This week I thought I'd travel to Hong Kong as an undercover cop, infiltrate the Triads, enter a few street races, sing some karaoke, and generally kung fu fight my way through another jewel of an open-world sandbox actioner.
You're welcome to come with me, but you'll need a copy of Sleeping Dogs to make it happen. Square's 2012 gangster opus got a new DLC injection this week, but it'll be a while before I can report on it since the rest of game is so large and involving.
First off, let's talk about that title. It's definitely the worst thing about the game, and it's worth mentioning because it ties into the game's somewhat checkered history. See, Sleeping Dogs is really True Crime 3 (or True Crime: Hong Kong, as it was known before Square acquired the project from Activision but neglected to acquire the naming rights).
The first two True Crimes were set in Los Angeles and New York and attempted to capitalize on the initial crime-based open-world sandbox craze spawned by 2001's Grand Theft Auto III. Sleeping Dogs takes the sprawling urban cop drama concept and updates it for current-gen hardware, and any discussion of the game is bound to include some ooohing and ahhhing over the spectacular visuals.
I've never been to Hong Kong, but I imagine it looks quite a bit like Sleeping Dogs, which manages to be nearly photo-realistic at times without taxing your system hardware to death (I'm playing the Steam version on the PC, but the game is also available on consoles). The city itself is most definitely a supporting character in the game's sordid, sexy story, and though I've been playing for just over 12 hours according to my launcher's landing page, I've only managed to complete 25 percent of the content on account of all the gawking, exploring, and screenshotting going on.
Seriously, I can't even begin to describe what it's like to ratchet a crotch rocket up to ludicrous speed in a rain-soaked Hong Kong nightscape. It's just something you need to do at least once in your gaming life.
On-foot exploration is facilitated by a delicious parkour system reminiscent of the Assassin's Creed series. You can't scale up the sheer side of a building like Ezio or Altair, but as Sleeping Dogs' noirish protagonist Wei Shen, you can vault and slide over most of the objects in game while sprinting (or you can fail to do so quite clumsily and hilariously if your button-pressing skills aren't up to snuff).
The PC controls are awkward at first. It took me a good hour to get the hang of holding down the space bar for a full run and then releasing it and pressing it again precisely enough to slide across a car's hood or wing my way over a kitchen counter in pursuit of a suspect. I'd imagine the controller version is superior in this respect, but I was so enraptured by the sights and sounds of the city that I couldn't be bothered to stop playing and try it out.
Combat is a bit better, control-wise, and it's even more fun than the game's movement system. I don't know whether Sleeping Dogs' dev team set out to emulate Batman: Arkham Asylum's hard-hitting melee mode, but it feels quite similar, and this is unequivocally a good thing. Martial arts brawls in this game are glorious, gut-wrenching slugfests. Thugs will come at you with fists, flying kicks, tire irons, and 12-to-1 odds, and after a bit of practice, Wei Shen is a whirling, counter-punching dervish straight out of Hong Kong's celebrated action cinema scene.
There's also a bit of Matrixy, Max Payne-style bullet time thrown in for good measure, and while the convention is well past cliche status at this point, it's only occasionally necessary.
In terms of character progression, Sleeping Dogs takes the Grand Theft Auto model and adds a couple of new wrinkles in the form of multiple advancement paths. It's still an action game as opposed to an RPG, but there's a bit more depth here than most of the genre competition. Since your character is an undercover policeman, you're free to advance through the Cop and Triad skill trees simultaneously, and each offers a unique set of abilities. Some of these are passive (the ability to slim jim car locks for faster hijacking hijinks) and some are active (various martial arts moves activated by keyboard/mouse/button combos).
In addition to the Cop, Triad, and Melee trees, there's something called Face XP, which affects how NPCs respond to your character and also grants various passives like a car valet, vendor discounts, and the like.
Gameplay proper is pretty typical for the sandbox action genre, and that's really a compliment. The world of Sleeping Dogs dwarfs many current-gen MMOs, and there is a seemingly endless number of side quests apart from the main narrative, which is itself split into branches depending on whether you want to spend your current session working for the good guys or the bad guys (or both). There are dozens of outfits, cars, and motorcycles to collect as well as a variety of street races, hitman objectives, Guitar Hero-style karaoke, and even dating missions.
This last isn't as pervy as it sounds. I met up with one potential "girlfriend" in a Hong Kong park and ended up helping her take snapshots for her tourist blog with my cellphone camera (your phone serves as a logical and immersive stopping off point for just about every in-game activity).
The bread-and-butter action missions aren't particularly challenging, but they're varied and immersive. You'll be doing everything from hacking surveillance cameras to hijacking buses and vans to engaging in numerous shootouts and hand-to-hand beat-downs. Interspersed along the way are various minigames that spice things up. I was particularly fond of a mission that saw me planting a listening device in a Triad eatery. It wasn't just a matter of following the minimap and watching a cutscene, as I had to unscrew an air vent, calibrate the bug, screw the vent cover back on, and then scramble through a skylight all while watching the countdown timer and hearing the approaching voices of the gangsters I was looking to spy on.
Like any good sandbox title, all of this stuff is available at your leisure, and it's my opinion that Sleeping Dogs offers a huge amount of gameplay variety and replay value without overwhelming the player or leading to decisional paralysis.
The voice cast deserves a mention too. While the narrative can occasionally be a sideshow in open-world games like this, Sleeping Dogs takes pains to tell an interesting, if somewhat familiar, tale thanks to the pro actors and flavorful dialogue. The game's gangsters are mostly English-speakers, but they'll occasionally lapse into Cantonese for a particularly vivid epithet or emotional moment, and there's a handy sub-title system to help you through that even if you have sub-titles turned off.
I guess at this point I've gushed about as much as I should over one game, but the long and short of it is that I'm enjoying Sleeping Dogs immensely. Aside from some PC control clumsiness, and the occasional vehicle view camera quirk, I can't find anything bad to say about it. It's just what the doctor ordered if you're in the mood for some solo sandbox play with a modern crime motif.
Burned out on MMOs? That's OK; there are tons of other titles out there featuring MMOish open worlds, progression, RPG mechanics, or a combination of all three. Massively's MMO Burnout turns a critical eye toward everything from AAA blockbusters to obscure indie gems, not to mention a healthy dose of the best mods.