Sleeping Dogs PC Review

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I have just come from finishing the PC version of Sleeping Dogs, and one of the first questions that entered my head was “Why, Activision?” Now, I have no idea what state Sleeping Dogs was in before Activision gave United Front Games the kick out of the door and Square Enix picked up the publishing rights, but the final product is a fantastic open world game that improves many aspects of the Grand Theft Auto formula. When it comes down to the quality of the game, Square Enix surely must be happy. The company now has its own GTA series that can not only go head-to-head with Rockstar’s own, but rise above it with its own identity and improvements that should have been in the genre before United Front Games took the initiative.

Sleeping Dogs gets off to a good start with a solid and interesting story. It tells the tale of one Wei Shen, an undercover cop who is trying to infiltrate a powerful Triad organisation known as the “Sun On Yee” (a take on the real Sun Yee On, one of the biggest Triads in Hong Kong). Wei lived his younger life in Hong Kong, but was relocated with his family to San Francisco after his mum had problems with his sister’s lifestyle. After building a successful record with the San Francisco Police Department, Wei is hired to return and use his talents to help the Hong Kong Police Department bring down members of the Triad. Meeting up with Jackie, a childhood friend, Wei manages to gain entry into the Sun On Yee and begin the life of a Triad member with his new-found “family” while balancing the ideology of an officer of the law.

As a fan of Hong Kong cinema, the way Sleeping Dogs depicts its story had me attached to the plot, characters and setting from start to finish. Every character has personality, and while there isn’t a stand out individual, each one feels developed enough for you to care about their associations with Wei – well, maybe not the females you can “date.” I say date lightly, because you see them once or twice and that’s it during the emotional ride he experiences throughout the game’s 15-hour campaign – with side missions extending to double that.

It helps that the voice acting is fantastic. Stars include Will Yun Lee as Wei Shen, Edison Chen as Jackie, Tom Wilkinson as Inspector Pendrew, and a host of other stars, such as Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Kelly Hu and Robin Shou (MORTAL KOMBAT!). I love how the script mixes up the dialogue with English and Cantonese phases, giving off a sense of authenticity and atmosphere of Hong Kong and the people that live there. Hong Kong itself is made up of North Point, Aberdeen, Kennedy Town and Central – all real places, but are shrunk down and connected by fictional roads. Map size is small compared to other games in this genre, but Hong Kong doesn’t feel too small that players will become bored exploring it. For what you do in the game, the map manages to still keep secrets down many of its back alleys and highly populated, neon-lit streets.

Mechanics for an open world game are not always the most fleshed out, normally because the developers are throwing a range of gameplay elements into a bowl, stirring them and hoping for the best outcome. The first three hours of Sleeping Dogs demonstrate a lot of the improvements to the GTA gameplay (you don’t even come in contact with a gun until after) with the traversal free running and hand-to-hand combat. Doing Parkour is a case of having the run button (which you have to hold down to sprint; no more tapping to run, woo!) act as a context-sensitive interaction to the environment, making the player simply let go and then press to climb up a wall or jump across a big gap in a speedy fashion. Do it wrong and you’ll stumble, causing problems when chasing after someone. This simple design decision makes getting around virtual Hong Kong so much easier.

Hand-to-hand combat is heavily inspired by the Batman: Arkham series of video games, with Wei being able to punch, grapple and counter to victory. Countering works in a context-sensitive way, with enemies highlighted in red to alert the player. The timing to counter an opponent is fairly generous, but it never leads to an instant death; instead, it’s used to allow Wei to punish with a free combo. Different combos can be unlocked by finding hidden statues and returning them to Wei’s old martial arts instructor, often building on top of existing combos with more powerful moves to stun opponents.

Grappling is a rather good move in Sleeping Dogs. Not only is it used to throw people over edges or pound them to the ground, but it allows Wei to interact with environmental objects as a way to deal extreme damage. Dumpsters, bonnets, mechanical saws, meat hooks, a car engine, even swordfish are all manipulated in brutal and satisfying ways that make Sleeping Dogs’ combat a star feature of the game and the genre it represents. I can’t imagine myself enjoying an open world game as much if it didn’t include combat and free running mechanics similar to these.

Completing story quests and side missions earns experience points that fill up three types of metres: Cop, Triad and Face. Cop and Triad experience is always intertwined in story missions. Rewards for those two depend on how you executed the task at hand. For example, at the start of a mission you have three full Cop symbols and three empty Triad symbols. If you begin to kill people, use environmental kills, damage things – basically act uncivilised – then you begin to lose Cop points and gain Triad points. Face is slightly different, and comes from doing side quests, which will unlock better clothes and cars to buy from shops, and other helpful advantages.

Story missions are mainly great. There are maybe one or two that are a bit “meh,” but they don’t mark on the overall feel. Side missions are a different story. Most are fillers where you are chasing people, racing cars, beating people up, singing Karaoke, hacking, taking pictures – nothing all that exciting compared to the main plot. I can at least praise the mechanics for them. The cars handle well with their super arcade-like feel, and the gun combat is mostly solid, with Wei able to pull off bullet time when jumping over cover, helping with aiming headshots. I say once again, Sleeping Dogs fixes the weaknesses that plague similar open world games.

Friend lists are built into the single player experience and are used to keep track of scores, challenges and letting you know when you have beaten one. These pop up for mission results (which you can replay to improve) and general stats, like driving safe for as long as possible or pulling off the biggest jump in a car. While these are nothing major, I did find them to be a small incentive to do better at tasks I wouldn’t have cared about doing if these scores were not implemented.

Having seen all the versions on display, there is no denying that the PC version of Sleeping Dogs is well above the graphics of the console version. I had all settings set to the highest (PC Specs: i7 2600k, AMD/ATI 6990, 8GB RAM) and the framerate kept above 60 throughout the whole game. It’s the world that makes Sleeping Dogs’ graphics stand out, with the city looking stunning with the downloaded high resolution pack, showcasing the neon lights blasting their rays across the road and glowing up the night of Hong Kong. The main characters have great-looking models, but the generic pedestrian looks poor compared with the rest of the game. I cannot say this enough: If you have a decent PC that can run Sleeping Dogs then it is the version you should play, and with Xbox 360 controller support, there are no complaints for people who like playing games that way.

As already mentioned, the presentation is brilliant, with the world and characters feeling authentic. Stereotypical culture jokes don’t feature in Sleeping Dogs, showcasing just how much United Front Games cared when creating a digital Hong Kong. The selected soundtrack has genres ranging from metal, rock, pop to Asian tunes, although I do wish there was more Asian music included. Either way, the music here never feels out of place.

After playing Sleeping Dogs and last year’s Saints Row: The Third, I do have to wonder if Rockstar will change anything with Grand Theft Auto V, because after those two games, the criminal sandbox game is now well above what GTAIV did. Both THQ and Square Enix have games that have pushed the genre forward in more ways than one, and while Saints Row: The Third was more on the extreme, comical side, Sleeping Dogs is more mature and closer to GTA. Rockstar need to do their best if they want to improve over this title, in my eyes.

In the end, Sleeping Dogs does everything GTA does, but better in almost every way (you could argue with the story, but I see that as a personal preference). Fighting, driving, the experience system, shooting, and presentation all come together with the refreshing Hong Kong setting to make for a brilliant, criminal sandbox game with solid mechanics all around. Sleeping Dogs is now the example developers should strive to beat when they want to create a game in this genre, because Square Enix’s title is now the new leader of the pack.

9/10

by

Version tested: PC

Also available on: Xbox 360, PS3

Developer: United Front Games

Publisher: Square Enix

Genre: Open World, Action