Sleeping Dogs is better than Grand Theft Auto 4.
Okay, phew. We got that out of the way early. Now, one of two things has happened: Either you have balled up your fists, ready to make an impassioned defense of the adventures of Nico Bellic and friends, or you’ve started to nod your head slightly, realizing that GTA4 was a boring, plodding experience.
One of the reasons I tend to gravitate toward open world games like Saints Row or Sleeping Dogs is because I’m interested in having fun, not slogging through heavy-handed storytelling. By the end of GTA4, I was continuing to do missions simply because I wanted to get the game over with. My reward was a terrible split ending and a lingering bad taste in my mouth.
I wasn’t paying a ton of attention to Sleeping Dogs as it labored through a variety of publisher changes and delays. Technically, Sleeping Dogs is the third installment of the True Crime series, although that part of the name was dropped when Square Enix acquired the rights. But when it finally hit the streets, I discovered a solid sandbox experience that favors fun over seriousness (while not going crazy like Saints Row).
Sleeping Dogs is the story of Wei Shen, an undercover police officer who heads back to his former home of Hong Kong to snuff out the criminal activity of an organization called the Sun On Yee. Along the way, loyalties are questioned, shots are fired, and cars are jumped into from other vehicles, like the picture above.
Let’s talk about the gameplay, because it’s the highlight of SD. The combat is eerily reminiscent of Arkham Asylum, a fluid, counter-based system that feels a hell of a lot more natural than GTA. Even if it’s not original, it’s the best fighting in an open-world game yet. Driving feels smooth and responsive, and being able to ram your car into other vehicles keeps pursuits (and losing the cops) fun instead of tedious. Shooting…well, it’s not a highlight, but it’s not terrible. It’s a generic cover system, but at least you eventually get bullet time when you leap from cover. Finally, there’s a bunch of on-foot chases that employ parkour to have Wei leaping over gaps and sliding across tables. It’s no Mirror’s Edge, but it’s not bad.
Your character gets stronger based on four different mechanics, three of which are based on experience. You get triad, cop and face experience from how well (and how frequently) you take on certain missions. Being especially vicious to other triad members during a story mission will get you more triad XP, but if you accidentally ram a pedestrian with your car in the process, your cop XP will take a hit. Or you can skip the story for a while and help random folks out with tasks to boost your face. Each of the three choices has a split path that gives benefits when you level. You can also unlock more fighting abilities by finding jade statues across the map and turning them in.
Speaking of collectibles, there’s quite a few in SD, but not to the extent that they feel overwhelming. Lockboxes provide money, and occasionally guns and clothing. Health statues boost your HP once you find enough of them. Security cameras can be hacked as part of a minigame that boosts your cop experience. What’s nice about this system is that you can reveal these on your map by going on dates with certain girls, and it doesn’t take a ton of time to pull that off. If you prefer a more nonlinear approach, you can track down a ton of these upgrades and side missions to make yourself stronger when it’s time to take on the main part of the game.
As far as graphics go, the game is solid. Wei Shen looks great, which is important when he’s the main character and all. His animations are smooth in pretty much every situation. The city is also sharp, and draw distance feels a lot better than either GTA or SR — when you’re driving fast in an expensive car, you won’t have to worry about buildings, scenery or other cars suddenly appearing in your path. The soundtrack is also surprisingly appropriate; there’s plenty of local flavor, but there’s also a top-40 station and the usual classical station if you’re not into it. Voice acting is decent, with some familiar voices (Uncle Po and Amanda should stand out, even if it’s puzzling why they hired Emma Stone to do about 30 lines) and some new faces providing solid work.
Sleeping Dogs clocks in at around 15-20 hours, depending on how much of the side stuff you want to do. That’s just long enough to get immersed in the story without feeling like the game overstays its welcome. It also means that you may want to consider renting the game instead of buying it, unless you’re the type who can play through sandbox games multiple times. I enjoyed my time with Sleeping Dogs and it’s definitely a good title, but I probably wouldn’t pick it up again. Caveat emptor.