It’s not often that you can keep a good secret quiet these days. With game previews, screenshots and detailed interviews with developers, we normally know before release whether a game is going to be any good or not. Bad games are quite easy to establish upon release, they are the ones that slip under the radar, the ones that keep everything rather hush hush about the development, so that by the time Ultimate Barbie Paintballing 2012 is released it’s all too late to warn potential buyers off of the product. Good games proudly show off their potential years before release.
So it’s interesting therefore that Sleeping Dogs has come along and brutally beaten the rule book, twisting its arm into submission before firing a roundhouse kick into its stubborn cranium. It’s a reboot of the faded into obscurity franchise True Crime, it’s had little or no pre-release publicity, it’s had no hype whatsoever, and it’s quite possibly the best game to have been released in 2012 so far…
Sleeping Dogs is developers United Front’s love-letter to Hong Kong action movies, be it action, martial arts or undercover cop dramas. It’s a game that throws all of those genres into the pot, stirs it (with more than a little of Grand Theft Auto influences) and spits out one of the most fun games of the year.
Sleeping Dogs puts you into the (fine looking) figure of Wei Shen, a Hong Kong fighter who has just returned to his home after many years living in America. The start of the game sees Wei being chased but ultimately arrested and thrown in a cell for selling narcotics. While locked up he meets childhood friend Jackie who is the local Triads errand boy. Wei asks if Jackie can get him some work, and before you know it, Wei’s collecting protection money from market stall owners, stealing and selling cars and beating up rival gang members with a tyre iron. So far it all sounds very GTA, especially with a big open world Hong Kong waiting to be explored, but what Wei’s new Triad colleagues don’t know is that Wei is an undercover cop, who has the job of bringing down their criminal organisation from within.
So it’s part Infernal Affairs, part GTA, and that’s a good thing. Yes there isn’t too much originality here, but there is a huge urban sandbox to play with that can be travelled on foot and in vehicles, the missions are varied and exciting, and there are a whole host of mini-games, side missions and areas to explore that run parallel to the main story.
Speaking of which, Sleeping Dogs has probably the finest story seen in a videogame since the classic Red Dead Redemption. Playing as a conflicted undercover cop as opposed to just a straight up gangster allows for some terrific situations where Wei’s (and the person controlling him) loyalties are split between his Triad comrades and the police commanders to whom he reports. As you work your way up the Triad ranks, you’ll becomes more valuable as a police asset, contrasting this though is the more and more extreme actions you’ll be forced to take. Add into the mix that Wei becomes rather attached to the criminals ‘brothers’ he’s trying to bring down, suddenly a simple mission becomes all rather murky and ethically intriguing. Think Leo DiCaprio in The Departed (the remake of Infernal Affairs) and you have an idea of who you’re controlling. The story also throws serves at every turning with backstabbing, moles, and hidden agendas all over the place. Don’t let anyone spoil the story for you, it’s great experiencing the well written and superbly voiced narrative firsthand.
But it’s not just the story that’s great, Hong Kong is a playground worth exploring, vast, full of busy roads and streets. There are street gangs to fight, drug busts to make, CCTV cameras to hack, money to be gambled, lock boxes to locate and fight clubs to beat. Most of these will involve fights of some sort, and in a nice swerve away from GTA, a lot of these take place with your fists. Yes there are gun battles to be had, but with a fluid fight system that owes a debt of gratitude to Batman: Arkham City, the fist fights are where the fun is to be had. Combos are begging to be exploited while environments provide ample opportunities to dispatch of enemies in entertaining ways (you can even smash a mans head into a fish tank and then proceed to beat him with a fish…). When the guns come out the fights are a cast of finding cover and popping up to find your target, the similarities are to Uncharted here – once again Sleeping Dogs looks for greatness and helps itself to it. Not particularly original, but when everything fits together so well it’s great fun.
GTA 5 is setting itself up for a release in the next few months (if they ever get around to showing newsworthy information about it to their fans…) but with Sleeping Dogs they have a real contender to their throne. Wei is more entertaining to control than any GTA character has been, his movements through the city more fluid, fights are skilled, cars are better to control – GTA may have the name but Sleeping Dogs has the fun. It may have come out of nowhere, but don’t let that dissuade you. Take a chance, and you’ll discover one of the richest (most mature) game titles you’ve played in a long time.
Developer: United Front
Xbox 360/Playstation 3/PC
Review: XBox 360