Sleeping Dogs would have been quite the game four or five years ago, before Saints Row 3, Just Cause 2, Grand Theft Auto IV, Assassin’s Creed, or Arkham City. As it is, in 2012, it is a thunderless game that does things that have each been done better in at least two or three other games.
After the jump, finding a place in an open-world world
Sleeping Dogs’ greatest claim to fame is that it is the most Hong Kong of all the open-world games. It’s a bit like Just Cause 2 for its attempt at overseas exotica, but Sleeping Dogs has a single city intimacy that pales next to the country-wide sweep of Just Cause. You get a decent street’s eye view of Hong Kong, but it’s a small Hong Kong, with only about three flavors of neighborhoods. Since Sleeping Dogs’ debt is to martial arts movies, it can’t really bust loose into any sort of Crackdown city-as-a-playground dynamic. There is no Infamous parkour. There is no magic parachute or grappling hook. It’s as grounded as LA Noire, but with none of the storytelling heft of LA Noire.
Not to minimize the Hong Kong setting, because it’s presented with a lot of enthusiasm. Sleeping Dog has all the localized flavor of a Yakuza game, yet all the atmosphere and energy of a Rockstar game. Even though the engine feels dated, it tries mightily at its interpretation of a bustling neon wonderland. It has color and elaborate geometry and detail. It’s alive with signs. There are times you can all but smell the urban stink of dumplings, low tide, and sweat. So what if the framerate jerks or the textures pop or the streets occasionally empty because the engine can’t manage enough cars? You’re getting your virtual Hong Kong.
The story is trite and familiar, most likely a holdover from when this was one of Activision’s True Crime games. You’re an undercover cop infiltrating the Triad in Hong Kong blah blah blah. You’ll wantonly kill bad guys, cops, and bystanders, almost always consequence free, as if you were in a videogame. There are a few different progress bars to mark your progress as a cop, as a criminal, and an all-around badass. You can learn new fighting moves at the dojo by collecting jade statues, which are dropped in front of you as you do the story missions. Each mission is scored by your criminal performance (How much did you fuck shit up?) and your cop performance (Did you knock down any street signs?). This is a welcome gesture to encourage law and order, but it’s rarely in effect. For the most part, this is a typical open-world game without any ideas about how to keep you from running over hookers. Except that the karaoke bar girls probably aren’t hookers, technically speaking. I’m not really clear how that works, as I was assiduously avoiding the karaoke minigame as much as possible.
Sleeping Dogs plays it under the top enough that its occasional dalliances with supergore seem out of place. You’re mostly a nice conscientious protagonist agonizing over how best to fight crime viz a viz loyalty, honor, and various other protagonist values. But look, now you’re a psychopath impaling people on giant fish hooks, shoving their heads into incinerators, or slashing them with a power saw! Mostly you only break an arm or leg when it’s necessary to defend yourself. Oops, sorry pedestrians. I’m trying to do this achievement here.
This is partly why Sleeping Dogs would have been quite the game four or five years ago, when open-worlds were anarchy playgrounds because they couldn’t help it. But in a post-Saints Row 3 and post-Just Cause 2 world, open-world games have to decide whether to go all the way over the top or whether to fumble around trying to find new ways to keep you from jumping the curb, literally and socially. When games like LA Noire and Sleeping Dogs shirk that duty, it feels lazy and inconsistent. Build me a world, game developers! You can’t just put pedestrians on the sidewalks and leave it at that. I play videogames. I don’t mind rules.
But the far more disappointing dated part of Sleeping Dogs is just the basic gameplay. This is merely an open-world game with the now standard Batman fighting scheme, godawful driving physics, a mostly pointless freerunning system you’ll almost never use, and a horrible sense for how to build optional activities into the world. Sleeping Dogs hasn’t learned a single lesson from the Saints Row series. It relies on forgettable missions, awful races, preset chases from the early days of Grand Theft Auto, unrewarding side activities, and minigames for cracking safes, hacking cameras, planting bugs, and tracing calls, all at carefully scripted points. You’ll even pick a few locks by diddling tumblers, Oblivion style. Sleeping Dogs wants you to variously visit shops, food stands, and massage parlors for temporary buffs. It’s all very Yakuza. And it’s all blatant busywork. It doesn’t even have a meaningful money sink.
A middling open-world game can get by if it’s well paced. The Saboteur and Prototype 2, for instance, weren’t necessarily good, but they moved. Really moved. They pulled you forward, thanks in large part to great progression systems. There is no such sense of progression in Sleeping Dogs. You have a few tracks that gradually unlock moves you may never use. Early on, I slogged through surveillance missions to level up my police skills to go straight to a ability to get guns from the trunks of police cars. And I never figured out how to use it. Not that I cared to. Part of the lack of progression is also a lack of stuff to care about. Clothes and cars are a negligible part of the progression. Weapons aren’t a part of the progression at all. In fact, guns occupy a weird role in Sleeping Dogs. Sometimes you find them during scripted points in a mission so that you can do some obligatory bullet time stuff. They tend to vanish after that. It’s an odd open-world game that has such strict gun control. Such is the lot of a game that wants to be a martial arts movie. With car chases.
One of Sleeping Dog’s oddest progression tracks is dating. You acquire women’s phone numbers, at which point you can go to pink waypoints to start vaguely creepy dating sequences. Wei — your name is Wei — will readily fling his arm around the hapless woman, as if he’s claimed her. Then the two characters do something awkward like a photography minigame, a freerunning race right out of Assassin’s Creed, or karaoke (oh lordy, that karaoke…), followed by an awkward flirting cutscene. As far as romance goes, I suppose this is about on par with anything in a Mass Effect game. But it seems like a cheap ploy to get more female characters into the story, which would otherwise be a bunch of elaborately tattooed Asian dudes. It’s a shame the developers took a page from Rockstar’s “bitches and hos” playbook. At least we also get a dragonlady variation on the Titus Andronicus theme. But the whole dating rigamarole — in fact, a lot of the game in general — is enough to make a guy fondly recall bowling with Roman.