Despite having a change in developers, to United Front Games, and a change in name, Sleeping Dogs is the closest we will get to a new True Crimes game. Even though it was initially titled True Crimes: Hong Kong(for name recognition) and seen as a reboot of the series, Sleeping Dogs was built from the ground up as a new IP. There are a lot of gameplay mechanics that transferred over but the game is rooted more heavily in realism now. While this means we have a deeper melee combat system we did lose the ability to spin a car 180°, fire on pursuers, then turn the car back around without losing any momentum. What we ended up with is an open world crime game that is strongly based on several influences. From Arkham Asylum to Gears of War, Grand Theft Auto to Infernal Affairs this game borrows from its predecessors and amalgamates them into a single title. And it kind of works…sometimes.
What Does Work
Most of the gameplay fits together nicely and creates a strong sense of fluidity. Melee combat is very rewarding for those who will utilize the depth and the firearm combat is just as skill based, using headshots to prolong slo-mo time. Cars have an arcade-y feel that makes weaving in traffic as well as power sliding around corners easy while the free running segments are flashy and simple to execute that will allow games to feel like they are right in the middle of an action flick chase scene. The real star of the show is definitely the melee combat though. Using the two button approach of the Batman Arkham games, combat is simple enough for button mashers but has enough nuances to provide a some depth for those who want it. There are twelve extra moves to learn as well. Something that surprised me was how useful most of these additional moves were and how I worked them into my combat.
The only aspect of the narrative that I felt actually worked and wasn’t entirely cliche was the notion of duality. The fact that Wei is both a cop and a triad member, that missions are graded with Cop and Triad XP and both are in conflict as to how they are obtained. This also boils down into gameplay as chasing on foot and chasing in cars are pretty much the same(get from checkpoint to checkpoint until you hit the area where you are scripted to catch up) yet never overlap. Melee and firearm combat exists much the same. If you are allowed a gun then all enemies will have one reducing melee combat to nigh impossible. If you don’t have a gun none of the enemies will either. They both bring about the same outcome but never overlap. While I feel that this wasn’t necessarily intended and was actually a victim of segmented gameplay ideas, Chris Franklin has done an amazing job covering the duality in Sleeping Dogs.
The big issue for me was gender equality. There is only one female character in the gangs of the Triad, Broken Nose Jiang. Out of the thousands of gang members I met, killed, talked to, beat up, and ran off of the road, only one is female. On top of that every female character in the game can be grouped into one of two classes: eye candy that only remarks about how awesome Wei is, or powerful, possible multifaceted characters, that unfortunately only act as quest givers. 90% of the female characters are clubbers that dance seductively while wearing revealing clothing. One mission even tasks Wei with procuring 4 beautiful females from a club to take to the VIP room to entertain an American business partner. Every massage shop has a female masseuse that, when she sees Wei is the client, implies that she will have as much fun as Wei will, usually in a seductive tone.
There are 5 different women that can become Wei’s girlfriend. Unfortunately there isn’t any substance to the mechanics presented here. Instead of trying to simulate a relationship, the “girlfriend” missions are treated as favor missions, one-off missions where you help someone(usually a random unnamed NPC), that always end with the implication of sex. Afterwards you never see or hear from the girl again. While I’m not going to bash non-monogamous relationships, there is a small missions that shows the one sided-ness of this issue. After completing the date missions for both Tiffany and Not Ping a new mission shows up where a buddy tells Wei that Tiffany may be cheating on him. Wei then bugs a payphone, confirms Tiffany is seeing someone else, and then stalks her until she meets with the new guy. Wei then confronts her about her cheating. She brings up that Wei has been cheating on her and Wei reluctantly apologizes. The mission ends abruptly and Tiffany is never spoken of again. Not only is it presented that men can cheat but women cannot, but Wei did some really stalker-ish stuff to a girl he had only seen once. It might have just been me but I felt the mission was really awkward and should have been cut. The other issue I have with the girlfriend missions is that avoiding going out with all of them hinders you in a gameplay sense. 4 of the missions reward you by adding new icons to your minimap(lock boxes, health shrines, etc) and the last one opens up the hardest races. The game actively promotes dating multiple girls while also casting a negative glance at women who do the same. (Since the poor depiction of women in Sleeping Dogs was quite apparent to me, I did a quick search and only found two other site that discussed it. For more reading on this topic you can find it at Tyler Rowe’s Blog and gamrReview.)
The story is pretty typical for an open world crime game. Wei start at the bottom and quickly do jobs that rise him up the ranks. Wei is an undercover cop, which adds some moral dilemma to his actions, shown through his nightmares, but overall adds very little to the story. The influence of Infernal Affairs is quite evident as there are several twists and turns regarding alliances. There are several characters who switch sides, are double agents, or who back-stab throughout the story. I’m sure gamers who enjoy cop dramas, especially The Departed/Infernal Affairs, will enjoy the tale of duality and intrigue but I had such difficulty feeling anything towards the cast of characters that the story quickly disinterested me.
The mini-games grew repetitive and boring relatively quickly. There are only so many times I can play a faux “Mastermind” game to hack a camera before I grow weary of it. Unscrewing vents, calibrating bugs, triangulating cell signals, and cracking safes never felt rewarding nor difficult and only acted as filler between running to a highlighted area and fighting/shooting gang members.
Finally, racing, as in most open world games, feels clunky. While the mechanics for driving cars exists the racing aspect feels tacked on. I couldn’t figure out the exact issue but racing had an awkward feel as if this were the wrong engine for the gameplay. The cars handled well, the checkpoint layouts weren’t horrible, but it just didn’t feel like Burnout or Need for Speed. I’d wager it had something to do with the horrible AI that never seemed to pose any sort of competition but I’m still not sure why the gameplay feels off.
The core idea of the game is a solid brawler with a decent story loosely strung together by lackluster mini games and a splattered with a ridiculous number of trite collectables. If you take away the melee combat, which even that borrows heavily from Rocksteady’s Batman titles, this game represents nothing new to the gangster sandbox experience. The slo-mo, vaulting gunplay is reminiscent of Stranglehold while the shoddy mini games and hyper masculinity can be found in many other sandbox titles. The fact that Wei is a cop could have been influence for a ton of gameplay mechanics that differentiated it from the other GTA clones but I am still not penalized for killing citizens or breaking laws(other than losing a small amount of Cop XP) and I am not presented with difficult moral decisions such as taking a life vs blowing my cover. Instead I have my hand held as I am dragged along through another story of an undercover cop in a gang. Normally I would say “at least the game is fun to play” but I believe we as gamers should move past that. Not only does the word ‘fun’ not really mean anything specific (its more of a personal feeling) but ‘fun’ games come out all of the time. Rarely is a game not fun to play. Instead developers should aim to make games that say, represent, or mean something. Create memorable multi faceted characters, craft great stories instead of loosely tie plots together, or show someone a new viewpoint of life. If the mechanics are solid the game will be fun anyways, but if the story/characters/meaning are strong and well represented the game will not be left in the dust to be forgotten as soon as the next big thing is announced.