Open-world games are often incredibly derivative, and any way you slice it, many of them trace their roots back to the Grand Theft Auto series. Even the popular Saints Row franchise doesn't feel too terribly detached from that mold, despite its rampant absurdity and crotch punches. It is somewhat surprising, then, that Sleeping Dogs does so well to differentiate itself from that crowd, taking place in an open world but also delivering a premise that feels decidedly focused.
In Sleeping Dogs, you play as an undercover cop named Wei Shen who has been tasked with infiltrating the Triad operation in Hong Kong to destabilize and destroy it from within. Wei ends up befriending some of the members of the Water Street Gang, one of three Triad gangs operating in the city, and at that point, the lines begin to blur. On the one hand, Wei must continue to uphold the law and complete his mission, but on the other, Wei is compelled to assist his friends in their struggles against the other Triad organizations. Making matters more complicated is the inclusion of corrupt cops who are clearly not acting in the public's best interests and Triad members who need to be taken down due to their inhuman brutality and lack of honor.
With the game taking place in Hong Kong, it certainly feels like a brand-new world to explore. The architecture and sheer density of the buildings make the landscape feel distinctly different, and small aspects, such as driving the car on the left side of the road from the right seat make you think about how to approach driving. Vendors operate food stands and hawk pork buns and other merchandise, all under the glow of what appears to be millions of neon lights and signs shining above. Punch a man or slam him into the wall, and some people will run screaming while others will whip out their cell phones and record the event. It is a world that feels grounded and discrete, but it doesn't feel exploitative.
You spend much of the game using your fists rather than a gun to engage in combat, with the in-game rationale being that roughing up a Triad member sends a message, but shooting one can start a war. A better justification is that the melee combat is a lot of fun and is reminiscent of the counter system and fluidity in the latest Batman series of games. Wei is an expert martial artist who's capable of delivering a variety of moves and counters to tackle large groups of enemies at once. Combat is mechanically very easy to pick up and learn, with light and heavy attacks launched by respectively tapping or holding the left mouse button. Grabs, sprinting attacks, and counters are also handled at the press of a button, making them easy to pull off in the thick of a brawl.
In many cases, you'll fight close to objects that allow you to immediately take out an enemy combatant. These can include static objects, such as putting his face through a vent cover on a wall or slamming him into a box, but occasionally, you an also make use of a nearby car to smash his face through the glass or slam his head in the car door. These immediate takedowns help you weed out large enemy groups or more easily take out the stronger ones. There are a handful of "styles" of enemies that can be grouped by size and body shape, and each has different traits, such as being weak but nimble or big dudes who aren't phased by your punches.
In some respect, every melee fight feels like a small set piece, even the small ones where you face off against three guys in an alley. The bigger ones in special locations are easily some of the most fun, allowing you to put a guy through a fish tank before grabbing one of the newly freed fish and throwing it at someone else to stagger him and drop his guard. You can slide over tables and kick someone as you exit the other side, or you can snap a kick off of a wall to nail a nearby enemy with a powerful hit. Much of the fun is handled via these contextual actions and attacks, but they augment rather than dictate the overall experience.
There are times when a gun is needed and usually provided, but this is by far the exception rather than the norm. Gunfights are a pretty standard affair of using cover and popping off shots to weed out the volume of enemies before leaping over cover to take out the last few foes. To give things a bit more flair, the game enters slow motion as you leap from cover, allowing you to channel your inner action star and gun down a couple of enemies while you slide across a bar or leap over a second-floor railing to rain lead to the mooks below. While there is a diverse set of weapons in the game, you can only equip one at a time, and even then, only pistols can be concealed. The game often takes away your weapon for no reason, so ultimately, guns are only used in designated areas and then mysteriously disappear.
The progression of the plot is done via completing missions, some for the Triad and some for the police, as well as through other key events. These events play out in a mostly linear fashion, and at most offer a set of each type simultaneously while not allowing further progression in either until both have been completed. During missions, you have the potential to gain both Triad and cop experience, which level up independently from one another. Triad experience is gained by performing special attacks or environmental takedowns on the enemy, and it starts off as an empty bar to fill during that mission. Cop experience operates in the reverse, starting off full but suffering detractions any time you harm an innocent or cause needless property damage. Not all missions offer both types of experience, though, so there are certainly some where you can go wild without worrying about the other.
As you level one of the experience paths, you can assign points into one of two linear progression paths to unlock perks. Cop levels grant you the ability to pop car locks without triggering the alarm or gain more slow motion time, while Triad perks grant you aspects such as reduced incoming melee damage or faster recovery from a failed counter. There are also two other paths that you can level up that are mostly separate from missions: your face (AKA respect) level and your melee ability. Face is leveled up any time you gain enough respect, and it's a linear progression of additional perks, such as uninterruptible attacks or a valet who delivers a car to you. Melee abilities are unlocked by first finding a hidden jade statue and returning it to a dojo master, who then teaches you a new move. Find all 12, and you unlock a powerful new means of countering enemy attacks with a quick combo of your own.
However, as you progress down these trees, the difficulty of the combat takes a nosedive. In the beginning, melee combat is fairly hard since you have to learn the systems while only being able to take a few hits before losing all of your health. Around the midpoint of the game, this trend reverses; by that point, most players have made good progress through the cop, face and Triad perk trees. With the significantly higher resistances and increased outgoing damage, combat becomes too easy, so you can roll over pretty much any opponent and take hits without feeling their effects. That's not to say that it stops being fun to bash some faces and break some arms, but most of the risk disappears before the end of the game.
Driving always feels a bit off in the game, with cars that seem too responsive and grippy. Thankfully, there are not too many instances where missions require extensive use of vehicles, but even in top-end vehicles, vehicular control manages to waffle between realistic and arcade-style handling. Some of the most enjoyable parts of being in car is when someone else is driving and you are free to shoot from the passenger seat, popping tires on enemy Triad motorcycles and cars to send them flying. Once behind the wheel, though, it is hard to shake the desire to simply get to the end of your time.
The overall plot won't seem too alien to fans of Hong Kong cinema. Without becoming derivative, there are clearly areas of the game that immediately evoke thoughts of movies such as "Hard Boiled" or "The Killer," and the plot is very similar to that of the original "Infernal Affairs." Regardless of these comparisons, the plot stands incredibly strong on its own, thanks to some great writing and character development in addition to the voice talent putting forth some good work. As Wei's friendship grows with those on both sides of the fence, you increasingly feel that the powder keg is getting closer and closer to ignition. When it does, it ends in an epic manner although not everyone makes it across the finish line.
While one could easily (and justifiably) be worried about the fact that the game also has console versions, some considerable care has been put forth for the PC iteration. Controlling using a keyboard and mouse is easily done, and the minor issues we encountered have been corrected by the most recent patch. The engine handles everything with nary a hiccup, and to top it off, there is free DLC available to upgrade many of the game textures into higher definition to make use of the additional memory found in your typical PC environment. While there have been some shoddy PC ports in recent memory, Sleeping Dogs expertly bucks that trend.
Calling Sleeping Dogs something like an "open-world crime" game does it a disservice, as it invokes thoughts of simply shooting and carjacking yet another major metropolis. Sleeping Dogs is a more refined take on how an open-world game can play out, sacrificing the over-the-top content for a much more focused experience. The game does cut loose, and the melee combat is certainly a blast. Ultimately, Sleeping Dogs manages to marry open-world gameplay with an extremely engaging plot.
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