Unreal Game Review: Sleeping Dogs

It’s been a long, long summer waiting for worthwhile games to come out. The end of the console generation means fewer and fewer interesting titles as developers look ahead, and what good games there are coming out, they’re almost entirely stacked to be released this fall.

It was boredom that drove me to try out Sleeping Dogs, which on the surface appeared to be a GTA clone set in Hong Kong. But what I discovered was a game far more interesting and engaging than I anticipated, and one that actually moves the genre forward in meaningful ways.

Can you tell me the plot of Grand Theft Auto IV? Because I can’t remember more than a fraction of the story. Niko was an immigrant trying to start over, but got pulled into the crime game again somehow. Some other stuff happened and 50 police chases and 6,000 dead Liberty City citizens later, the game ended with an un-fun choice that had you sacrificing either your cousin or your girlfriend. The middle 90% of the game is a blur.

Good voice acting from start to finish. The interspersed Cantonese makes it seem more authentic as well. 

Not so with Sleeping Dogs. Story comes first and foremost and makes the game what it is. You control Wei Shen, an undercover cop sent to infiltrate the Triads and bring them down. Shen has an ulterior motive however, when its revealed that the gang is responsible for the death of his sister. Will Shen stay true to the letter of the law and arrest the Triads? Will he kill them all? Or will he actually end up…becoming one of them?

It’s a choice that’s not actually yours to make in a development that I found surprisingly refreshing in today’s gaming landscape. There simply is no moral choice system, nor are there any “plot decisions” left up to the player. Sleeping Dogs knows the story it wants to tell, and it’s going to tell it no matter what you do.

Choice can be a powerful storytelling tool in games, whether its Mass Effect or Heavy Rain, but it’s not a necessary part of creating a compelling story. After all, how many movies let you choose what happens next? How many would be better if they let you do so?

You don’t even get to pick who to date. Going out with all five girls yields different very useful results.

Rather, it’s nice to be on the rails from a story perspective for a change. I worried this wasn’t going to be the case, as I discovered you level up both “cop” and “Triad” skill trees. But you actually end up boosting both to their max levels by simply playing the game, and there’s no difficult choice that has to be made by choosing one side or the other. Why pick have the skills you want when you can simply have all of them?

But even with a compelling story  and characters, gameplay must function well for Sleeping Dogs to truly be a good game. Fortunately, that’s another area where it delivers. Keeping with its theme of emulating a good Asian action film, combat is split between gunfights and hand-to-hand bouts. In fact, for about the first five hours of the game, I didn’t even see a gun.

It’s easy to see where the inspiration was drawn for the combat system here. Wei dodges attacks from flashing red enemies and then counterattacks with a flurry of smooth strikes. The only thing he’s missing is a cape and cowl. But unlike Batman, Wei has no other gadgets to use in combat, which can make fist fighting a bit mundane at times. This problem is remedied by unlocked combos later in the game, however.

Bonus over Batman: You don’t have to play the game in X-ray mode.

Gunfights  and car chases start about midway through the game, and at first they seem like the more stripped down versions found in Rockstar’s LA Noire, though eventually they escalate to GTA-level proportions when you get your hands on assault rifles and grenade launchers. There’s even a bit of Just Cause 2 car jumping thrown in for good measure.

The game doesn’t let you go full GTA however, as you generally don’t have access to big weapons in between missions, so there are no random rampages through the streets of Hong Kong with three tanks and an apache helicopter chasing you as you shoot RPGs at them. Furthermore, in an effort to keep with the “undercover cop” theme, you actually lose points during missions if you damage property or other cars, or god forbid, run over an innocent bystander, which is of course a routine occurrence in GTA. It makes you more cautious, but it does end up being a little ridiculous as you’re thrust in to a high speed car chase and your score starts dropping every time you run over a traffic cone or nick a street light.

Similarly absurd is the idea that you, an undercover cop, can start murdering criminals in cold blood with assault weapons and suffer no repercussions in the least. The game makes a big deal about how killing someone was the only way to prove you weren’t a cop to the triads. I thought that would lead up to a big moment in the game where Wei is forced to kill someone to prove his worth. Instead, I was given an Uzi and thrown in a room with a dozen drug dealers I killed with nary an introspective moment to be found. Eventually, you catch a cop killing a mob boss with a lethal injection and you cart him off to jail. This is shortly after you fed a different boss through an ice chipper.

This is going to require a lot of paperwork to explain.

But a certain amount of plausibility had to be abandoned at some point for the game to truly be a game. We couldn’t exactly go around knocking out an entire city full of Triads, and the game can be forgiven for wanting to be exciting.

The story is phenomenal, and the voice acting and emotion  that comes through the characters even without LA Noire/Heavy Rain style facial capture is incredible, especially from the protagonist Shen voiced by Will Yun Lee. It’s perhaps the best story in a sandbox game since Red Dead Redemption, also a game that didn’t require the player to make many choices to further the plot.

It’s good that there can be a game like Grand Theft Auto that isn’t Grand Theft Auto (or even a Rockstar title) that can still move the genre forward. A great story combined with smooth and intuitive gameplay is about all you can ask for in a title. And it’s one of the only games that I can safely say I can’t wait to see adapted into a movie.

4.5 out of 5 stars