All open-world sandbox games are slavish to the way in which you get around their worlds. Take the marvelous Just Cause 2. Its fetish for all things combustible would have been for nothing had the hookshot not made getting around its sweeping tropics such a relentless joy. Crackdown, Assassin’s Creed and Prototype flourished because journeying about their metropolises was effortless; every minaret surmountable; every dead-end back-alley another ticket to roam the rooftops; every flick of the analogue stick or press of the jump button a stiff shot of contentment as our on-screen heroes bound and soar, belittling the rules and human-foibles that ensure we’re kept grounded.
Sleeping Dogs’ muscle-bound lead Wei Shen hasn’t quite got the knack of getting around Hong Kong in such irresistible style, and it’s the game’s eventual undoing. But more on that in a moment.
United Front Games’ Sleeping Dogs – once doomed to be an entry in the middling True Crime franchise – is best described as Grand Theft Auto viewed through the lens of Asian cinema. This is simultaneously a thing of grandness and a thing of, well, not so much grandness. Its core campaign is assembled from some 30 missions that borrow from a familiar gene pool, its thunderous combat inspired by Bruce Lee’s esteemed brand of roughhousing and its razzmatazz shootouts echo with the praxis of a John Woo movie. One of the good ones, anyway.
Playing Sleeping Dogs will be an immediately familiar experience for anyone who has played more than thirty minutes of a GTA game, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Except sometimes. Sometimes it is a bad thing.
Things begin when Wei Shen arrives in Hong Kong. An undercover cop with a chequered history and a flair for punching people so hard that they immediately stop punching back and instead take an involuntary snooze, Wei quickly earns himself a job with the local Triads. His role? Errand boy, of course. And so it is that you slip into that customary GTA groove, plodding through thinly-guised tutorial missions followed up by others that gradually introduce the game’s many diversions (karaoke, anyone?) before the story really kicks in around a third of the way in.
Unbeknownst to the wide-eyed desperadoes that make up the best part of Sleeping Dogs’ simpatico cast, Wei is batting for both teams; running drug rackets for the impetuous gangbangers one minute, planting bugs in the ventilation shafts of their poky noodle kitchens the next. The constant drifting between factions stretches the definition of unlikely at times – that Wei never once gets caught is a thing of miracle – but the framework provides our hero with an interesting moral conundrum, while a slew of dramatic twists and surprisingly tender moments see to it that even though the narrative wagon remains on autopilot from the word go, you’re generally in sync with Wei’s ever-changing allegiances the factions and the many splinters within both.
United Front haul you into its rich world of bickering ruffians, neon-washed streets and sleazy cops with a force not felt since Red Dead Redemption. Its story is well told (albeit almost exclusively through cutscenes and talky bits during car journeys) the voice acting solid and, thanks partly to a PC-exclusive high-res texture pack, Hong Kong pulses with lustre. It’s an exceptional place, if never an exceptional playground.
Wei Shen makes for a compelling lead, too – forever wrestling with his duties as an officer of the law and the realisation that the Triads might be the closest thing he’ll ever have to a family. But even he can’t compete with Hong Kong’s initial allure; its shadowed thoroughfares, bustling markets and harlequin streets a far cry indeed from the standard sandbox affair and you’ll spend the best part of the game’s introduction marvelling at the city.
Missions are fairly run-of-the-mill. You’ll chase people across rooftops, crash cars into lorries, drive beautiful ladies around Hong Kong, croon at them in karaoke bars and punch a modest nation’s worth of 20-somethings into mulch. Looking back, few of the missions stand out – and those that do are worth keeping a secret.
Part of the blame rests with Wei’s pool of abilities. Though he visits violence on his enemies with delightful barbarity, he has nothing to rival Batman’s exhaustive inventory of gadgets. Gadgets that make both fighting and entering those fights such a marvellous thing. Missions are all surgically extracted from GTA’s DNA, too, but there are some great riffs on the familiar. One mission has you beeping with drunken gusto at a minibus. Why? To panic its driver into pulling over. (Spare a thought for the hapless commuters caught in the midst of a ludicrous gang battle for bus routes.) It makes for a desirably less po-faced alternative to cajoling the vehicle headfirst into a noodle bar, punching its driver into a thin soup and then driving the minibus into the harbour to hide the evidence.
Police missions, meanwhile, take the form of multi-tiered cases that weave in-and-out of the more wonted Triad missions while doing a decent job of plonking you in the mindset of a cop. Wei’s super-power infused mobile phone is the master-key to solving just about any crime in Hong Kong. A mission late in the game requires the use of the phone to locate the victim of a car accident. You triangulate the target’s phone signal by driving to the point on the map where the, er, three lines on the phone’s miracle-triangulation screen meet. It’s nonsense, obviously, but in the moment, tear-assing through Hong Kong under the dark cloud of a cruel time limit, it’s enough to bring to life the fleeting sensation that you are indeed an officer of the law. And, like any good open world game, it’s when Sleeping Dogs empowers you that it explodes into life.
There’s an XP system in place but it acts as more of a hindrance than a reason to repeat the story missions, with separate upgrade trees for both the police and Triads. XP is docked from the police tree for all things naughty (hijacking cars, hit and run, punch and run, gun and run) and XP awarded to the Triad tree for killing bad guys in ever more violent or inspiring ways. Outside of missions XP isn’t affected, which allows for Mel Gibson-esque driving and a punchout whenever you feel like one.
You unlock new combos, a couple of natty tricks and the ability to take more punches to the face before calling it quits through these trees, but it’s precisely these upgrade that elevate the combat into higher places (chiefly wherever Batman calls home). The decision to lock them off til nearer the end of the game is a daft one.
Elsewhere combat takes a leaf out of the Batman-endorsed manual on how to conduct face-altering surgery on your fellow man with only a pair of fists. Fistfights involve a simple attack and block routine with different combinations of X interspersed with taps of Y whenever an enemy glows red – the telltale sign of an incoming punch to the chops.
Wei harnesses nearly all Batman’s devastating thump and while it’s a simple cut-throat dance, grappling an enemy opens up an avenue of environmental kills. Some of the better methods of dispatch involve a palette of upturned swordfish heads, a tank of live eels and a furnace, but like the best missions, these are worth discovering for yourself.
There are mêlée weapons, too, but these degrade after a few slices. Hong Kong’s miscreants are seemingly made from play-dough, always quick to brush off the physical havoc inflicted by a gigantic machete. It’s a touch annoying, but Wei packs such a punch you’ll wonder if he emerged from the womb wrestling a tiger.
Though there’s a real deficit of the things scattered around Hong Kong, gunplay is completely solid too. A halfway house between Stranglehold and GTA IV, you either take cover behind knee high objects and play it methodical, popping up for the all-important headshot or use that same cover as a launchpad to kickstart a spell of slow motion, with each kill made while under the influence of John Woo increasing its duration.
There’s an abundance of missions that involve leaning out of car windows with an assault rifle. A single shot to the wheels sends any vehicle slicing through the thick Hong Kong air before exploding with the kind of zeal reserved for cars starring in a Michael Bay flick. It’s wonderful.
So what the hell’s wrong with it? Its story is entertaining, at times touching and infrequently dazzling. Its leaning towards the more eccentric sandbox titles – Saints Row 3 and its ilk – works in its favour, too.
The problem isn’t the core 10-hour story, then. It’s everything enveloping it. Or, alternatively, the stuff that open world sandbox games thrive on. While all the requisite open-world distractions are found peppered throughout the streets of Hong Kong – fight clubs, cock fights, street races, side missions and, of course, collectibles, none of which are terrible, – not one of them will keep you infatuated with Hong Kong after the story draws to a finish. Oh wait, karaoke is definitely terrible.
It lacks Grand Theft Auto’s toleration for a prolonged killing spree, Saints Row’s eye for the flamboyant or Crackdown’s knack for transforming its routine journeys into its primary reason d’être. These games survive long after the curtains close on their usually dull stories because getting around their cities – and the distractions that linger - are the heart of the game.
It’s not that whooshing around Hong Kong in a sports car isn’t fun. Far from it. Cars purr nicely, glide around bends like they’ve been squeezed from a Criterion game and aren’t beholden to the petty notions of physics. But driving cars is driving cars and the many diversions that driving cars inevitably leads to just aren’t that engaging. And neither its lead man nor Hong Kong lend themselves to the kind of illustrious skylarking that typify Just Cause 2 or Saints Row The Third.
The open-world sandbox genre is no longer characterised by Grand Theft Auto and its flock of drab, subservient admirers. Sleeping Dogs certainly isn’t drab, but at a time in which the likes of Crackdown and Saints Row have broken free from the shadow of Rockstar’s matchless franchise, Sleeping Dogs fits the old mould perhaps a little too snuggly.