Review by horror_spooky

"Black Lotus"

Originally known as a new IP Black Lotus, the game that eventually became Sleeping Dogs went through multiple major identity transitions. The team at United Front Games, perhaps best known for creating ModNation Racers for Sony, wanted to create a brand new IP in the open world, free-roaming genre. However, Activision quickly took control of the project and slapped the "True Crime" label on it, calling it True Crime: Hong Kong. Activision then gave up on the game, and Square Enix was quick to pick up the rights, renaming it Sleeping Dogs.

Square Enix said Activision was "crazy" for giving up the game, and I have to say that I'd be inclined to agree. Sleeping Dogs is one of the best GTA clones that I've ever played, rivaling the quality of Grand Theft Auto or other popular games in the genre like Saints Row. The game follows an undercover cop named Wei Shen as he infiltrates the mob in China, specifically Hong Kong. Wei gets wrapped up in the drama of the mob life, becomes attached, and deals with victory and tragedy as he moves through the ranks.

What follows is a riveting crime drama that, while it clearly relies on multiple crime cliches, manages to throw in a few original ideas to result in an overall satisfying story. The characters in the game are well-developed and interesting. As the story progresses, there are twists and turns to keep events interesting, plus there are multiple plot lines to invest in during the game. On one hand, there is Wei's exploits while he's undercover, which makes up the bulk of the story. On the other hand, there are the cop missions that allow Wei to do justice and chase after criminals. This side story is also populated with great characters and compelling antagonists.

On the third hand (...), we have the other side missions in the game. These side missions also have very well-written characters and a story that is easy to enjoy. While I do enjoy the story and the characters, Sleeping Dogs is also plagued by a few questionable design decisions. Sleeping Dogs is a game that is set in Hong Kong, features an almost all-Asian cast, and almost all the characters speak English with American accents. This wouldn't stand out that much and could be written off as the developers adapting the tale to make it more accessible, but there are indeed characters that speak Chinese in the story as well. It's a head-scratcher for sure.

Wei is trained in Martial Arts, so he has more melee moves when compared to other open world protagonists. The combat engine is reminiscent of the Rocksteady Batman games. Enemies glow red when their attacks can be countered, but players can use either an offensive or defensive fighting style. Wei can be upgraded throughout the game to improve his fighting skills, learning new combos that are easy to learn and fun to master. There is also an environmental attack system that is shockingly brutal and varied, with Wei having the ability to impale enemies on the heads of swordfish, burn their faces on grills, and crush them with ticket booth gates.

Of course, Wei also has access to firearms in the game, though that doesn't happen until later, and kind of throws off the atmosphere. But from a gameplay perspective, Sleeping Dogs hits the nail on the head with its gun play. If the hand-to-hand fighting mechanics in the game can be compared to the newer Batman series, then the firearms can be compared to Max Payne. Wei can vault over cover and initiate slow-motion to line up better shots, which definitely feels as though it was ripped directly from Max Payne. Third-person shooting cover-based mechanics make up the shooting sections in the game, and they are just as polished, intense, and effective as the other combat mechanics in the game.

Since Wei is a cop, he can use a variety of police gadgets. Wei has access to gadgets that allow him to hack into the security cameras around the city and access them at home in his apartment. He can trace cell phone calls, and also place bugs and hack computers. Players will have a chance to do all of this in the game, as each mission adds something new to the formula. Seriously, every single mission in Sleeping Dogs is unique and different from any other mission in the game, providing one of the most varied mission structures in the history of the genre. There's never a dull moment.

An important aspect of the open world genre is getting from point A to point B. Sleeping Dogs accomplishes this with vehicles, of course. There are a bunch of different cars to drive, as well as motorcycles and boats. Cars that are owned by Wei can be accessed by very conveniently placed parking garages throughout the city. The driving controls are very well done, but the camera can be kind of annoying as it always seems to snap behind the car. Shooting out of vehicles is made a lot easier in Sleeping Dogs since this utilizes the game's slow motion mechanics.

Even though Wei is an undercover cop, he can still be pursued by the law. Whenever police are after Wei, players are tasked with either escaping or destroying the squad cars. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars introduced this concept in the genre, and I hope to see more games utilize it. Sleeping Dogs makes taking out cop cars and other cars much easier by having a button dedicated to ramming into other vehicles on the road. By tapping X, players can fling their cars into the other traffic on the road and completely destroy them. These moments are made that much better by the fact that the destruction physics in Sleeping Dogs is awesome.

Details in the environment are also done very well, and character models are rendered perfectly. Amazingly, I never saw a texture that failed to load or pop-up in the draw distance. This is probably the first time that I've ever seen visuals in a game like this handled with such care. Animation is a little stiff, but when all the other facets of the visual experience are taken into account, Sleeping Dogs is one of the best-looking games the genre has ever produced, and it is absolutely stunning.

Unfortunately, Sleeping Dogs is not perfect. While it handles basically every other aspect of the genre brilliantly, it's a shame that it's just not fun to explore United Front Games' version of Hong Kong. There is nothing about the city that made me want to walk around and explore or mess around. I had a blast playing through the story and not going on mindless rampages, but a game like this should make free-roaming and goofing off a blast. I think that Saints Row encompasses the goofy side of Grand Theft Auto and Sleeping Dogs embraces the seriousness, but Grand Theft Auto finds the perfect balance. I just feel that Sleeping Dogs is just not a game I'd play to goof around with, which is supposed to be one of the strong points of games in the genre.

I also have issues with the sound design. The voice acting is mostly great, and I've already mentioned the weird choices regarding the way characters speak, but the soundtrack in the game is painfully unmemorable. There is nothing funny on the radio and the music is unrecognizable and of poor quality. I never bothered to change the station to anything when I got in a car because none of the stations appealed to me and I just tuned it out while I drove to my next mission.

Sleeping Dogs is a flawed gem, but it is a gem nonetheless. There are a ton of Grand Theft Auto clones out there, but Sleeping Dogs is by far one of the best. The game is an incredibly fun crime adventure from beginning to end, and fans of the genre and fans of action games definitely shouldn't pass up this hard-hitting open world game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 08/23/12

Game Release: Sleeping Dogs (US, 08/14/12)

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