Sleeping Dogs is a GTA-alike with very heavy influences from Hong Kong cinema. Not coincidentally Sleeping Dogs is a game that I like quite a lot, and it manages this despite being rather clunky in a lot of niggling little ways.
You should know how a Grand Theft Auto works, and if you don’t you should probably go and play one or watch a video on youtube or something because they’re such a huge part of the gaming world today. Unfortunately for the actual GTA games themselves it’s a franchise that’s stagnated more and more ever since Vice City, and so these days I look for my GTA clones to do something a little different. Sleeping Dogs’ approach is to meld GTA with Hong Kong action flicks; as a result it features somewhat more comprehensive melee combat and shooting systems than you’d usually find in a GTA game so that it can ape the kung fu and police action films so beloved of the genre. Unfortunately – as with most things that are attempted for the first time – I feel they haven’t quite gotten them exactly right.
Melee first. The melee system functions quite well once you get used to it, but sadly getting used to it involves a lot of frustrated button mashing and screaming at the monitor. There’s a lot of nice little touches – lots of additional moves you can learn, and lots of environmental objects you can use to bludgeon/impale/incinerate enemy goods – but the core problem lies in Sleeping Dogs’ fixation with putting you up against a dozen guys at once where the sheer number of enemies combines with the complexity of the system to make fights needlessly difficult and unfun. If you’re fighting that many people at once you really want an uncomplicated combat system like the one seen in Arkham Asylum: just pick a direction and punch that way and the game strings together a combo for you, allowing you to quickly switch between enemies and respond to threats. Here the lock-on system is slow and the camera is bad and some enemies have attacks that can’t be interrupted and some enemies can’t be thrown and attack animations have to finish once triggered, meaning that actually trying to attack will get you murdered as somebody clocks you from behind when your guard is down. This may be realistic but it’s not what happens in a Hong Kong action film, and it’s very definitely not fun.
What the combat eventually boils down to in the end is countering. An enemy will wind his arm back in a massively-telegraphed punching animation, and if this wasn’t enough of a tip off he’ll also flash red for a moment or two. Push the counter button while he’s doing this and no matter where he’s attacking from – from the front, from behind, from above, from Australia– your undercover cop dude will grab the attacking limb and then punch his assailant in the nads. Ten on one fights subsequently become a matter of standing there and waiting for somebody to flash red, pushing the counter button, possibly getting a couple more hits in if you’re feeling lucky and then sitting back and waiting for somebody else to repeat the first guy’s mistake. It gets better as you gradually accrue more health and combat abilities that let you get away with actually trying to attack every now and again, but to begin with it’s a fairly staid and boring experience to the point where I’d go and get a car to run over large groups of thugs rather than having to go through the tedium of actually fighting them.
At least the melee combat does eventually get good, though. The shooting is just kind of blah, and remains blah the whole way through. There are a couple of concessions to the Hong Kong thing; for example the usual proliferation of waist-high cover abounds in Sleeping Dogs, but you enter slow motion when jumping over it so that you can get some nice cinematic headshots thus turning most cover into a series of slo-mo vaulting horses. Mostly it’s just the same old GTA shooting system with a couple of extra bells and whistles, though, and it’s kind of a shame that the most iconic aspect of Hong Kong action films gets such short shrift here.
That being said, Sleeping Dogs’ greatest asset is its imagination. Saints Row 3 was daring, being so over the top that pretty much anything could happen in its cartoon universe; however this isn’t quite the same thing as Sleeping Dogs’ subtler form of imagination, which finds different ways of doing things I’ve seen done the same way a thousand times before. A good case in point is the shooting tutorial. Most games would just put you up in a shooting gallery with popup targets and an angry man telling you to SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT. Sleeping Dogs’ approach is a bit more reflective; here you’re helping a police superintendent “recreate” a murder through an interactive flashback so that he can frame a noted Triad member for it, and because you’re playing the role of somebody who was never there there’s absolutely no threat to you. You’re free to mess up as many times as you like while you get the feel of things, and all that’ll happen is that the superintendent – who is calmly pacing through the middle of the gunfight the whole time – will rewind his narration of the events and tell you to do it again. This tutorial succeeded in three major ways: it taught me how to shoot in Sleeping Dogs; it was a genuinely interesting gameplay episode period rather than just being interesting for a tutorial; and it developed the superintendent’s character as somebody willing to use extreme methods to get results. Not bad for a supposed GTA clone.
The game can’t keep up this level of creativity the whole way through, instead only displaying it in fits and starts in between the usual GTA challenges – races, mini-missions, driving cars into thugs in the most convoluted “drug bust” sequence possible and so on, but the other novel thing Sleeping Dogs does is to paper over the sizeable gaps with Hong Kong action flicks. All of them. I really wasn’t kidding about its Hong Kong setting and style being more than an affectation; the entire thing is a love letter toHong Kong cinema and it’s this which saves it from painful mediocrity. Think of a scene from your favourite Jackie Chan/Bruce Lee/Chow Yun Fat film and there’s likely to be an analogue of it present in Sleeping Dogs. Taking on a dozen guys in a protracted martial arts battle? Yep. A high speed chase where a bullet anywhere near the tire or the driver will cause the pursuing vehicle to flip high into the air before crashing down in a glorious gasoline explosion? That’s here too. Impaling dudes on a conveniently placed rack of upwards-pointing swordfish heads? Seems a little outlandish but whatever, it’s Hong Kong, it could happen. Karaoke?
…uh, yeah. Perhaps the less said about the karaoke the better. Actually this is probably worth mentioning because Sleeping Dogs absolutely loves its minigames, and there’s about seven or eight of them. To the game’s credit it shows more imagination (duh) than the usual hacking minigames (Bioshock 2), but the sheer number of them means that they are by turns confusing and repetitive as they’re weighted far too heavily towards one or two specific minigames such as the hacking one. Meanwhile the phone triangulation and lockpicking minigames barely get a look in, and when they did turn up I had no idea what to do because the game is terrifically stingy when it comes to telling you what you should be doing in them beyond the odd button prompt. I made it through because of my prior exposure to the blight of minigames afflicting the average console release. God knows what a new player would have done. I can’t help thinking that despite the unusually large variety of them present the heavy overreliance on minigames is ultimately something that drags Sleeping Dogs down from where it should be.
And where is that, exactly? I don’t have a huge amount of time for GTA games. Mention an actual GTA game to me these days and the most you’ll get out of me are a few peals of hollow laughter; it’s a genre that trades any sort of depth or player involvement for being as broad in its open world aims as possible, and so the only example of genre that has really grabbed me in recent years has been Saints Row 3. Saints Row 3 turned its Saturday morning cartoon world into an asset by refusing to take anything seriously. Unfortunately there’s only really room for one Saints Row 3. Everyone else has to maintain this sort of po-faced humourlessness, attempting to tell hard-boiled stories about a criminal underworld in a city that is so shallow that it barely has a coherent overworld. Sleeping Dogs would fall into this trap, except it’s found its own brand of over-the-top mayhem in the Hong Kong cinema aspect of the game. Action flicks like Hard Boiled have always has a grip on reality that is tenuous at best – one of the things that has stuck with me is The Killer’s huge army of criminal goons trying to attack two guys in a church, which in turn has always reminded me of this1 – and that’s something which transfers across to Sleeping Dogs very, very effectively. Why is Wei killing thirty dudes every time he crosses the road to the supermarket? Why did he wreck a dozen cars on the motorway last time he went for a relaxing Sunday drive? Who cares, it’s a videogame attempt at a Hong Kong action movie and it’s probably best not to think about these things too hard.
Anyway, it probably would have been a lot better if it had been all Hong Kong all the time rather than stopping me every five minutes to try to guess a four digit passcode or a combination lock or any of that other crap. And while the Triad infiltration aspect of the game is pretty well done in all the best traditions of the genre, it’s partnered with this infuriating police procedural aspect that I just don’t care about. I didn’t buy this game to play CSI:Hong Kong, so why am I wasting my time as an undercover policeman stealing a police uniform to infiltrate a police operation on orders from the police? The police quests quickly devolve into tedious fedex missions where you can’t have any fun; the undercover cop aspect is already played up extensively in your meetings with the superintendent and your police handler, and there was absolutely no need to make you moonlight on the side doing actual real police work.
Reading it back this review has been a little more negative than I originally intended. That’s partly down to my instinctive dislike of GTA games, and partly because Sleeping Dogs is nowhere near perfect. It does have a lot wrong with it. When I’m driving at high speed down the rain-slicked streets of Hong Kong at night, though, with drops of water spattering off the windshield and neon signs whizzing by overhead, all those little flaws and niggles vanish from my mind and I think “Yes, this is a good game.” The important thing is that none of the mistakes the game makes are so big that I can’t look past them to see what Sleeping Dogs is trying to do. It’s a game with a good heart and a lot of imagination, even if it’s occasionally less than competent in its implementation. I’ve played plenty of games with higher levels of polish which were far more creatively bankrupt than Sleeping Dogs and found them to be curiously unsatisfying experiences, and so I kind of value Sleeping Dogs for what it tries to do and gets wrong over those other games which don’t try at all. Definitely worth picking up at some point unless you really, really hate GTA games.
1. And if you keep watching they’ve clearly had someone come in to move the huge pile of corpses out of the church doorway because otherwise subsequent waves of bad guys wouldn’t be able to fit through the door.