I worried about Sleeping Dogs. I mean, come on, an open world title developed by United Front, whose pedigree includes ModNation Racers and, well, nothing else? On top of that, the game struggled to find an identity. Starting its life as original IP Black Lotus before being shoehorned into a True Crime series reboot, the game was unceremoniously cancelled by then-publisher Activision before being picked up by Square Enix and rebranded as Sleeping Dogs. Whew. Just writing that makes me tired. Imagine my surprise when I started playing Sleeping Dogs and found what just might be the surprise gem of the summer.
Sleeping Dogs casts you as undercover cop Wei Shen, who’s assignment is to infiltrate the powerful and dangerous Triad gang Sun On Yee. Through a roughly 15 hour epic, Wei’s loyalties will be tested as he begins to feel torn between his Triad family and his law enforcement background. Luckily, a few fairly pedestrian and predictable early plot devices lead to what becomes a truly engrossing and enjoyable yarn. As the cast grows beyond the early low-level Triad thugs, you will encounter a variety of memorable and colorful characters who you’ll love, hate, and occasionally beat the crap out of.
Now, it is impossible to discuss a game of this genre without making the obvious comparisons. This, then, will also lead to another thing that initially worried me about Sleeping Dogs. I am not a big Grant Theft Auto fan. It’s ok, I can admit it. GTA, while entertaining on a surface level, has always struck me as a grab bag of mechanics that range from average (driving) to terrible (shooting, combat in general). I am absolutely thrilled to report that, for once, Sleeping Dogs succeeds in making a game where all of these elements happen to range from good to great. Sure, it’s not as big or long as a Grand Theft Auto title, but what you get is of a decidedly higher quality. This is a trend, started earlier this year by the excellent Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, that makes me happy. After games like these, which combine huge worlds with solid mechanics, shoddily crafted games can no longer hide behind the excuse that “they are so expansive, it makes up for the lack of good gameplay.”
The melee combat, which is your most common method of cracking skulls, is very inspired by Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel. Expect to tap out a steady rhythm of light and heavy attacks combined with quick counters and grabs, all of which can be chained together to create one of the most satisfying beat-em-up experiences I’ve played in recent memory. On the relatively rare occasion that you find yourself with a firearm in your hands, the game becomes a competent third person shooter with a Max Payne-esque bullet time mechanic that is activated as you slide and dive from cover to cover. Hop in a car, and you’ll discover driving is a joy, even in a chicken truck. Why do I always end up with the chicken truck?
Perhaps the most pleasantly surprising feature of Sleeping Dogs is the skill progression system. The game gives you no less than 3 experience bars, which are filled by performing different types of tasks. On a given mission, choosing to be as brutal as possible will net you Triad experience, which allows you to upgrade your ability to beat people senseless. Next, careful driving, keeping bullets out of storefronts, and generally remaining as socially responsible as possible will increase your Cop experience. Points in your Cop skills increase your ability to use bullet time, make it easier to steal cars, and are generally more utilitarian than Triad skills. Finally there is Face, which represents the world’s perception of your character. Increasing Face allows you to wear nicer clothes, buy nicer cars, and generally helps set you apart from the other rabble populating the world. Skill points devoted to Face give you health, damage, and resistance bonuses. On top of that, you can seek out collectibles which allow you to upgrade your kung-fu and learn devastating new moves, and discovering health shrines throughout the world will grant you more HP…. wait, I’m sorry, are we playing a GTA clone or an RPG? Oh United Front, I see what you did there, and I love it.
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I can’t overstate enough how impressed I am by United Front’s ability to take such a variety of mechanics and make such a high quality game. Sure, there are a few draw distance/texture pop-in issues, some of the facial animation can be kind of wonky, and on rare occasion the camera can completely ruin your ability to drive at high speed through tight turns, but these are ridiculously minor gripes that they in no way detract from the overall experience. Mostly they serve to remind us that the developers are human.