in the Definitive Edition), you can increase your action hijack range!
Naturally, all vehicles have radios, playing an eclectic mix of music from licensed artists. The 80s station (my choice most of the time) isn’t quite as good as The Mix in Saints Row 2, but it does have “Girls on Film (Night Version)” by Duran Duran and “Hong Kong Garden” by Siouxsie and the Banshees, not to mention The Who’s “Eminence Front”. If that’s not your thing, you can also listen to various types of Chinese music, ranging from pop and rap to utterly horrifying things that sound like someone is doing unspeakable things to a cat. On the other hand, some of the Chinese-style stuff is quite lovely, such as the Bei Bei & Shawn Lee (that, by the way, is the same Shawn Lee who did the music for Bully by Rockstar Games) collaborations and the music composed exclusively for the game. Take a listen to the wonderful “Moonlight Song”.
Completing main storyline missions rewards you with two sets of EXP. Police EXP starts off at the max value (represented by three blue badges) and decreases whenever you hurt innocents or cause property damage, meaning that you’ll want to be as safe as possible while doing all the ridiculous gangster shit Wei gets up to in the missions. Doing all that ridiculous gangster shit, of course, gives you Triad EXP that starts at zero and maxes out at three red triangles. All the fighting moves, counters and environmental finishers, armed kills and car takedowns you do count towards Triad EXP.
Cop and Triad EXP are not mutually exclusive so if you do things right you can get the max amount of both in each mission, although it can be difficult to stay at max cop EXP in many of the missions since every little bit of property you smash along your merry way comes out of your cop score. There’s also the aforementioned Face EXP, which is gained from side missions and basically represents Wei’s status as a gangster. The higher your Face is, the flashier clothes and vehicles you can buy. Not that the guy outside every clothing store who keeps yelling “Takes guts to wear that” will ever be impressed. (Actually, I’ve had him compliment my outfit a couple of times. That should have been an achievement.)
Wei can equip certain sets of clothes to boost his Cop or Triad EXP and accessories for more Face EXP, although only the stuff that boosts Triad EXP is really useful since there are fewer opportunities to get a lot of Triad points in the game than there are for cop or face EXP (both of which are easily maxed out long before the end of the game). Even then, the Triad EXP boosting outfits look like crap unless you’re really into puffy vests. I prefer to put Wei in something that looks stylish, even if I miss out on bonus EXP. The later unlocks in the Triad tree aren’t really all that interesting anyway, so it’s not like you’re missing anything good.
Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong is not a perfectly accurate representation of the real city, nor is it attempting to be. The main priority was to make the open world feel like Hong Kong, and from what I understand they pulled that off very well. I have never been to Hong Kong, but I’ve seen people living in HK mention that United Front got the feel just right despite things not always being in their actual locations. While Sleeping Dogs’ HK does not have the detail that was put into Liberty City and Los Santos in GTA IV and V respectively (understandable, since Sleeping Dogs had a fraction of the budget even with all the delays), it is still very detailed and looks and feels exactly as I would imagine Hong Kong (albeit less crowded). The graphics are fantastic, especially the rain looks incredible. Some of the animations such as Wei’s running look a bit rigid, though, but overall this is a very good-looking game.
Exploration is encouraged by a bunch of side missions and collectibles. Along with the “Favors” that give you Face EXP, Wei can earn bonus Cop EXP by completing drug busts, which involve beating up a group of thugs in a certain location, hacking a nearby security camera and viewing the camera feed to identify and take down a drug dealer. You can take part in street races, fight clubs and gambling (including betting on cock fights, which is a bit questionable but at least it’s optional) as well, or do a bit of debt collecting or steal armored vans.
The main collectibles are the health shrines (by praying at five shrines, your max health increases by 10%) and the jade statues (which unlock new moves when you return them to the martial arts school they were stolen from), and there are also lockboxes with money and clothing items in them (often guarded by thugs you must beat up), as well as security cameras that are not connected to any drug busts. You can still use them to arrest random people, so it’s all good.
Some of the collectibles are in places that require some acrobatics to reach, but fortunately Wei Shen is a skilled freerunner and there’s plenty of stuff in Hong Kong for him to climb on and jump off of. The freerunning paths are generally marked with the color green, just like there are white sheets and such in the Assassin’s Creed games.
Dating the various girlfriends in the game (oh yeah, that’s in there too) makes icons for the collectibles show up on the map, much like acing certain subjects in Rockstar’s Bully did for that game’s collectibles. This probably isn’t a coincidence, as some of the United Front devs actually worked on Bully. Others on the team worked on games such as Scarface: The World Is Yours, The Punisher, Need for Speed and something called Saints Row 2. With a pedigree like that, I’m not surprised Sleeping Dogs is as good as it is. You can see some points in the story where they apparently had to cut things out, and the second half of the game is generally weaker than the first, but overall this is a very solid experience. For my money, Sleeping Dogs is one of the best games of the console generation.
The original PS3 and Xbox 360 releases are decent, but PC has always been the best place to play Sleeping Dogs. Definitive Edition on PS4 and Xbox One looks as good as the PC version but has some frame rate issues (which, while noticeable, don’t ruin the game or anything, and the PS4 Pro’s boost mode makes things far smoother these days) and the PC version doesn’t really offer that much of an upgrade over the regular version aside from better DLC integration and some new graphical bells and whistles like volumetric fog (a lot of it), but since the original release is no longer on Steam you might as well just grab the remaster. The main gripe I have with Definitive Edition is the fact THEY RUINED MY FAVORITE EARLY GAME OUTFIT
One of the main things I like about Sleeping Dogs is that it kind of has the same feel to it as Saints Row 2. The main story is your usual Hong Kong crime drama (inspired by films such as Infernal Affairs) and gets rather intense at times, and if you want to play it straight you totally can. Dress up in a nice suit and pretend you’re in a John Woo film. Or, if you’re so inclined, put on the most ridiculous outfit you can think of and go cause absolute mayhem while ruining all the serious cutscenes. Go to the club, kill someone with a fish from one of the aquariums (and get an achievement for doing so), and then go sing “Take On Me” in the karaoke room while wearing a blood-drenched luchador mask.
Sleeping Dogs got a massive amount of DLC, as is often the case these days. Most of the content is cosmetic stuff, but United Front did also release three story DLCs after the game’s release. The first of these was Nightmare in North Point, a horror-themed story that is independent of the main game. Think Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, but with hopping Chinese vampires and yao guai (big demons from Chinese mythology, not mutated bears — this isn’t Fallout) instead of zombies. This DLC is not essential or anything and the missions start to seriously drag on towards the end, but it’s pretty funny.
The next story DLC pack was the Zodiac Tournament, in which Wei and a number of other fighters are ferried to a hidden island to participate in Mortal Kombat. Zodiac Tournament is very short, but it’s still a lot of fun due to the fact it’s all presented like a 70s kung fu movie complete with silly opening titles, film grain and over-the-top sound effects.
Finally, there’s Year of the Snake, where a doomsday cult is terrorizing Hong Kong during Chinese New Year and only Wei Shen can stop them, mainly by firing tear gas grenades at their junk. None of these DLCs is essential, but they’re worth a playthrough and all of them are included in the Definitive Edition so you don’t need to even pay for them anymore. Definitive Edition also integrates the DLC packs into the game a lot more elegantly than the original Sleeping Dogs, making some of the items purchasable at a store and making others quest rewards. In the original release, the game just throws all the DLC at you after the tutorial missions and it takes five minutes to click through all of it. Honestly, I didn’t have that much DLC for the original version so it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, but it still took a while.
Sleeping Dogs did not dethrone Grand Theft Auto as the most popular open world crime game, but I doubt anyone expected it to do so in the first place. It did sell quite well (despite some rumblings about Square Enix not being quite satisfied with the sales figures — something they also said about Tomb Raider), and United Front has been working on another game in the series for a while now. Unfortunately, this followup — known as Triad Wars — is an MMO. Welp, there goes my interest in that one. At least it lets you play a female character or wear Smiley Cat’s mask, so that’s something.
Hopefully we get a real followup to Sleeping Dogs at some point. Maybe they could bring back the original protagonist from Black Lotus? That would be neat. In any case, Sleeping Dogs is far too good of a game not to get a proper sequel, and if all we get is Triad Wars I’m going to be very disappointed indeed.
EDIT: Well, I am very disappointed indeed, since United Front Games shut down a few months ago. Some of the plans for the canned Sleeping Dogs sequel were revealed online shortly thereafter, and it seemed like an overly ambitious mess (with some sort of persistent online component that would let players influence others’ playthroughs with their actions, or something equally ambitious yet pointless) that I can’t really blame Square Enix for not going for. Shame. I hope the guys who worked at United Front have landed on their feet, they are a talented bunch and this wasn’t how the company’s story was supposed to end.