The tale of Sleeping Dogs is a rather long and unflattering one. Having begun life as a brand new intellectual property (IP) Activision soon signed the project up to be rebranded as the third title in incredibly popular but ultimately flawed True Crime series, set to be known as True Crime: Hong Kong. Two years later however, the title was inelegantly cut from the budget in the publisher’s infamous cull of 2011, wherein Activision promised a more streamlined approach to content and delivery. Activision’s journey is another story however, as Sleeping Dogs’ is complicated enough.
Six months after the cancellation of True Crime: Hong Kong was revealed, Square Enix threw their hat into the ring, revealing that they had a brand new IP on the way that goes by the name of Sleeping Dogs. Playing as a troubled cop taking down crime lords in a free-roaming vision of Hong Kong, you’d be foolish for not seeing the similarities. But of course Square Enix is looking to make their own westernised open world videogame, and so adding to the available budget was only for the better, as can be witnessed in the final product. Activision may have found True Crime: Hong Kong to have been more than it could chew, but Square Enix picked-up those leftovers and turned them into gold.
On the face of it, Sleeping Dogs is yet another open world title wherein players can brawl, shoot and drive their way across a large metropolitan area. They fight for both the cops and, as an undercover agent, commit crimes as part of a gang engaged in some rather nefarious activities. It has all the building block that you might associate with any similar title, and you’d be right for doing so: Sleeping Dogs is essentially more of the same. The difference is that it’s so well constructed that there is finally a competitor than can give Rockstar Games a run for their money.
The free running in Sleeping Dogs is a remarkably intuitive system, putting even Assassin’s Creed to shame. Players simply hold the A button (X on PlayStation 3) to sprint, tapping it again before any objects you may encounter to maintain momentum and then continuing to hold it when dismounting objects. In a remarkable and praiseworthy design decision, players who neglect to time their input won’t stop dead as with most videogames, but will simply lose a small amount of momentum. It’s a fantastic way of preventing infuriating mission failures due to awkwardly placed objects or slight mistakes from the player.
The combat system is also well devised, avoiding the pitfalls of many open world action titles. Players now lock-on to enemies automatically, meaning close combat is a much less frustrating affair, and the environmental kills go much further than The Punisher’s small array of torture devices: nearly any solid object can be used as a weapon. Special abilities are learned over time, but right from the start of the videogame players are encouraged to mix-up their strikes and grapples in the same fashion as any modern beat-‘em-up template.
Sadly, for all this clever refinement of the basic mechanics, Sleeping Dogs mission structure is sadly lacking any new ideas. The usual assortment of fetch quests, escort missions, stakeouts and brawls are glossed up with some reasonably interesting meet-and-greets, but never quite on the same level of those in Grand Theft Auto IV. There are many areas in which Sleeping Dogs surpasses RockStar Games’ first dabble with open world drama on current-generation systems – many areas in which they will surely be taking note for the upcoming Grand Theft Auto V – but mission structure and character development clearly aren’t part of that checklist.
The quality of Sleeping Dogs’ world design is remarkable, but it’s not exactly a memorable location. Shocking as this result is, given the nature of its source material, Sleeping Dogs does busy rain slicked streets in the dead of night like no other, but beyond this it’s certainly limited in its appeal. The visual quality sets a very high bar and the voice acting is simply wonderful, but that’s not to say that Sleeping Dogs isn’t without issue. Much like the franchise from which the videogame has been inherited, Sleeping Dogs has some of the most bizarre and sloppy glitches and oversights of any title currently on the market. From the very start Sleeping Dogs provides inconsistencies in use of language on menus and even on the initial set-up screen the brightness selection has no effect on the absent logo you are being told you should be able to see.
After many years in the making, Sleeping Dogs has justified the attention that has been paid to it. It’s a fantastic free roaming action videogame in its own right; one which sets a new standard for flair and dynamism that so few titles even aspire to achieve. It fails to create its own version of the strong characters of Grand Theft Auto V or the emotional charged mission structure of Mafia II, but it does manage to redefine many of the basic mechanics that have been wheeled-out time-and-time-again without revision, and yet gamers have just accepted it. No longer will this be the case, as Sleeping Dogs has set a new standard for which all future open world videogames will have to surpass to be taken seriously.