Sleeping Dogs shouldn’t be here. The sandbox video game was canceled by Activision because the publisher felt it wasn’t good enough. And yet, it found its way into Square Enix’s welcoming arms and was eventually released. So which is it really? Is Sleeping Dogs really “not good enough” as Activision believed, or is it a sandbox game worth playing? We drive, kick and shoot our way to find out.
Hong Kong has character
It’s no Liberty City, and that’s actually a good thing. Sleeping Dogs’ virtual Hong Kong has its own charm. The island is divided into four neighborhoods; it’s not geographically accurate but it nails the real thing’s look and feel, from the sidewalk railings to the crowds of people in the Night Market. You also have to drive on the left side of the street, but it takes a bit of getting used to. You might forget and find yourself occasionally on the right side, but driving towards incoming traffic is a great way to lose the cops when they’re onto you.
Driving is tight
The driving itself is well-implemented. It’s no simulator; the physics are actually kind of loose but each vehicle handles somewhat like its real-life approximate counterpart. It’s easy enough to avoid smashing into something even on high speeds, although you’ll feel an odd bit of disproportionate inertia when the vehicle moves for only a couple of meters.
Interestingly, the best part about the driving isn’t the physics or the handling, but the visual cues provided by the game on where to turn next. Because of this, Sleeping Dogs has mostly eliminated the need to obsessively looking at your mini-map while driving. We say “mostly” because the GPS sometimes goes bananas (more on this later).
Meaty melee system
Cracking skulls is where Sleeping Dogs shines. The combat system is similar to Rocksteady Studios’ Batman games, but has its own nuances. Here you can earn additional combos, some of which are handy when facing more formidable enemies at the latter part of the game. Enemies telegraph their attacks when they turn red, but it’s not always easy (or possible) to counter. Others might find this annoying sometimes, but I actually welcome this—it’s nice to see that the enemies, while not very smart, aren’t just lining up for you to beat the crap out of them.
Varied and brutal environmental kills
The environmental kills never get old, not only because they’re gratuitously brutal, but because they’re varied as well. You can throw enemies into dumpsters or over railings; thrust their mugs into electric saws; impale them into swordfishes; and smash them into car windows, among others. Hyperbole aside, there has never been a sandbox game combat system this satisfying.
Strong voice acting
You’ve probably heard that Sleeping Dogs has a star-studded voice cast featuring thespians like Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone, Will Yun Yee, Kelly Hu, and several others. But that’s not the impressive part—you should hear them speak their lines. Every line, every expletive is convincing. Even the regular person you run into in the street is believable; their accents are spot on, particularly for people living on that side of the world.
The story may be unoriginal, but having an undercover cop play the lead in a sandbox game isn’t something commonly seen in a genre typically starring unsavory types. But as you progress through Sleeping Dogs, you’ll notice a few loose ends begin to develop. The game’s choice of final enemy is rather odd as well—it seemed abrupt and didn’t seem to fit the characterization made earlier. You won’t play Sleeping Dogs for the story, that’s for sure.
The songs you’ll hear over the car radio are quite good; they add to the atmosphere when driving around virtual Hong Kong. You’d just wish there were more of these songs because they’re repeated a bit more frequently than you’d care to like.
Wonky driving camera
For some reason, the camera, specifically when driving, insists on ignoring your input and repositions itself towards the center of the screen, making it a pain to look around.
The GPS also has a mind of its own, giving you the roundabout even when your destination isn’t that far off. Because of this, you’re sometimes forced to look at the mini-map and formulate a shorter route on the fly.
Shooting behind cover
The actual shooting is adequate; it’s shooting behind cover that’s a problem. In Sleeping Dogs, you can’t see or move the crosshairs around when in cover. You can still move the camera but the crosshairs only show up once you pop out of cover, making it a chore to aim and then shoot. It may be a bit more realistic than how we do things in other third-person action games, but it’s not as fun.
Mostly uninspired side-activities
Aside from the main missions, you’ll also be playing a number of side activities and mini-games throughout, like karaoke, mahjong poker, cockfighting, lock picking and safecracking. While some can actually be quite fun, chiefly in the context of a mission (e.g. bug planting, hacking), the rest are quite forgettable.
Sleeping Dogs also features several dating missions, but they don’t really amount to anything. Oddly, the women disappear from Wei Shen’s contact list after one measly date, making Emma Stone’s cameo rather pointless.
Sleeping Dogs is derivative and has a few flaws, but it’s also a lot of fun, especially when you’re driving frenetically around the winding streets of Hong Kong, and that’s what matters. Surprisingly, it also manages to outshine some of the best sandbox games, particularly in combat. Is Sleeping Dogs worth playing? Yes. Is it worth owning? Definitely. Buy it now.