“Sleeping Dogs” PC Review: A great tribute to Hong Kong films that falls short on its storytelling

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This review contains slight spoilers that are presented as vaguely as possible. If you don’t want to be spoiled, even slightly or vaguely, please proceed to another post.

Ever since Sleeping Dogs was released in 2012, I’ve always wanted to play it. Here we had a game completely set in Hong Kong – an extreme rarity in the genre – and as a person who was born and raised in that city, it felt wrong not to have this game in my collection. To top it off, the game was produced by United Front Games in conjunction with one of my favorite game companies of all time, Square Enix. I didn’t have the money or ability to purchase games when it first came out, but when I saw Sleeping Dogs for 4.99 during Steam’s recent autumn sale and had the money for it, I decided to take the plunge.

Set in an open-world environment, Sleeping Dogs lets players control officer Wei Shen, who has gone undercover to infiltrate the Sun On Yee (新安義) triad organization – an underground society that controls the streets of Hong Kong with its vast power and influence in the underworld. His loyalty is constantly tested as he tries to prove his worthiness by completing tasks for the triad, while continuing meet and take orders from his police superiors. As you progress through the game’s story, you’ll learn more about Wei’s motives and his connections to members of the triad, revealing a tragic past and a very personal vendetta.

2014-01-26_00020Sleeping Dogs very much reminds me of many typical Hong Kong police movies, which is not a bad thing. It presented a story with a conflict between loyalty to the lawful and the unlawful, while at the same time gave players no shortage of action and blood in between. I found the combat to be really satisfying, especially during times whenever I was looking for a quick and easy beat-’em-up fix that didn’t require a high level of skill. It felt good being put in the shoes of an almost invincible protagonist who could execute powerful martial arts moves and shoot enemies in slow motion while vaulting over an object, allowing him to take down hordes of bad guys after a reasonable amount of effort. Every punch that landed sounded like it hurt and every bullet that pierced into your enemy received a satisfying jerk of the body or a groan. To me, the experience of playing as Wei Shen was as badass as seeing Chow Yun Fat kick ass in A Better Tomorrow.

The setting of the game itself was also done pretty well. The open world was a joy to explore as the level of authenticity that United Front Games and Square Enix achieved was unlike any other iteration of Hong Kong that I’ve seen in other video games. Most games that feature Hong Kong don’t give the city much soul. Sleeping Dogs, on the other hand, gives players a living and breathing metropolis that you can interact with. Before the game was released, I watched their Undercover Hong Kong Trailer which details their reasons for choosing the city and the amount of research they did before working on the game. I was impressed by the video back then and while playing the game, found that they definitely did not disappoint. Driving through the streets, you tune in to a radio station with great Cantonese and Mandarin songs. You hear drivers curse at you in actual Cantonese as you zoom by in-game structures that have real life Hong Kong counterparts. And very much like the real city itself, Sleeping Dogs’ fictional world showcases the wealth-gap between districts. Although it was a shame that they couldn’t put in the whole city, I have to commend the developers for doing as much as they did in order to create the perfect blend of East and West.

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If you’re looking for things to do in-game, Sleeping Dogs offers a wide variety of activities for those who want a break from story missions. Collectibles like lock boxes and health shrines, which offer extra cash and health boosts respectively, are scattered all over the map and may require you to utilize Shen’s parkour skills. Face missions, which improve your reputation and allow you to purchase higher tier items at stores, are offered by random individuals on the street and can also appear suddenly as you walk or drive by an area. You can gamble, you can race, and you can do so many other things as well. Completionists out there will have a lot to do before they can get 100% in this game.

While I did enjoy the game overall and appreciated the level of thought they put into making Hong Kong feel realistic, there were however a number of things that irked me – the low quality textures, characters getting stuck on doors and the occasional strange rag-doll physics to name a few – but I’ll be focusing on the one thing that I really wish they had done better.

What bothered me the most about this game was the presentation of the story. When you control Wei, he rarely speaks or shows emotion – apart from times when he’s in pain or interacting with another character. This makes it very disorienting when you go into cut scenes and suddenly see him bursting with a full range of emotions. There were many times in the game where I was left wondering why he was feeling worried or mad when he showed no remorse at all while I made him brutally mow down bad guys.

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In addition to that, characters that made Wei feel strongly weren’t given enough time to shine. In one instance, you meet this character for the first time and go on a series of missions with them as they hold a meaningful conversation about important values, but only when you’re with them in the car. So the sequence of events goes like this: meaningful talk, action-packed mission, meaningful talk, action-packed mission, and so on. The attempt at creating an emotional connection is constantly interrupted and ruins the flow of feelings players are supposed to experience. This is unfortunately the only time you spend with this character and yet, you’ll find out later that this character is actually significant to Wei. This happens with a couple of other characters too, though in slightly different circumstances.

Emotional interruptions aren’t uncommon in this game. Another one comes from the girls you can date. After you meet a potential date for the first time during a story mission, their number will be in your phone and you can call them up at any time to go on a date. Going on dates allows you to unlock the ability to see collectibles on your map so you figure why the heck not? You call them up, go on a date and start getting fond of this girl, especially when you see them get intimate with Wei. After a while, you decide it’d be nice to go on a second date. You look at your phone only to find that their number is now gone forever. You won’t get to see that girl ever again and you’re free to go on other one-time dates that won’t go anywhere else regardless of how great they went.

The level of immersion that a game provides goes down when there is a rift between the players’ feelings and the character’s feelings. By the end of it all, I felt disconnected with Wei and couldn’t really relate. The final battle in the story was anti-climactic and felt like every other fist fight in the game. When you find out who the real baddie is, players don’t even get the chance to lay a finger on them. They are instead forced to watch a cutscene that tell them of this character’s fate. The ending was really the most unsatisfying part of Sleeping Dogs.

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What made Sleeping Dogs enjoyable for me was its attention to detail that created a Hong Kong setting that was very close to the real thing. That was something I appreciated as someone who was born and raised in the city. The brutal button-mashing martial arts fist fights and epic gun battles, which made up the very core of the game, did a pretty good job of satisfying players whenever they took an enemy down. There were also a variety of other things to do on the city streets, when one grew tired of the story missions.

Despite this, the game didn’t provide any groundbreaking innovations to the open-world formula. The plot had a lot of promise and was very reminiscent of stories from some of the best Hong Kong police movies, but fell short with rushed event presentations and very mediocre script. This was especially disappointing for a game that was inspired by those kinds of movies in the first place. Other problems included low-quality textures, some awkward character movements and a number of strange glitches/bugs that forced me to repeat missions or had me suddenly flying into the sky.

In total, I spent 15 hours on the game. It was loads of fun but it was a shame it couldn’t  provide the full Hong Kong police movie experience that I was expecting. Although I seem to put a lot of focus on the game’s weak points, Sleeping Dogs has still made it to my list of favorite games and is something I would recommend to friends who are mainly looking for something action-packed.

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