What a long, strange trip it’s been for Sleeping Dogs. Once thought to be dead in the water, this sandbox game miraculously came back from development hell, overcame cancellations and even changed owners.
Now that Square Enix officially released the game, it can be said Sleeping Dogs is worth all the trouble. Developer United Front Games delivers an impressive open-world experience that distinguishes itself from the crowd with an emphasis on melee combat and the beautifully realized streets of Hong Kong.
Sleeping Dogs tells the tale of Wei Shen, an undercover detective who visits his old stomping grounds in Hong Kong to help take down the deadly Triad gang.
There’s something admirable about the game’s unflinching look at violence, which includes the opening moments, but ultimately the deadpan tone ends up working against it. Whereas contemporary releases such as Grand Theft Auto IV or Red Dead Redemption include moments of witty social commentary and genuine humor, Sleeping Dogs rarely takes time to delve into lighthearted storytelling.
Those moments could have offered much needed relief from the relentlessly serious subject matter, but in the end the story all starts to wear thin. Even voice work from A-list celebrities such as Tom Wilkinson and Emma Stone can’t save the modest and unremarkable tale of deception and revenge.
Luckily the game more than makes up for its narrative shortcomings by delivering of the core mechanics that make for a successful open-world experience. At the heart of it all is Hong Kong, beaming with neon-lit marketplaces, colorful personalities and its fair share of clothing stores.
One of Sleeping Dogs’ greatest strengths is how it presents Hong Kong as a living, breathing environment where the world doesn’t necessarily revolve around one individual. Instead, the player traverses the seedy underground of Hong Kong while the rest of the population goes on about its business. It’s a subtle trick that few games manage to truly master, but Sleeping Dogs belongs on the shortlist.
Hong Kong also feels like an appropriately large place given the numerous side activities available to players in the game. These include shopping, drug busts, mahjong and gambling — even betting on cock fights (it’s all for the sake of authenticity). There are also cars to buy, statues to discover, upgrades to unlock … the list goes on and on.
Though every side mission or momentary diversion may not be the most engaging, the sheer number and variety of activities go a long way in creating the illusion of limitless replay value.
Side activities pale in comparison to the game’s primary mechanic: melee combat. Think Batman: Arkham City with a touch of cinematic flare. The former comparison shines through with a simple yet robust combo system full of counterattacks, while the action-movie panache comes from visceral takedowns.
Throwing someone into a dumpster honestly never gets old, and eventually the moves become more effective and much more violent. Also helping matters is the increasing difficulty due to more enemies and the weapons they begin to wield.
Best of all, the fights don’t feel repetitive or tedious because of how strong all of those elements are. The downfall ends up being that there isn’t quite enough of it.
It’s a shame that Wei Shen eventually discovers guns about halfway through the game, because at that point Sleeping Dogs starts to transform into a mediocre third-person shooter. The gunplay is standard point-and-shoot fare with a severe lack of weapon variety that feels completely tacked on.
Luckily melee combat sections don’t disappear completely, but the balance shifts quite a bit and the single-player campaign suffers because of it.
Nevertheless, it feels good to say Sleeping Dogs is a success on any level. It went from being a game that looked like it would never come out to being one of the most pleasant surprises of 2012.
ANTHONY LABELLA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.