The first time we see Wei Shen is through the monitors of a Hong Kong PD drug sting as he tries to conduct a transaction. When the sale goes bad, we take control as he charges through a densely packed fish market chased by a squad of uniforms. Unable to elude arrest, he gets thrown into lock-up and reunites with his childhood friend Jackie, now a low-ranking member of the Sun On Yee, one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the city. Jackie promises to make an introduction. When Wei’s pulled into interrogation, we learn the setup for the story, and the linchpin connecting the game’s mechanics, systems and narrative; Wei Shen is an undercover cop, just back from fifteen years in America, trying to take down the triads. Sleeping Dogs is a bloody saga of betrayal and loyalty as Wei Shen takes down the Yakuza from the bottom up.
As far as gangster dramas go, it’s a standard setup with all the genre’s traditional components. But it’s in United Front Games sharply written story and intelligent incorporation of the revolutions made in action games that helps Sleeping Dogs distinguish itself from other open world crime games.
That success comes not from building a wide range of gameplay options but providing tools for players to easily transition between the few it has. It starts by lifting Batman: Arkham Asylum’s attack/counter/grapple combat to beat down groups of enemies, giving brawls a kung fu flair and implementing cover-based shooting with a Max Payne slo-mo, perfect for clearing a room or shooting out the tire of a pursuing car. From there, action hijacking allows the player to quickly maneuver between vehicles and ram into others to force them off the road. These changes create a versatile and fun gameplay loop.
This whole is thoroughly explored as you progress through the games missions, building a narrative that is incredibly well plotted, paced, directed and acted. From fist fights in a karaoke bar, to shootouts in a hospital or down a freeway, Sleeping Dogs is packed with terrific set pieces that manage to regularly build on each other and never get repetitive.
Your performance on each mission grades and awards experience for both Cop and Triad skill trees. Car thefts, damage to public property and innocent deaths reduces your Cop score while combat, fast talking and action-hijackings increases to your Triad score. Since both trees have their own advantages, you are awarded for your proficiency with all the mechanics.
The upgrades are brilliant in how they are consistent with Wei’s character and situation. He’s a cop who can only take down the triads by climbing up their ranks and committing greater and greater crimes. By attaching a value to the public’s safety, it encourages players to stay in character and suggest that he may be fraying at the edges. The juxtaposition deftly avoids the dissonance between story and gameplay that so often plagues these games.
Even with its deep gameplay, high production value and striking visuals, perhaps the most remarkable thing about United Front Games title is the fact that it almost wasn’t released. That would have been tragic, because Sleeping Dogs is one of the best, most complete examples of the genre seen this generation.
DEVELOPER: United Front Games
PLATFORMS: PC, PlayStation 3, XBox 360