A problem we’re having with massive, big budget games is that they try to cram in too much and create a sort of game design soup. All of these things you like from other things are in here, so you must like it, right? Often, these games fail to make their own sort of identity, and now we’re at a point where many major releases feel like they’re all using the exact same foundation and it’s holding them back. The key seems to be having a unique hook and balancing out all the various mechanics to create a cohesive whole, and that’s not something many can do. It’s odd that United Front Games, the people who brought you *checks notes* ModNation Racers managed to do that in 2012 with Square Enix’s “sleeper” hit (heh) Sleeping Dogs.
You play as Wei Shen, a man originally from Hong Kong who moved to the states and has just now come back home. He joins back up with some of the old gang he ran with, now members of the Sun On Yee triad (a thinly veiled stand in for the actual Sun Yee On), aiming to climb the ranks and make a name for himself. However, he’s actually a cop, using his past connections to go undercover and help take down the organization. The problem is that Wei is a man without a home, a cop who wants to do the right thing, yet has no real roots and a whole lot of rage over various past tragedies. He finds himself being pulled between a welcoming triad life and his duties as an agent of the law, and before things are done, there’s going to be a lot of bodies in the wake of his violent identity crisis.
Sleeping Dogs has an interesting history to it, starting life as a new installment in the ambitious GTA-clone True Crime series, before it was canceled by Activision. Square Enix then popped up and saved the project, turning it into a new IP. Unsurprisingly, the game takes a lot of notes from the Grand Theft Auto series, what with car theft, wanted meters, and a sandbox world to explore and screw around in, but there’s a lot more there in the details.
For one, it was clear the devs were inspired by Batman: Arkham Asylum, creating a similar fist to fist combat system based around rhythm. Wei has no block, so he has to rely on dodging and a counter move for defense, which ends up changing combat from being a battle of attrition to a highly offensive dance where you figure out the patterns and moves of your enemies before they pulverize you. If you’ve never experienced Arkham style combat before, you will have a steep learning curve, but it does become incredibly satisfying once you start getting the hang of it. You can also just whip out a gun once you gain access to them and go to town, though third person shooting controls feel a bit clunky, and seemingly on purpose. The control between regular combat and gunplay is very different, so you then need to get the hang of what you can and can’t do in each mode. It’s worth it, though, as little is as satisfying as managing to reek violence on triad while expertly shooting just right to to avoid winging any civies you come across.
It’s worth noting that the PC version is best played with a controller. The keyboard controls have noticeable lag to them, which makes combat far more frustrating than it needs to be. The driving controls are simply unusable as well, requiring stick fluidity not allowed by a WASD style set-up. It doesn’t help that camera control is extremely awkward without a stick. The parkour system works fine enough with either control scheme, as it just takes a tap of a button to climb and jump around the environment to save precious time, but anything more complex becomes a complete nightmare without a proper console controller. On the plus side, the PC version runs surprisingly smooth on even high settings, easily one of the best seventh gen console game ports out there.
Wei has an experience system to unlock new skills and moves, but it’s divided into three categories. Face experience is neutral, found via side missions and granting you the ability to wear more types of clothing, which can offer different extremely useful bonuses. You also gain more time on food buffs, extra endurance, and even new counter options. It also ties into your face meter, which slowly fills as you perform well in combat, using it giving you the ability to intimidate enemies, regenerate health, and more. It’s with the cop and triad experience trees that things get interesting.
In a bit of weaving narrative and gameplay systems, you have two competing bits of experience to earn for different skills. Triad experience is earned through violence and mayhem, granting extra with environmental finishers, weapon attacks, car crashes, and so forth. It’s not difficult to earn. Cop experience, however, is tied to following the law and showing your professionalism, and that actually goes down instead of up while on missions. For every piece of public property you damage, every innocent you injure, every slip up you make during a parkour segment, your final earned experience goes down, and the game constantly lets you know when you gain or lose experience. It’s a cute way to get you into Wei’s head space and understand the pressure he feels living a double life. It’s an interesting idea, but DLC nerfs the impact.
There are special cop missions you can get through DLC, included packaged in with the Definite Edition, the only version you can purchase on PC and Mac. This makes grinding for those cop bonuses (mainly for vehicle bonuses, triad experience gives more hand to hand options) relatively easy, not to mention chasing down all the drug busts. The need to make the player feel powerful undercuts one of the game’s most interesting thematic ideas, though it does take time to do the grind – just not as much as it should have been, as you can max out your cop experience halfway through the main campaign.
There are other ways to improve yourself, of course. This is an open world crime game, so there’s tons of stuff to find, including a statue fetching quest to learn new martial arts moves. There’s so much content in the game that it’s almost overwhelming, and the major DLC campaigns add to that feeling. The good news is that they’re all radically different in tone from the main game, despite all technically being sequel content, switching out character drama for send ups of cheesy martial arts flicks and a ridiculous horror comedy romp with jiang shi. It’s always refreshing when developers have some fun with the mandated DLC content.
The game honestly feels like it has shades of the Yakuza series, and not simply because it’s a crime story revolving around an Eastern crime syndicate. The RPG elements give the game a sense of progression not unlike that series, as does the emphasis on a fleshed out combat system. While all the driving bits, segmented side challenges, and gun fights feel very Grand Theft Auto, the rest of the game has a different sort of energy to it. You gain a familiarity with a lot of the map, even if it is a massive recreation of Hong Kong and not simply one neighborhood of it, that’s not often felt in other large open world city games. It may be because what you can interact with has meaning and use to you, a similar trick Yakuza pulls, so you resonate with certain spots instead of simply see them as a content hub.
The most interesting aspect of the game, though, is the ambitious story at its center. Wei Shen is a genuinely fascinating lead, someone you’re asked to judge on your own merits and not just treat as a player avatar. There’s a distance between you and him that feel more intentional than usual for these sorts of game stories, especially because a lot of his back story is hidden in police files you can slowly unlock. This makes it hard to read his actions too, as you don’t get inner narration, and he often acts different depending on who he’s with in a scene. It’s only over many, many hours do you really start to understand who Wei Shen is, and it makes his story and the story of everyone around him all the more tragic.
Sleeping Dogs is a game about identity and purpose. It’s an idea Grand Theft Auto keeps coming back to, but often with poor results. Just comparing this game with the tone deaf and overdone story of Nico Bellic is like night and day. Where Nico clearly had a solid outline but lacking side characters to make his story mean something beyond a string of cliches, Wei’s crisis of self seeps into the lives of everyone he comes across, and he’s not the only one having this sort of confusion. Jackie Ma is a good hearted guy clearly not cut out for crime, and the aftermath of him finally taking a life is treated with humanity Rockstar seems too scared to actually get near. Winston Chu is a thug through and through, but he genuinely cares for his family and eventually Wei, and those close to him have different ways to justify who he is. Pendrew represents the police, but shows the willingness to do highly unethical things if it will accomplish a greater good. It’s a world of white and blacks with a big, gray smear in the middle that far too many people fit into.
Where going to karaoke as Kazuma Kiryu is a fun and goofy time putting focus on his dorky but sincere personality, doing so with Wei Shen feels real. He’s not a great singer, but there’s an authentic emotion in his voice you don’t get from Kiryu, almost as if the team recorded actual karaoke sessions with the voice cast. It’s a more authentic minigame based around getting the right pitch, and everyone is clearly having fun, but it’s so down to Earth that it can’t distance you from the horrible things you’ve done as Wei, the things you’ve seen Wei do, the things you both witnessed. It’s a break from the bloodshed and pain, but a quiet, short lived one.
The True Crime games weren’t overblown dramas about shirtless anime men punching things and having deep cries, they were trying to be gritty and down to Earth stories about flawed people, harsh truths, and the world around us we try to pretend isn’t there. They were too overblown to really succeed at that, as is Sleeping Dogs (there is a disturbing amount of brutal ways to kill people in this game), but nobody else has ever come close to capturing this sort of mood. Grand Theft Auto was always a fun ride filled with jokes about how everyone but you is a stupid idiot and therefore it’s okay to destroy whatever you like. Yakuza had heart, but it has always existed in an overblown framing that played out like a dramatic Japanese crime flick with heavy bits of pulp and nonsense. Sleeping Dogs let you have your open world fun, and by story end, twisted the knife and left you in the same place as Wei Shen: lost and without any real answers for every horrible thing you’ve witnessed happen to so many people you grew to care for.
It’s easy to entertain an audience or a player. Heck, give me a bike horn button and the ability to pet 1 (one) dog and I will sing praises to your game from now until the end of time. It’s more difficult to get a player to emotionally resonate with something in a very uncomfortable way with purpose, and Sleeping Dogs managed to do that, though in a flawed way. United Front Games got a raw deal, going out of business in 2016. They were clearly a studio with incredible talent that never got a chance to fully realize itself. Sleeping Dogs sold, but not that well for a title of this budget and size. It’s a shame, because seeing more games with the story of energy found here would be a refreshing, sobering change of pace.