Open-world games have a tendency to be hit-or-miss, meaning that every failure (Just Cause 2) is matched by another game’s success. While Sleeping Dogs is littered with miscellaneous problems ranging from those of its own making to pitfalls that most open-world games fall into, I nonetheless enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to and would have to put it in the latter category. That being said, it’s definitely not the kind of game that will shake up the genre or come to be revered as a timeless classic.
The story is actually pretty good
You play the role of Wei Shen, an undercover officer who’s infiltrating a triad both as a cop and as a brother seeking revenge against those he feels are responsible for his sister’s death. Playing the roles of cop and triad enforcer at the same time ends up adding an interesting layer to the story, because for all of his enthusiasm, you never get the feeling that Wei is truly on either side. That grayness to his motivations makes him a more complex character than you’ll find in most open-world games, and the few moments where he starts to crack (most noticeably when helping plan a wedding for a triad member’s extremely likable fiancée) are really the best reason for playing through the game.
While my first impression of Sleeping Dogs was that it was trying far too hard to convey the whole “triads are tough gangsters with cool fighting moves” message (coming across a bit immature as a result), everything gets better the more you play, and the tough image of several characters is undermined just enough to allow for some doubt about which side is truly the “good guys.”
It can be a bit shallow, though
While the story focuses on Wei’s dual roles enough for that aspect of the story to be fleshed out, there are other areas where the game is noticeably bare. The most obvious example of this would be the game’s “romances,” which have to be put into quotes because of how hilariously shallow they are. Basically, you meet a few women over the course of the game who appear as though they’ll be important to the story. Instead, you’re given the option to go out on a date or two with them, at which point several of them will completely disappear from the story. Granted, relationships don’t make much sense given the amount of stress that Wei is under at that time, but it seems more like a half-baked attempt to incorporate a romance system into the game than anything reflective of Wei’s situation.
Houston, we have fluff
For me, the biggest problem with open-world games is the amount of padding that they’re filled with; from fetch quests that involve running around the map to tacked on minigames that completely ruin the momentum of the story, the inevitable tedium is always the part of games like this that I dread, and sadly, Sleeping Dogs fares no better than most in this regard. Whether it’s the mandatory karaoke shown in the video above or the long drives across the city during missions, I couldn’t help but feel that a huge part of the game consisted of meaningless fluff.
Actually getting to missions in the first place is a bit easier than in most open-world games because of the game’s many taxis, but that’s not to say that hiring taxis is a perfect system; not only do you have to run after taxis on foot or crash into them to get them to stop long enough to hire them, but the button for hiring a taxi and stealing a car are the same. This means that you’re bound to hijack a taxi (thus turning the driver hostile and forcing you to hunt around for a new taxi) when all you wanted was to hire it to get you across the city quickly.
Climbing usually means jumping fences and obstacles to get around faster, though you’re occasionally given the freedom to climb up the side of a building. However, it’s obvious that the places where you can do this are predetermined (usually involving convenient construction), so you won’t be scaling random buildings at will like in Assassin’s Creed and The Saboteur. In the end, it’s just a random mechanic that’s underused.
Shooting is one area that had the potential to be fun, but it feels just as floaty and shallow as in most open-world games. I don’t know why games like this always fail to convey a sense of weight behind their firearms (I think it has something to do with the way they zoom in on the character), but shooting in Sleeping Dogs has a tendency to feel as awkward as it does in the Saints Row games. There’s a cover system as well as a slow-motion mechanic that make certain shooting sections more bearable, granted, but I found myself dreading every gunfight because of how awkward the shooting controls felt, especially when compared to the vastly superior hand-to-hand fighting controls.
The “chasing” sections tie into the previous section about fluff, because they have absolutely no reason for existing aside from stretching out certain missions. Basically, you’ll occasionally scare someone off and have to chase them through the streets on foot. The goal is rarely to catch them, though—nine times out of ten, the game only wants you to keep up, and they’ll keep running like you’re behind them even if you manage to get out in front. Chasing quickly proves to be an absolutely worthless game mechanic.
Driving cars in Sleeping Dogs can actually be pretty fun; not only can you ram other cars and jump out to hijack vehicles while moving, but some of the faster cars can be pretty fun to drive on the highway. The physics never really feel realistic, but driving cars is at least enjoyable at times. However, those fun moments disappear entirely when you’re forced into “timed” sections. These come in multiple forms, from races that you have to win to continue the game (yes, there are mandatory races) to car chases where you have to hijack an enemy’s car, and you’ll even have to contend with sections where you have to tail someone while obeying the rules of the road to avoid suspicion. Still, none of those are as bad as the “get to X point on the map before something bad happens and you automatically lose” sections. It’s sad, really—driving can be a lot of fun in this game, and yet many of the missions seem to go out of their way to strip the fun out of it.
Fighting is pretty good, though
If there’s one unqualified positive element of gameplay, it’s definitely the hand-to-hand fighting, which is kind of like a mix between Rocksteady’s Arkham games and a 3D fighting game. You can pull off several different moves while fighting, with new moves being unlocked over the course of the game as you discover jade statues and bring them back to your old fighting master. You’re also able to counter and grab, the latter of which enabling you to use the environment as a weapon and do things like smashing enemies’ faces into a running table saw. The whole fighting system feels quite a bit more fleshed out than in most games, and while I didn’t personally enjoy it quite as much as the Arkham games, it wouldn’t surprise me if many people preferred Sleeping Dogs’ system.
QTEs and minigames
If you don’t like QTEs, chances are you’ll be a bit disappointed with Sleeping Dogs because of how heavily it relies on them. While they’re never especially difficult and usually consist of a single input, actions like “quick talking” (which is mandatory in certain missions) rely on QTEs. There are also moments in combat where dodging certain attacks means having to press a different button than what would ordinarily be “counter,” making certain portions of combat reliant on QTEs.
Minigames are another element that might cause people to hesitate. Not only is there the mandatory (but rare) karaoke minigame, but there are also minigames for tracing phone calls, planting bugs, hacking security systems, and cracking safe combinations. I wouldn’t exactly call minigames a huge part of gameplay, but they’re mandatory in several missions and it’s likely that at least one of them will end up giving you some trouble.
There are light RPG aspects
Since Wei is playing dual roles of triad and cop, he has multiple skill trees to reflect that. There are his “face” skills that he gains as he becomes more feared (these upgrades kick in when Wei has filled his “face meter” in combat), his martial arts tree that is leveled up by returning jade statues to his master, his cop skills that are leveled up by avoiding innocent deaths and property damage during missions, and his triad skills that level up as he engages in brutal behavior and miscellaneous destruction. Each skill tree has different upgrades, ranging from increased damage with firearms to new fighting moves.
Sleeping Dogs is pretty
This is especially true on PC when using the free high-resolution texture pack, though part of the game’s prettiness is the art design. There’s something about the lights and rain that’s incredibly appealing, and though I wouldn’t say that Sleeping Dogs is the prettiest game I’ve ever played, it’s definitely eye candy.
Music is another area where I feel a lot of open-world games fall short, and this is because of their tendency to license a lot of their music. While the licensed music in Sleeping Dogs is more interesting than the generic stuff found in most other open-world games, there’s still nothing particularly memorable like you find in (SNES and PS1-era) Final Fantasy soundtracks.
Here’s what you should do: